Copernichaos

I have always found the Polish capital city Warsaw (where I lived for a time in the 1990s) both an intriguingly and perplexingly multi-layered city. Urban development here has been so frenetic and apparently uncontrolled since 1989 that each time I come back here after even a few months away I find myself barely able to recognize the skyline. Apart that is, from the infamous ‘People’s Palace of Culture’ modelled on Moscow University, copies of which Stalin presented as highly ambiguous and unsolicited ‘gifts’ to various Central/Eastern European cities colonized by the Soviet Empire in 1945. Because there are more urgent economic priorities than the demolition of the eyesores of the communist era (and in the case of the city’s eastern half, the renovation of buildings damaged during the Second World War), the cityscape, not unlike that of Berlin, has become a curious mix of the hypermodern and the silently decaying. State-of-the-art shopping centres and new sports facilities constructed for the upcoming European Football Championships stand alongside dilapidated 1950s remnants of ecologically disastrous heavy industry as well as houses whose facades are still riddled with bullet holes dating from the final brutal months of World War II.

I find it difficult to be enthusiastic about most of the recent construction in this increasingly sprawling conurbation, much of which strikes me as depressingly anonymous, driven by a misguided desire to imitate Western consumer culture in all its blandness and superficiality. This strikes me as a great shame, not only because by all accounts pre-1939 Warsaw was an elegant and vibrant multi-cultural city (not least by virtue of its large Jewish population, the world of Isaac Bashevis Singer or the young Abraham Heschel which has tragically vanished forever), but also because a high degree of creativity has always distinguished Polish cultural and intellectual life and could surely have been harnessed in the service of a more inspiring form of urban regeneration.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions to the rule of pure functionalism, one of which is the Copernicus science education centre (Centrum Nauki Kopernik), the colour of whose exterior is intended to remind the onlooker of a meteorite. The Copernicus centre has rapidly become one of the city’s main attractions since it was opened last year, particularly for younger visitors who come by busload from all parts of the country. We have now been twice with our children to what is a joyously anarchic place, replete with possibilities for hands-on learning or just plain fun with various weird and wonderful contraptions intended to demonstrate all manner of scientific phenomena. We were even treated to a surrealistic piece of ‘robot theatre’ adapted from a typically strange and sarcastic tale by cult science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (author of Solaris), whose dramatis personae resembled the figure below.

Centrum_Nauki_Kopernik_robot-224x300

Robot, Centrum Nauki Kopernik, Warsaw

Perhaps my favourite exhibit at the Copernicus Centre is a deliciously absurd installation named ‘Copernichaos’ by the American artist Mary Ziegler,  which you can see by clicking here – a sort of perpetual motion machine in which tiny ball-bearings and fragments of metal are propelled by various springs and other mechanisms around a design taken from Mikolaj Kopernik’s epoch-making De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (‘On the revolutions of the heavenly bodies’). For me this installation seemed a nice encapsulation of the interplay of lawlike regularity – symbolized by Copernicus’s heliocentric system – and a freedom ‘at the edge of chaos’ underpinning the evolution of the cosmos – concepts which many of us involved in the faith-science dialogue at any level would correlate with the two words ‘Logos’ and ‘Spirit’ respectively, and on the subject of which I currently have the privilege of being engaged in a challenging public dialogue over at the blog ‘Homebrewed Christianity’ with Philip Clayton, one of contemporary theology’s most consistently creative representatives.

At a time when various strident voices in the Anglo-Saxon world persist in maintaining that science and religious faith are locked in mortal combat, it is perhaps worth pondering the Polish tradition embodied not only by Copernicus (a Catholic canon as well as a scientist) but more recently by the research groups initiated in Krakow by Pope John Paul II and continued by figures such as the late Archbishop Jozef Zycinski and Prof. Michal Heller (winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize), director of the Copernicus Interdisciplinary Research Centre. In this tradition, not only are scientific inquiry and the spiritual quest not in contradiction, but on the contrary represent two equally vital and complementary aspects of the search for truth which constitutes the driving force of human culture.

To my knowledge, room still remains as yet within Prof. Heller’s centre for a musical research programme. The relationship of music, science and theology is an area which surely ideal terrain for the type of interdisciplinary exploration being pioneered in Poland; that music (like theology) stands at the intersection of the arts and the sciences has been true historically from Pythagoras to Bach, Varèse or Messiaen. One of the clearest and most moving examples of such interconnections in a Polish context can be found in the monumental and unjustly under-performed Second Symphony, ‘Copernican’, Op. 31, by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (1933-2010), too often dismissed as a ‘one-hit-wonder’ by a public unfamiliar with any of his works beyond his celebrated Symphony of Sorrowful Songs Op.36.

Gorecki’s ‘Copernican’ Symphony, perhaps his masterwork, opens with gigantic orchestral repeated chords (whose ‘French’ harmonies seem to nod in the direction of Messiaen) – hammer-blows of cosmic proportions, transporting the listener into a realm in which huge primal forces collide. These unleash a startlingly abrasive, quasi-random atonal outburst for brass whose ‘Copernichaotic’ texture somewhat resembles Krzysztof Penderecki’s 1960s avant-garde works (which are now receiving an intriguing second lease of life thanks to his recent collaboration with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood(!)),

Penderecki-Greenwood-cover

before the choir and soloists enter with a text taken from Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, which is extended at sidereal pace over the remaining seventeen or so minutes of the work;

Deus, qui fecit caelum et terram. Qui fecit luminaria magna… Solem in potestatem diei. Lunam et stellas in potestatem noctis. Quid autem caelo pulcrius, nempe quod continet pulcra omnia?
(God, who made the heavens and the earth, who created the great lights, the sun as the power of the day, the moon and stars as the power of night. For what, indeed, is more beautiful than heaven, which indeed contains all beautiful things?)
Here Gorecki’s Symphony dissolves into ecstatic contemplation as equations turn to inspired poetry and science passes over into mysticism. This is the cosmological territory of the astronomer-priest, a domain not unknown in recent history to Albert Einstein, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, George Lemaître (the Belgian cleric who authored the theory of the Big Bang), Alfred North Whitehead, or indeed anyone who, when considering the wonder of the universe, has felt overwhelmed and humbled by what Rudolf Otto famously called the sense of the ‘numinous’, the awesome and fascinating mystery[mysterium tremendum et fascinans] that many of the world’s spiritual traditions have also called the Holy. In Gorecki’s work it is perhaps not fanciful to sense the possibility of a reconciliation between left- and right-brain thinking, analytical logic and artistic intuition. Coming out of the Copernicus Centre and looking up at the soullessly technological Warsaw skyline, such an integration seems more necessary than ever.

De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_052r-205x300Mikolaj Kopernik, page from manuscript of De revolutionibus coelestium (Jagiellonian Library, Krakow)

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