Eco: Kircher’s Chinese, 2

by Esteban


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Transcription of the Sino-Syriac Monument from China Illustrata, 1667, p. 12. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Why did the problem of memory arise only here, and not in regard to Egyptian hieroglyphs? The reason was that hieroglyphs discharged their allegorical and metaphorical force immediately, in virtue of what Kircher held to be their inherent power of revelation, since they “integros conceptos ideales involvebant.”

By using the verb involvere (to wind or wrap up), however, Kircher meant the exact opposite of what we might, today, suppose when we think of the natural and intuitive similarity between a given image and a thing. Hieroglyphs do not make clear but rather conceal something,

This is the reason for which Kircher speaks of the inferiority of Amerindian characters (Oedipus, III, 13-4). They seemed to Kircher inferior because they were immediately pictographic, as they were representing only individuals and events; thus they looked like mere mnemonic notes unable to bear arcane revelations (Oedipus, IV, 28; on the inferiority of Amerindian characters see also Brian Walcott (ed. note: Eco has “Brian Walcott” on p. 160, when the actual name should be Brian Walton), In biblia polyglotta prolegomena, 2.23).

Chinese ideography was undoubtedly superior to Amerindian “pictography because it was capable of expressing abstract concepts. Yet, despite the fact that it also permitted witty combinations (cf. Oedipus, III, 13-4), its decipherment remained too univocal.

The Egyptians, Kircher argued, saw in the sign of the scarab not a mere scarab, but the sun–and not the material sun that warms our world of our senses, but the sun as archetype of the intelligible world. (Ed. Note: Eco has a bracket ” next to pictography but does not close it. I include it, repeating the error, as Eco published it.)

We shall see (ch. 10) that in seventeenth-century England, Chinese writing was considered perfect in so far as with ideograms every element on the expression-plane corresponded to a semantic unit on the content-plane. It was precisely these one-to-one correspondences that, for Kircher, deprived Chinese writing of its potential for mystery.

A Chinese character was monogamously bound to the concept it represented; that was its limitation: an Egyptian hieroglyph showed its superiority by its ability to summon up entire “texts,” and to express complex chunks of infinitely interpretable content.

Kircher repeated this argument in his China. There was nothing hieratic about the Chinese character; there was nothing that veiled it from profane eyes, hiding unfathomable depths of truth; it was a prosaic instrument of everyday communication.

Knowledge of Chinese could, of course, be motivated on ethnological grounds, especially as the Jesuits had acquired so many interests in China. Still, Chinese could not qualify for inclusion in the list of holy languages.

As to the Amerindian signs, not only were they patently denotative, but they revealed the diabolic nature of a people who had lost the last vestige of archaic wisdom.

As a civilization, Egypt no longer existed, and for the Europeans it was not yet a land for future conquest. Ignored in its geopolitical inconsistency, it became a Hermetical phantom. In this role it could be identified as the spiritual ancestor of the Christian West, the progenitor of the occident’s patrimony of mystic wisdom.

China, by contrast, was no phantom but a tangible Other. It was concretely there, still a political force of respectable dimensions, still a culture alternative to that of the West. The Jesuits themselves had revealed the deep roots of Chinese culture.

“The Chinese, moral and virtuous though pagan, when forgetting the truth revealed in the structure of hieroglyphs, converted their ideography into a neutral and abstract instrument of communication, and this led to the belief that their conversion would be easy to achieve.” (Pellerey 1992b: 521).

The Americas, by contrast, were designated as the land of conquest; here there would be no compromise with idolators and their low-grade species of writing: the idolators were to be converted, and every trace of their original culture, irredeemably polluted with diabolic influences, was to be wiped away.

“The demonization of the native American cultures found here a linguistic and theoretical justification.” (ibid.: 521).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 160-2.