by Patrick James Dunagan
Eternity is a concept rather dubiously tough to wrap the mind around. Throw in the idea of duplicate worlds and simultaneous events with differing end results, replicating yet infinitely fracturing the day-to-day reality we recognize as “the real,” and the average reader’s head begins to spin. While these matters are not always tidily handled within Louis-Auguste Blanqui’s Eternity by the Stars they are dealt with utilizing a fair amount of pith.
Blanqui after all was a ubiquitously engaged nineteenth century French revolutionary thinker and “man of action” who wrote this book from May to November of 1871 while under constant threat of armed guard in a heavily fortified jail on a small, rocky island just off the coast of Morlaix where waters of the English Channel mix with the Atlantic Ocean.
Translator Frank Chouraqui’s introduction provides orientation concerning the biographical details behind Blanqui’s work while also marvelously untangling some of the thornier scientific scenarios presented in his argument. There are two key scientific authors whose work and ideas Blanqui cites, often contentiously: Pierre-Simon Laplace and Francois Arago. Chouraqui irons out the creases in Blanqui’s presentation of each author’s argument in relation to his own.
The science passages in Blanqui’s text are among the most challenging material for unfamiliar readers. Having Chouraqui’s lengthy introduction to refer back to along with the endnotes he provides to the text are of enormous assistance, as is his extrapolation upon the clear relevance of Blanqui’s writing to the work of Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
In and out of trouble with French authorities most of his adult life, Blanqui fought his way through numerous ups and downs accompanying several frequent changeovers within the government throughout his lifetime. These were a series of political changeovers which both in his writings and actions he did his best to ferment. Imprisoned inside Fort du Taureau (Castle of the Bull) Blanqui conceived of and wrote Eternity by the Stars while awaiting his trial, insisting that the text was an integral part of his defense.
Chouraqui describes how, locked up in the island prison, “Blanqui found himself surrounded by a world of repetition.” Confronted by such a situation, Blanqui laid out an argument for the prevailing destiny of everything in the universe that would serve to counter the frustration he felt, as Chouraqui describes it: “The main claim of Eternity by the Stars is that the discrepancy between a limited — albeit great — number of possible events and the infinity of time and space necessitate the infinite repetition of all possible events.”
The current circumstances of Blanqui’s predicament were being played out numerous times over in several multiple scenarios. The ultimate, ineffably interminable nature of all events may not offer him any solace but solace was not necessarily what he sought. Blanqui was looking for an energetic argument with which to keep the fight going (again in Chouraqui’s words): “In a circular cell with a vaulted ceiling, listening to the ebb & flow of the sea, and the repetitive beating of the waves, Blanqui offers us a reflection on missed opportunities and the crossroads of history. Eternity by the Stars puts forward the major thesis that all is possible and that all that is possible is actual.” This represents Blanqui’s challenge to the status quo. Everything in effect is unavoidably just as it is. This is as it must be. At least until it no longer is so when played out in duplicate reality on a separate mirror world.
Blanqui believed that everything in the universe is in process: “The infinite can only present itself to us as an aspect of the indefinite.” All of matter is at one with each and every of its many parts: “The universe is eternal as a whole as well as in each of its fractions, be it a star or speck of dust.” All experience of that matter is likewise to the same stuff owing its ultimate form: “The human, just like the universe, is the enigma of the infinite and of eternity, and the grain of sand is equal to the human.”
In the grand scheme of the universe everything shares in the ultimate realignment which comes of death and rebirth. Nothing is ever certain and eternal but this fact. No matter the scale of the entities involved. Blanqui evocatively describes how stars take part in this back and forth decline followed by guaranteed resurgence of all singular life:
“When a clock slows down, it is readjusted. When it is damaged, it is fixed. When it is used, it is replaced. But who repairs and renovates celestial bodies? Do such flaming globes, however splendidly they represent matter, enjoy eternal youth? No, matter is eternal only in its elements or as a whole. […] Stars are born, shine, die out, and even as they survive their lost splendor for thousands of centuries, all they offer to the laws of gravity are wandering tombs. How many billions of icy cadavers are crawling like this in the night of space, awaiting the hour of destruction, which will be, at the same time, the hour of resurrection!”
He later re-asserts this same driving theme of his argument for describing the eternal nature of all that exists: “As a whole as well as in detail, the universe is forever transformation and immanence.”
Blanqui knew “Men do not disturb matter very much, but they disturb themselves a great deal.” He’d learned that lesson well and continually fought to utilize it in advancing his own concerns. He never loses hope that change is always both possible and necessary. As he insists (the emphasis is his): “Let us not forget that everything we could have been on this earth, we are it somewhere else.” In remarks such as these glimmers of Blanqui’s lasting influence shine.
Ripples of comment regarding the debt other writers have shown to Blanqui have previously occurred. I learned of this work and sought it out for reviewing here after having come across its brief mention in a recent critical biography of Walter Benjamin. However this is the first critical edition in English of Eternity by the Stars. There has never been a broadly available opportunity for English readers to consider it until now. Blanqui’s richly ambiguous, often dizzying suggestions for confronting the concepts he confronts are fascinating to behold. His influence is as lasting as the stars wherein he locates his argument.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His books include GUSTONBOOK andDas Gedichtete.