39. Giambattista Vico – New Science (1725)

Burroughs’ published letters begin in 1945. There are a few letters from before that time held in archives but we are largely dependent upon secondary sources, reportage, recollections and – most spuriously – Kerouac’s novels in order to construct our historical picture.

One problem with this is that Burroughs’ reputation often frames the recollections of his friends and fellows. Ginsberg and Kerouac idolised him at the time, and saw him as a wild eccentric sage figure later. Other friends might have remembered him only as weird.

This, obviously, gets even more convoluted when the stories are then reported third-hand. Add to this the fact that, as I am coming to learn, very few Beat researchers take the time to read the books that their subjects reference.

Which is all to say that we must take with a pinch of salt the claim that Burroughs carried the New Science of Giambattista Vico everywhere with him during his Harvard years.

Gerald Nicosia, in his biography of Kerouac, quotes Ginsberg on this. Ginsberg himself must have heard it through another source, as he was too young to know Burroughs during his Harvard years.

Nicosia’s summary of Vico’s book also sounds suspiciously like he’s got Vico confused for Spengler. He claims the book is about “circular history”. Neither Vico nor Spengler claim history is circular, but at least there is some circularity at least in Spengler’s models. Vico, if anything, is even more linear than today’s mainstream historians.

Yet, I can imagine Burroughs reading Vico. It’s the sort of bizarre text that would draw him in.

Vico’s New Science is one of the first books to utilise modern historiography. Vico was a crank, so his book wasn’t influential. He tends to be wrong on everything too. So the list of reasons to read him is short, but potentially compelling if you like cranks, alternative histories, and a sense of grand scale, deep-history strangeness.

He argues that you can find key references (which he calls “golden passages”) in historical, mythical and religious texts and use these to create a scientific historical chronology. In this he is absolutely right, and way ahead of his time.

The fun starts when he starts applying the theory. There were four historical periods, he tells us: the Age of Giants, the Age of Heroes, and the Age of Man.

The Age of Giants bears some resemblance to modern ideas of the primordial. He points to etymology and the fact that abstract terms always have their roots in concrete nouns and verbs to suggest that mankind was once simple and without deep reflection. He also regularly quotes Virgil – “iovis omnia plena” (everything is full of Jupiter, or Jupiter is everywhere) – as evidence that there was a spirituality before Gods. Jupiter is a force, he says, like the manna.

He also suggests there was an ancient written language that giants could understand without having to read, and that we can see evidence of this in the “heroic language” of Egypt: the ideogram. This is an idea that would obsess Burroughs in the early 1970s, inflected through Korzybski.

Yet, among these “golden passages”, there are also some wild theories. That all civilisations grew at once is a favourite. The old trick of adding up the ages of Biblical patriarchs to give the age of the Earth set the timeline and then Egypt, Rome, Greece, India and China all have to sit uncomfortably alongside it.

That the Age of Giants belonged to literal giants is also accounted for in a curiously Burroughsian manner:

“Since mothers abandoned their children, they grew up without hearing any human speech, or learning any human behaviour, and sank into an utterly bestial and brutish state. In this state, mothers merely nursed their infants and let them wallow naked in their own faeces, abandoning them forever once they were weaned. Wallowing in their faeces (whose nitrous salts wondrously enriched the soil), these children struggled to make their way through the great forest, now grown dense after the recent flood. And as their muscles expanded and contracted in this struggle, the children absorbed more and more nitrous salts […] and they became so vigorous and robust that they turned out to be giants.”

It’s a theory…

In the early eighteenth century there was a new attention being paid to agricultural sciences, and so we might excuse Vico’s weird faeces-baby theory on the grounds that he’d only just learned about crop fertiliser.

Still, if Burroughs found such a passage in the book (which at other times can be very dry and pedantic), it might explain why he was so keen to carry the book around. A dramatic reading of the Origin of the Giants would be make for a great routine.

As time passes the Age of Giants gives way to the Age of Heroes. A world where every individual is might is replaced by collective societies led by the Heroes, who are essentially throwbacks to the earlier age. The Gods are invented at this time and represent muddled recollections of giants.

It is here where Vico makes another unexpected breakthrough. The theory of the “archetype”, nowadays attributed to Jung, makes its true first appearance in New Science.

Vico doesn’t see archetypes as a product of a collective unconscious, however (at least not in the complex sense that Jung understands it), but instead as an early attempt at conceptual thinking: “unable to conceive rational categories of things [they] thus felt a natural need to create poetic archetypes”.

Myths are poetic allegories, Vico asserts. They are attempts to universalise patterns seen in specific circumstances and then embody those universals in palpable characters and actions, narrating them as stories. Once again, Vico makes a great breakthrough.

He follows it with the example of Hermes Trismagistus – the pseudonym for the author or authors of a neoplatonic investigation into Egyptian religion and magic – arguing that his book the Hermetica was the Bible of Ancient Egyptian religion (which is untrue) but it was not written by one man alone, and Hermes Trismegistus is just such an archetypical character (which is sort of true, possibly).

You begin to see the problem with reading Vico. He’s sometimes wrong, sometimes surprisingly, brilliantly correct, but most of the time he’s just a bit off about most things. If you care about historical accuracy you have to watch yourself in case you come away with his mangled semi-truths lodging themselves in your memory as if they are actual facts.

Not that Burroughs would care, of course. He loved a good pseudo-science theory. The real facts that they don’t want you to hear.

The strongest (and, again, perhaps historically weakest) part of the New Science is Vico’s analysis of classical myth. He demonstrates the power of close reading as a method, although he rarely gives direct quotation, merely telling you that there is a “golden passage” and expecting you to guess it through his description of it, rather than reproducing it for you. You can see the origins of modern hermeneutics in his method.

His best reading, to my mind, is that of the tale of Vulcan and Venus. Their love tryst is interrupted by the other gods and Vulcan is cast down from heaven, crippling his leg when he hits the ground.

Vico compares this to early Roman kingdom’s marriage laws. These forbade marriage between plebeians. Property was passed from father to son and fathers were only recognised through marriage. So stopping plebeian parents from marrying kept them subservient to the patricians across time; every plebeian generation having to renounce its property to the state upon death.

For Vico, Jupiter and Juno were the Royal Gods and they had a patrician inner circle that included Bacchus, Diana and Neptune. Outside of this circle were the worker Gods, who represented the plebeians: Mars the soldier, Vulcan the artisan, and Venus the unmarried woman or prostitute.

Read through this theory (with evidence provided in the form of “golden passages”), Vico argues that the myth of Vulcan’s fall is a mythical rendering of the Roman kingdom’s marriage laws. Jupiter casts him down and cripples him for aspiring to a rite that is above his status. It also leaves Venus childless and available.

There may not be much truth in this theory, but it’s cogently argued and, in its own terms, convincing. Vico has a habit of arguing that his own interpretations are the only possible ones, which offends our modern sense of multiperspectival interpretation. His stubbornness makes him appealing, however, in his crankish kind of way.

When it comes to the Age of Man, Vico doesn’t say very much. He assures us that respect for marriage, property and Providence is the mark of a developed civilisation, and so measures his studies of the past against these markers. The latter is a particularly seventeenth-century concern, tying Vico back to Calvinist heresies (he was writing in Catholic Italy) and their concern for God’s overarching plan.

The tone of Vico’s writing, more than anything, might be what appealed so much to Burroughs. As with Spengler, there’s a sense of grand scale occurrences so mighty in their power and duration as to be entirely irresistible by any individual human. Perse’s poetry is the aesthetic parallel of this theorising.

Burroughs’ obsession with time (being bound into a time-track by cultural programming) is perhaps a reaction against this historical awareness; the sense of omnipresent grand forces shaping and directing. Burroughs, like Vico, is no Calvinist predeterminist, but, like Vico, his world is being shaped by those ideas (more on his grandfather, the Calvinist Methodist minister, to come).

Burroughs is drawn to Vico’s grandiosity, reassured by his weirdness, inspired by his myths, and informed by his concepts. Similar has been said of Proust, Joyce and Marx, but the spirit of Vico is more alive in Burroughs, perhaps, than in any of them.