Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrew Pendakis reviews Eternity by the Stars

Louis-Auguste Blanqui. Eternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis. Trans. Frank Chouraqui. New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2013. 202 pp.

Review by Andrew Pendakis

19 January 2016

For Louis-Auguste Blanqui, prison was seasonal. When he was not in jail he was at the barricades. The intensity of his life, his gift of extreme focus, has often obscured our capacity to think Blanqui apart from his actions. Conflated with the gesture of “conspiracy” his life comes to be seen as a series of fantastically miscalculated deeds or feats; he ceases to exist as the name for a legitimate period logic—an actual way of thinking politics—and instead vanishes behind the tired caricature of the revolutionary brute, a figure governed by rectilinear instincts (for destruction, power, or death) but never science or logic. Though this image of Blanqui the beast is belied by even a perfunctory reading of his speeches—his 1832 defense is a caustically brilliant critique of nineteenth-century French liberalism—our understanding of Blanqui stands to be permanently altered by Contra Mundum’s new English translation of Eternity by the Stars, a moody speculative cosmology he wrote while imprisoned at the Fort du Taureau in the early days of the Third Republic.

            The text’s first impression is that of a cosmic primer. The speed of light, the distance between stars, the number of chemical elements (listed in their nineteenth-century entirety, “all” sixty-four): much of this would have aligned unproblematically with a certain ambient middle-class naturalism.  This may have been a way for Blanqui to confuse the memes linking his politics to haste and violence; demonstrated literacy in the scientific consensus of the time was also surely de facto evidence of not just his sanity but the reasonableness of revolution itself.

At the same time, Blanqui’s treatment is obscure, idiosyncratic, and layered by a quality that transforms astronomy into poetry and scientific observation into an encrypted political metaphysics. When Blanqui beautifully dimensions a universe that is infinite in time and space, he is using cosmological scale as an inducement to atheist curiosity and joy and as a weapon against the narrow heaven of steeples.  When he suggests that though being is eternal “all of its forms—humble and sublime alike—are transitory and perishable,” he is clearly placing the self-certitude of bourgeois rule—its claim to have ended history in progress—back into the dark permanence of process, a universal time in which nothing escapes its share of death and obsolescence. When Blanqui writes that the universe is a structure “whose center is everywhere” one can’t help but link such lines to a political cosmology of revolt in which any point in the system is imbued with the capacity for sudden insurrection. This is after all how Blanqui saw space; every workshop, inn, corner was a barricade in hiding. Though he was in many ways a Laplacian determinist Blanqui insists “one must make a distinction between the universe and a clock”: “all celestial bodies without exception, have one single origin, the blaze resulting from collisions.” This is a universe made out of swerves and explosions.

The most intriguing hypothesis of the text is its claim that the logical corollary of an infinite universe made of repeating constituent units is the reality of an uncountable numbers of “brother-worlds” in which everything that might of happened already has (and still is). Every possibility that has ever existed is actual somewhere. There is an outright bleakness to this vision: “on billions of earths the future will witness the very same ignorance . . . and cruelties of our old ages.” At the same time, on a billion alternate earths the justice destroyed today by cruelty and blind interest is fully established. The future chased by the revolutionary is no longer mere idea (the prerogative of those too weak to actualize their plans) but an established system of positive justice and right. Somewhere our present is the name for another people’s dark age.