|Black Square: “Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior |
to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617).”
Image Credit & Source: Wellcome Library, London.
Thacker, who teaches at The New School in New York, writes:
Some time ago I was doing research for a seminar I planned to offer on “media and magic”. I was interested in the concept of magic as it existed in the Renaissance, and in particular with the so-called occult philosophy of thinkers like Marsilio Ficino, Giordano Bruno, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Robert Fludd. It was while reading about Fludd that I discovered a startling image. It was from his major work, an ambitious, multi-volume, syncretic theory-of-everything with the cumbersome title The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of the Two Worlds, the Major as well as the Minor. Fludd published his work between 1617 and 1621, and each volume is generously supplied with diagrams, tables and images. The image that jumped out at me is quite simple. In a section discussing the origin of the universe, Fludd was compelled to speculate on what existed prior to the universe, which he describes as an empty nothingness, a sort of “pre-universe” or “un-universe”. He chose to represent this with a simple black square.Infinity is one of those concepts that can be easily discussed by mathematicians and physicists, but it is not easily understood by the rest of us. What is this sideways eight (∞) represent other than some abstract principle? So it is with quantum theory and black holes; it is said that black holes are dense bodies of matter with such a strong gravitational pull that no matter or radiation can escape; this includes light, hence their blackness. There is truly something enigmatic, poetic if you will, about blackness, it giving a sense of stillness and silence. It evokes other human senses, as all colours do, but in a more potent manner. In some perceptual sense, to look into a pool of blackness is to see nothing, a nihilistic view, perhaps, but it is a view held by some skeptics who use their minds to rationalize that before there was something, there had to be nothing—non-existence, or is it pre-existence. And this is as far back as I would like to go.
The image was startling to me because it was so different from the other images of Fludd’s that we are used to – elaborate, ornate, hyper-complex diagrams that detail all the movements of the planets or of the mind. The black square was also startling because it immediately brought to mind examples from modern art, the most noteworthy being Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square on a White Ground from 1915. Being a former literature student, I was also reminded of the enigmatic “black page” from Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). Fludd’s black square was, to be sure, enigmatic. Not only that, but Fludd also seemed aware of the limits of representation, noting, on each edge of the black square, Et sic in infinitum, “And so on to infinity…”
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