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Towards a Culture of the Noösphere: Gigantic Shadows of Futurity Part I

By Aaron Halevy

In March of 2011, Italy celebrated its unification’s 150th anniversary, and during the major ceremonies, Verdi’s Nabucco was performed in Rome’s opera theater. Once the famous chorus piece, Va pensiero was sung, the audience applauded loudly and demanded an encore. As the applause died down, the shout was heard from the audience of: “Long live Italy!” At which point, something unprecedented in the history of opera performances took place, the conductor turned around to the audience and made a short speech. He spoke to them about the shame he felt that the economic crisis has lead to the killing of education programs, art, music and therefore the Italian culture. “I thought that if we kill the culture on which the history of Italy is based,” he said to the silent audience, rapt in attention, “then we, our fatherland, will really be [as this song says] beautiful but lost.” To this the audience rose to their feet, shouting and clapping even louder and longer than before – even the performers on stage stood up in this overwhelming ovation of support of his words. After the cheering again was calmed, the conductor agreed to perform an encore of this chorus, but included that he wished that the audience would join in and sing along. Once the second performance was concluded, the applause continued and tears were passionately flowing. Despite all the problems in the world at this moment, and admittedly the problems in the culture of the world today, this was an electric moment of human beauty and truth.[1]

Now, step back for a moment: what is happening? Thousands of human beings gathered together, all strangely reacting, almost unconsciously, in a completely new way to something which only a few of them were doing, and something that was created 150 years ago before any of them were born. To what are they reacting? Could you explain this as a phenomenon of physics or biology? Some animals have the ability to migrate long distances by instinct and the sensing of magnetic fields, others communicate important momentary information by a specific sound pattern propagating in their immediate location. Where are the means of this communication among humans? Is it in the sounds? Is it readable in the smallest vibrations of the air? Is it in the total magnetic field created by the audience? Could any of this have happened if only one person was in the audience? Another degree of complexity is the context of this event. Would this performance have the same effect if it were done in another country?

A decent working hypothesis for the beginning here is simply that: An effective connection exists between human beings, which moves them to act in a new way, which is created beyond all explainable phenomena of life and non-life, which has connections beyond the conventional boundaries of time and space, and that this communication, by the aid of these instruments and voices, is something much more than information.

A brief view of the history of this chorus piece and the Italian people of the audience shall help us figure out what had actually taken place that night.

1. Awakening a People

After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna was convened to divide Napoleon’s spoils into several provinces [see figure]. The Italian people were split into several duchies, each controlled by a duke or king. The south was controlled by the Spanish lineages, Catholic Rome held the papal states, and the north was controlled by the Austrian Empire.

In the northern duchy of Parma, from his earliest years of age, Giuseppe Verdi was trained on the pipe organ at the church across the street from his home, where he quickly developed a love for music and composition. The local store manager in Busetto paid for young Giuseppe to go to school in Milan to deepen his passion with study and by 1839, when he was 26 years old, Verdi composed his first opera Oberto. In the following years a terrible tragedy hit Verdi’s personal life: his wife and two children died of an unheard of bacterial disease, in what seemed to Verdi as an instant.

His mourning seemed to have no end, and by 1840 Verdi was contracted to write a comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno. It was a total failure as Verdi later wrote,

I was alone! … alone! … In the short space of two months three persons dear to me had gone, for ever: my family was destroyed! … In the midst of this terrible anguish, to keep my bond, I had to write and finish a comic opera!![2]

After the said opera’s failure, Verdi had vowed never to write another opera again, and refused all contact with the opera world.

A young Verdi

Meanwhile, the ferment of Italian unification was being encouraged by the increasing censorship of the Italian people and their work by the occupying forces of Austria’s Hapsburg Empire. The duke of Tuscany for example, under a request from the Emperor, suppressed a Florentine magazine Antologia, a favorite amongst the Italian speakers for its political and cultural content. This censorship, which was typical of the occupying regime, forced the people who wanted to discuss these matters underground.

Opera, enjoyed by all levels of Italian society for a long time, emerged at this period as the means for mass education. Every major city, no matter the province it was located in, had an Opera house with a music school, which functioned both as a gathering place and cultural center. For this reason all operas were subjected to the Austrian censorship and encores were outlawed in all Austrian dominated opera houses, to prevent the politically charged demonstrations which usually followed such performances. This kept opera and all public activities gripped by an immense tension which often worked to further disadvantage the Austrian police enforcing the laws.

By 1841, Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario at Milan’s La Scala opera house, knowing well of Verdi’s fresh talent, had been pressing him to write a new opera. Merelli had a libretto titled, Nabucodonosor, which all the composers he knew could not set to music. Verdi repeated that he didn’t want anything to do with it, or any opera for that matter, but the impresario forced the text upon him and kicked him out of the office. Verdi later wrote the whole story out in a biographical sketch:

…At home I threw the manuscript with a violent gesture, on the table and stood rigid before it. The libretto, falling on the table, opened itself and without my quite realizing it my eyes fixed on the page before me at one particular line:

Va Pensiero, sull’ali dorate
(Fly thoughts, on golden wings.)

I glanced through the verses which followed and was deeply moved, particularly in that they almost paraphrased the bible which I have always loved to read. I read a line, then another.

Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
Ove olezzano tepide e molli
L’aure dolci del suolo natal!
(Fly, alight the cliffs, on the hills,
Where there are wafting the warm and gentle
Sweet breezes of our native land.)

Then firm in my resolution never to compose again, I forced myself to stop, closed the book, and went to bed. But oh! Nabucco kept running in my head, and sleep would not come. I got up, I read the libretto, not once but two, three times, so that by morning, it’s fair to say, I knew the libretto by heart” [3]

Verdi wrote the opera and it premiered at La Scala on March 9th 1842.

The opera is based on the Old Testament story of king Nebuchadnezzar, and paints the plight of the native Jews who were imprisoned by this tyrant. At the moment in the opera when the Jews are in their deepest despair, ruminating on their father land, they sing this song, whose poetry gave Verdi that sleepless night.

O, mia patria sì bella e perduta!
O membranza sì cara e fatal!
(Oh, my fatherland—so beautiful and so lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear, and fatal.) [4]

After this chorus was sung on opening night, the audience jumped to their feet and demanded that they hear this piece again, the shouts “Ancore! Ancore!” rang from all over the theater. It was clear that they would not stop applauding until they were satisfied and the Austrian guards became very nervous. There was not one person in the audience of the premier that night who did not recognize the political tension which was underneath their own situation, just as there was not one Austrian guard who did not recognize the danger of not allowing an encore. The encore did occur and a major change had taken place: Va pensiero was the new anthem of freedom for the Italian people.

Verdi was instantly assimilated into the revolutionary networks, later known as the Risorgimento, which would lead to the unification of Italy 19 years later, in 1861. Eventually his person and his music would be exalted to represent the passionate essence of the revolutionary Italians who would shout his name in the streets and write it on the walls, “Viva VERDI! Viva VERDI!” [5]

Now return to the original question. With this chorus, embedded with its effect of patriotic ideal and its touching music, Verdi had reached something deep in the core of the population at that moment in history, but how is that possible? What had really happened? Could this moment have been created by accident? Did Verdi know absolutely that he would inspire this lasting effect in the audience? Verdi admits that he was led by some uncontrolled passion to compose the work, despite his vow against ever writing opera again, and despite his own depressed and selfish state of mind at the time. Did his decision to compose this work then, as it comes to us in his own words, happen by chance?

These questions and the effects which this chorus maintains on an audience, even to this very day, bear the significance of the words of Percy B. Shelley who wrote while in exile in Italy only 20 years before, in his In Defence of Poetry,

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul. It is impossible to read the compositions of the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled with the electric life which burns within their words. They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit, and they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations: for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

2. The Spirit of the Age

What is the reality to such a revolutionary phenomenon which people can participate in? Can we usefully study these social processes and come to know how they function? Can we come to know the spirit of the age as Shelley outlines in his prose?

Bernhard Riemann, who was a contemporary of Verdi and was experiencing similar political revolutions in Germany, had developed his own solid scientific and revolutionary approach to the human mind and its interaction with other minds in his Philosophical Fragments, written some time between 1846-1851.

With each simple act of thought, something enduring, substantial, enters into our soul. This substantial thing appears to us, indeed, as a unity, it appears, however (insofar as it is the expression of a spatial and temporal extension) to contain an inner manifoldness; hence, I call this a “thought-object ” [Geistesmasse]…

— All thought is, according to this, the formation of new thought-objects.

…The formation of new thought-objects rests on the common activity partly of the older thought-objects, partly of material causes, and indeed is hindered or promoted by each commonly acting thought-object according to the inner dissimilarity or similarity of those thought-objects which it strives to produce.

Riemann’s ideas here are, at first glance, of a very subjective and personal nature for Riemann himself. Gathering anecdotes and accounts about Riemann’s personal life, it was said that he was “absorbed in self contemplation,” and always looking “to find the universe reflected in his soul as in a Leibniz monad. He seeks refuge in speculative contemplation even when the need to complete mathematical papers, or to engage in robust activity in connection with a physical experiment, requires his total involvement.” [6]

Physicist Bernard Riemann whose discoveries into anti-Euclidean geometries and physical space time set the foundations for the later scientific revolutions of Max Planck and Albert Einstein

One who investigates human thought not as a behaviorist, or psychologist might, but as a phenomenon to be studied in the universe, would easily recognize the prominence of mind as an absolutely unique power in the known universe. That recognition, therefore would lead one to prefer not discount mind as embedded in any investigations of the universe. Thinking of how thoughts amalgamate and associate, is not some armchair speculation for Riemann, because these investigations unfold into the utmost importance for his future discoveries in electromagnetism, topology, potential fields, geometry, and fluid dynamics.

“Yet,” one might object, “these thoughts have no material substance, and therefore one can not lead an investigation into their substance.” Riemann might likely respond, just because one can not locate the material of thought in sense certainty, in the habits of thinking in Euclidean space, it does not mean that they can not, nor do not actually exist. As we find in the cases of music, science and political revolution, thought-objects have definite effects on the world and on other people.

Fundamentally, Riemann is opening the window for us us to dump what we call “simple 3D space” and “clock time.” We should be willing to think of unthought, new, higher realms of mind, as a power which is not material as such, but which is a pervasive force in the universe; creativity must be considered as intrinsic to space.

If that is so, then the rest of the universe should express this quality, and thus Riemann applies these “laws of mental processes” into fresh, bold conclusions on the nature and interconnectedness of all living matter over all time elaborating his teacher Gustav Fechner’s concept of the Erdseele (Earth-Soul).

We now apply these laws of mental processes, which we have been led to by the explanation of our own inner perception, to the explanation of the purposefulness perceived on the Earth, i.e. to the explanation of existence and of historical development.

The Earth’s system, thought of as a whole, has a direction, is always evolving to higher conceptions, as does the mind. Is Riemann here foremirroring Vernadsky’s concept of the Biosphere? It is only today, in the beginning of the 21st century, in which some researches are finding out the profound validity and foresight which Riemann concluded in these fragmented works.

3. The Throne of Power

During the war of ideas of this period, a virtually unknown development of biology and natural science occurred which has yet to be fully realized by our modern world: the discovery of ‘cephalization’ by the American biologist and geologist James Dwight Dana (1813 – 1895). Dana’s work proved that beyond the empiricist conception of physiological morphology as Darwin proposed, the development of all biological life in the history on earth, regardless of species and genera, has been striving for a centralization of the nervous system, and in support for such a system, the necessary parts, such as arms and bipedalism, which a being would need to be willfully capable of serving that centralization.

Non-Darwinian biologist James Dwight Dana

As the head is the seat of power in an animal, the part that gives honor to the whole, it is natural that among species rank should be marked by means of variations in the structure of the head; and not only by variations in structure, but also in the extent to which the rest of the body directly contributes, by its members, to the uses or purposes of the head. Cephalization is, then, simply the degree of head domination in the structure, as implied in the derivation of the term. [7]

Human beings, therefore, represent the highest achievement of this kind of biological evolution on this planet.

There is something in man which impels to indefinite progress; and with increasing energy, after adult size is reached—the period when all other species cease progress. There is something, which renders him capable of contemplating the phenomena of nature, and of looking through facts to principles; something, which can find joy in truth and goodness; something, by means of which moral distinctions are perceived, and moral obligations felt; something, whence come thoughts of a life after death, and longings for happiness which earth cannot supply. This element, wholly distinct from anything regarded as of a psychical or intellectual nature in the mere animal, is a spiritual one—that, through which, man bears God’s image. It is the spirit in man which suggests a sense of dependence on a Power above; which makes man a moral being, and renders the Infinite Spirit a possible source to him of moral strength and development; and which prompts him to approach the Spirit on high with words and rites of devotion. For only spirit can commune with spirit, or comprehend the revelations of a spiritual being. Only a nature partaking thus of the infinite can have thoughts or desires that reach into the infinite or indefinite future. [8]

All species have some function they fulfill in their lives, which is a part of their so-called instinct, this function is always unique, but what is important to distinguish man from the beasts, is that none of the actions of any animal changes its total behavior. It would seem that Abraham Lincoln agreed when he said, in 1858 that,

“Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better now, than they did, five thousand years ago. … Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. This improvement, he effects by Discoveries, and Inventions.” [9]

What becomes clear from this perspective, is that the creativity is a crafty shadow of the intention of life on earth to develop a being which embodies and participates in this creativity.

Lincoln and an artist’s rendition of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition

4. Great Minds Do Think Alike

It is here that the great scientist and creator of biogeochemistry, Vladimir I. Vernadsky now steps on our stage. Born in St. Petersburg Russia in 1863, Vernadsky’s life and views in science would be shaped, just as Riemann and Shelley, by the political revolutionary period which he lived through.

It is by investigating and widening the subtler nature of the biosphere’s space-time, that Vernadsky began to develop a concept of what has been the provocation of this report: that there is a very real domain of human history and human social relations; it is not a 1848-er’s or a 1968-er’s type of social groove, but is a demonstrable, and knowable space; a space which is born from no matter, has no measurable energy, but which undeniably does have effects on the physical universe.

A young Vernadsky in 1890

Vernadsky spent a good deal of his life investigating every aspect of the “living domain,” later known as the Biosphere, and he studied it, always as a whole, which includes all the interactions of organisms. Vernadsky insisted on studying the chemical and elemental relations of organisms to understand the deeper, less empirical connections and actions of living processes. From this mastery of what he calls, “the empirical generalizations of science,” Vernadsky gains an all-encompassing view of the whole as a composition of all living matter, and therefore has the ability to investigate the subtle “ironies” of that whole, to determine the true causal principles in the biosphere, unlike any other biologist or so-called naturalist before him. Even today, Vernadsky’s view of the unique space of life, developed from Pasteur’s work on chemical symmetry, is at the forefront of all scientific research today, teasing those who are thinking in all fields: virologists, chemists, immunologists – you name it. From investigating the increasing levels of biogenic migration of atoms, Vernadsky redefined evolution away from the empiricist of Darwin’s stock and brought to bear the processes of intention in the whole history of life of Earth. He revealed that those species which propagate into the future, those which do not die off in extinction, are those which serve the intention to increase the rate and quality of the global biogenic migration of atoms. The obvious question becomes: what about human beings?

In the 40th year of his life in 1903, during the surges of the Russian Revolutions, Vernadsky made frequent trips from Moscow to Western Europe to work with Pierre Curie. From France he wrote to his wife,

My theme about the progress of science and the broad masses is continually expanding, and it’s just a matter of thinking it through and letting it take shape. Now I’m getting a completely different impression of the political currents flourishing at the beginning of the 19th century, and of such poets as Shelley. I would like to study these even more, but am not able to. In the world-cultural circumstances of its formation, it appears to me to they are a forerunner of the later freedom strivings of the 19th century. [10]

It is significant to note here the resonance of this idea, almost simultaneously, within the revolutionary German political leader at the time, Rosa Luxemburg. In defining her concept of the ‘mass strike’ process of social revolutionary change, in the essay, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, in 1906, Luxemburg points out that the cause of directionality in a mass movement is not given by momentary influences, but is governed by long arcs. The political uprising of a people for a great change, she says,

… is not artificially “made,” not “decided” at random, not “propagated,” but … is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability.[11]

Political economist Rosa Luxembourg

 Vernadsky, by looking at the changing rates of the biogenic migration of atoms, was able to conclude that humans, with technology acting as an intentional wielding of higher and higher chemical processes, are ushering in a rising flux of biogenic migration of atoms at every step. It is in this context that it becomes clear why Vernadsky was explicitly inspired by Dana’s work on cephalization. Vernadsky found that man’s rate of change is an increasing rate never before seen in the history of life on Earth, and that this factor of change is due to his mind.

For example, look at what we have in the history of our leaps over nature: fire, agriculture, animal domestication, metallurgy, transportation, democracy, steam power, electric power and atomic energy – all these things are magnitudes of difference in our ability to act on the universe.

In this way, he in essence overwhelmed the planet, not only in its matter but also in its energy, and became a creative, conscious, geological force, able to form the future of his generations himself. [12]

Just as Vernadsky asserts that life can not be a secondary phenomenon or accident, of non-life, neither can this power of the unfolding cognition, be something which comes from life, but something which was, paradoxically, always there.

The universe –reality– is a geologically long manifestation of centuries of the sum total of consciousnesses. This is the meaning of the age old attempt to contribute to and always reach beyond the boundaries accessible to different individuals. [13]

Then what is this special power of mind? Where can we find it? Is it in his brain? Vernadsky, by discussing the small difference in the skulls of humanoids going back at least 100,000 years, shows that the brain of man, has not changed at all.

… there is no doubt that the mind of that man from the Paleolithic for this species of Homo cannot bear comparison to the mind of contemporary man. Thence it follows that the mind is a complex social structure, built, for the man of our times, just as for the Paleolithic man, upon the same nervous substrate, but in a different social setting, which is being composed through time (space-time in essence). Its change is the basic element, leading, in the end, to the transformation of the biosphere into a noösphere in the obvious manner, above all—through the creation and growth of the scientific understanding of our surroundings. [14]

From this concept of the emerging epoch of the noösphere, Vernadsky was able, even amidst the horrors of the Second World War in 1943, to write with optimism of the necessary future role of mankind as the steward, the captain of biosphere, beyond the boundaries of our planet, with no limit to his growth beyond his imagination.

In the 20th Century, as a result of the growth of human civilization, the seas and the parts of the oceans closest to shore become changed more and more markedly. Man now must take more and more measures to preserve for future generations the wealth of the seas, which so far have belonged to nobody. Besides this, new species and races of animals and plants are being created by man. Fairy tale dreams appear possible in the future; man is striving to emerge beyond the boundaries of his planet into cosmic space. And he probably will do so.

Now we live in the period of a new geological evolutionary change in the biosphere. We are entering the noösphere. This new elemental geological process is taking place at a stormy time, in the epoch of a destructive world war. But the important fact is that our democratic ideals are in tune with the elemental geological processes, with the law of nature, and with the noösphere. Therefore we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. We will not let it go. “

Vernadsky’s work is not finished, and he left the task to those after him, those of us alive today, to make the new breakthroughs in self-conscious understanding of this field and acting on it for the betterment of all mankind into the solar system and the galaxy.

If such a space is an efficient principle in development of mankind and the biosphere, how might one investigate such a space of thought? What would be its reflections and properties? Vernadsky, among many things, does leave a few very interesting clues.

Perhaps an individual person may receive the greatest understanding not from the science of his time, but from the world of sounds and music.

It is this hint which should remind us of the beginning of this paper, and which shall lead us into Part II.



[2]Verdi: His music, life and times, by George Martin, (1963 New York.) , pg. 97

[3]VERDI, pg.98

[4] The full text to the chorus,_pensiero

[5]V.E.R.D.I also stood for Vittorio Emmanuel Re di Italia (Vittorio Emmanuel, as King of Italy). For more, see Kulture‘s docudrama series, The Life of Verdi.

[6]From the Introduction to the Riemann Biography by Detlauf Laugawitz

[7] On Cephalization, by James D. Dana (1863) pg.495

[8] On Man’s Zoological Position, by James D. Dana, (The New Englander, Vol. 22 – 1863)

[9]Abraham Lincoln’s Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, (April 6, 1858)

[10]Letter to his wife, N.E. Vernadskaia, August 14, 1903

[11]See The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, by Rosa Luxemburg (1906)

[12]Vernadsky, Biosphere

[13]Diary notes, comments on Wyle, II

[14]Section 103. from Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon, by Vladimir I. Vernadsky (1936-1938)

[15]Some Words About The Noösphere, by Vladimir I. Vernadsky. December 1943.

This 2012 article was published with permission of the author.


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