Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

Yeats, The Second Coming


A Cyclops was an impressive and rather unfriendly giant with only one, large and round eye. The word comes from the Greek –ops, a derivative from ophthalmos which is an eye, and from enkuklios, a circle. Homer, methinks, made such a Cyclops devour children, in modern day fairy tales a wolf performs this task. Cyclopean – something looking like a Cyclops.

For a time I considered it self-evident that another famous word, encyclopaedia, had also something to do with that one eye. Perhaps even with the form of knowledge contained therein. Not so. ‘Encyclopaedia’ involves an amalgam of the notions of paideia – the word for education or training, which I knew… – and another word unknown to me: egkuklios, in which once again the circle appears, not however mixed up with an eye this time. A rounded education, a complete education is what it is all about.

That one eye is intriguing. In libraries in the period of The Baroque – say from the beginning of the 17th to the beginning of the 18th century – one often found God or even gods on the ceiling, gathering if not accumulating in one overview all our knowledge. He apparently made sure that people got the impression that outside Him there is no other knowledge to be achieved. Those were also the times when ‘nature’ was considered a book, written by Him, to be read by us, as well as deciphered. Is it coincidence that visiting these libraries I thought of that Cyclops.

In those you also found widely spread the image of God’s one eye, framed in a triangle:


God’s All-seeing Eye

In the land of the blind the one-eyed One so easily becomes God.

In his famous book Les mots et les choses Michel Foucault devoted difficult but fine words to the baroque handling of knowledge. The baroque ideal of knowledge was a science of empirical forms. It aimed at continuity and an order of things that negate the discontinuity of our empirical experience. Especially mathematics or a mathesis universalis organizes simple representations. The genesis on the other side delves into the origins of things and presents them as a series. In between mathematics and genesis we find the tableau in which the things themselves are displayed relative to each other, this in what is considered as a permanent space. It is what Linnaeus did with his arrangement of the vegetable kingdom in a taxonomy.

The universe, then, housed in an exhaustive collection – that is the key notion of the Baroque world. Not a hole to be found anywhere. An all pervasive sense of horror vacui accompanies this – that angst for emptiness. This resulted amongst other things in baroque church spaces filled with colour and images up to every last nook, cranny and square centimetre.

This also seems to have been the model for the baroque library, a space in which along enormously long and high walls all books with in them all the words and all that we know about the things are piled up in huge cases. Anyone who resides herein is overlooking panoramically all knowledge as if it were a museum collection showing us the whole of nature in the form of perfect copies. Thus the visitor becomes God.

Two of such libraries I have visited – the one in Valletta, which dates back to 1796; the other in the Strahov Monastery in Prague, built in 1790. These dates are intriguing. As in baroque theatres monarchs celebrated the illusion of their eternity which was meanwhile eroding; just like the clergy and the believers of faith were celebrating the eternity of God in their theatre of the Church – thus the clients and their architects of these libraries tried to make us rejoice in the eternity of human knowledge, of course embedded in His eternal wisdom.

The Strahov Library

The Strahov Philosophical Library is a large room with a ceiling painted in trompe l’oeil, on which that Divine Wisdom is depicted, symbolizing the idea that knowledge in all those books down there can never go beyond His and in the end is His.

However, that year! In 1790 pleurisy has infected the social order, all hell is loose in Western societies that explode and lose their fictitious centre. The centre cannot hold… The baroque style is already passé. In the second half of that eighteenth century, the notion of Science and Philosophy also exploded, announcing the end of the idea of knowledge as all clear and finite, to be captured in one single library.

If in its heyday the baroque world was the expression Rome’s feeling of triumph, having fended off much of the reformation and of paganism, these beautiful buildings from the late eighteenth century are nothing but an expression of panic in stone – of the desperation of people who all too well felt that their empire was breaking up, even though they are still trying to fool themselves.

After all, it is the time of the creation of the modern encyclopaedia – embodied in a series of books in which new and old knowledge is listed. No more wise words and terms for ever ‘defined’, i.e. ‘captured for good’ as a dictionary does. Now explanations are given, which may change, explanation according to the current state of science and in the full knowledge that this knowledge will only grow and change. The encyclopaedia is necessarily unfinished, a series of successive and self-correcting volumes.

Can it be a coincidence that in the Teylers Museum in Haarlem in 1826 the library was built which has a skylight, such contrast with the baroque version of a closed ceiling with an image of an untouchable all-knowing deity?

Teylers Library

Let there be light! And there was light!

Construction of this library was already foreseen in the years that the anachronistic Baroque libraries of Strahov and Valletta ware factually built. Teyler’s new idea of the library, however, came from the liberal Enlightenment: citizens should be able to acquire knowledge and come together to exchange views on politics, the arts and the sciences of mind, this without the interference of church or state. Later a separate auditorium was added to the museum.

Teylers Auditorum

Already in 1780 the Foundation Board, which had to convert the legacy of Teyler into a cultural institution, bought the complete Encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert – then the icon of the new, enlightened understanding of knowledge as acquired by people and always evolving.

Poor Enlightenment! In their book Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer make clear that not only the weight of ignorance oppress us. The same movement of the Enlightenment which wanted to put an end to religious ignorance also resulted in suppression supported by technology and in a new, almost baroque delusion. This time it was that of the totalitarian political masters: Hitler, Stalin, Big Brother. Der Tod turned out, against Celan’s suggestion, not to be merely ein Meister aus Deutschland…

But how could Teyler and his administrators have suspected all this.

Haarlem 2 February 2016


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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