Stephenson and the Philosophick Mercury

I’ve now finished rereading Quicksilver, and am about halfway through my second pass at Cryptonomicon, which makes much more sense now that I have read the first third of the prequel.

It’s hard to believe that the next two volumes of “The Baroque Cycle” will live up the promise of Quicksilver, but then it was hard to believe that Quicksilver would be a worthy companion to Cryptonomicon. If Stephenson brings it off — or rather, if he has brought it off, since the next two volumes reportedly are all written and ready to publish — he will have created a truly major document.

I sense that my enthusiasm isn’t universally shared; at least, I have seen many more references to people looking forward to reading Quicksilver than to people looking back fondly on having read it. I suspect that some may find the sheer historical and intellectual scope and ambition of Stephenson’ project overwhelming.

His theme — rather, one of his themes — as announced in the epigraph to Cryptonomicon, is the isomorphism between cryptanalysis and the scientific enterprise, each attempting to extract meaning from a matrix in which it lies hidden. [Naturally, this leads Stephenson right up to, but in my view not over, the edge of the cliff at whose bottom is Umberto-Eco-style self-reference.]

Somewhat unusually for an unabashed admirer of the scientific enterprise, he insists that the alchemists were also trying to read the cypher, albeit with the wrong key. (The alchemists have gotten friendly literary treatment before, notably by Marguerite Yourcenar in The Abyss and Lindsay Clarke in The Chymical Wedding, but it’s hard to imagine Yourcenar or Clarke making Newton’s optical experiments and mathematical reasoning seem heroic.)

As Cryptonomicon flitted back and forth between WWII and the present, Quicksilver flits between the period of the Stuart Restoration (dividing attention between England and the Continent, especially Amsterdam) and Massachusetts in 1714, though the vast bulk of the book is set in sequence from 1655-1689. Some of the main characters — Waterhouses and Shaftoes — provide ancestry for the main characters in Cryptonomicon.

Quicksilver tries to tell three historical stories at once: the scientific revolution, told thematically in terms of the process by which natural philosophy split itself off from alchemy and dramatically through the development of the Royal Society; the rise of limited government and religious toleration in Britain as typified by the Revolution of 1688; and the development of the first system of more or less world-wide trade, with Amsterdam and later London, as its centers. (The “quicksilver” of the title refers both to the mercury that was the alchemists’ symbol of mind and to the circulation of money.)

The central character, Daniel Waterhouse, is Isaac Newton’s college roommate, and both Newton and Leibniz — whose quarrel Stephenson portrays as the root of a great historical tragedy — figure more prominently as characters than Alan Turing did in Cryptonomicon. Waterhouse, whose father is made to have been Cromwell’s religious mentor, as at least as interesting a character as his descendants in Cryptonomicon, and gets to be close to even cooler stuff: the origins of the Royal Society and the Revolution of 1688.

Stephenson regards the scientific revolution, the Whig revolution, and the development of world trade as (in the phrase from 1066 and All That) Good Things, but he tries to show them warts and all, not only the flawed characters of Newton and William III, but at a deeper level as well: the abandonment of the alchemists’ dream that understanding nature would give self-understanding and its replacement by a dreary mechanistic worldview, the Catholic-bashing and aristocratic arrogance that marred the Whigs’ claim to represent “liberty,” and the fact that world trade meant, very prominently, the trade in slaves.

Jack Shaftoe, so unfortunate and so capable of acting badly, seems to be a refugee from a Pynchon novel, a Baroque-era Benny Profane. As a character, he is beautifully realized, but I found his well-deserved sufferings so poigniant that I didn’t much enjoy the long sections of the book in which he features. (In literature as in food, I have rather a sweet tooth.) His companion Eliza, Duchess of Qwghlm, on the other hand, is much more pleasant company, and much more intelligent.

Stephenson has brilliantly solved the problem of historical fiction by mixing real characters, who as far as I can tell aren’t depicted doing anything we know they didn’t do, with fictitious ones (marked by italics in the list of dramatis personae in the back of the book) who do any damned thing the author wants consistent with the general historical facts of the period. (He’s even invented a new cast of characters for the Cabal that served Charles II, which confused the hell out of me until I caught on.)

Among the actual figures. we get glimpses of Locke, Hooke, Huygens, Pepys, Charles II, James II, Monmouth, Jeffreys, the John Churchill who was to become Duke of Marlborough, William of Orange, Louis XIV, and a very young Ben Franklin.

Stephenson himself recommends Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism as companion reading. I find Braudel tough going, though much less tedious with Stephenson to provide a framework. As it happens, however, Stephenson has chosen a period that inspired not only Pepys’s diary but the best historical work of both Hume and (especially) Macaulay. So if by some mischance the late 17th century doesn’t happen to be your period, and Stephenson leaves you hungry for more historical fact, that hunger can be sated in a most satisfying manner.

In addition, there’s a Metaweb site that makes it easy to look up individual characters or incidents.

I wouldn’t have guessed it from Stephenson’s earlier work, but he has a first-rate historical imagination. Just as an aside, for example, he suggests that the miserable life Louis XIV inflicted on the nobility of France at Versailles wasn’t just a side-effect of his attempt to strip them of political power, but a deliberate act of revenge for his youthful sufferings at the hands of the Fronde. That’s an idea worth chewing over, and Stephenson’s picture of just how awful a place Versailles must have been to live makes it convincing.

So I have no idea why you’re wasting your time reading this weblog when you should be reading Stephenson instead. With any luck, by the end of The System of the World we’ll know not merely who Enoch Root is but what he is at the root of.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Stephenson and the Philosophick Mercury”

  1. Winged Mercury

    I finished Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver the day before yesterday, and enjoyed it very much, despite the mixed reviews. In many ways, the book reminded me of another baggy-great faux-historical novel set in the same period, which similarly receiv…

Comments are closed.