When the Earth Was Round
It's hard to believe this part of the Earth was once round, but all the indicators are there, with more coming to light every day. It's true that not everyone can see them, that it requires an almost maniacal curiosity and a real nose for all this, like that possessed by the men who, so legend has it, once devoted their whole lives to digging up old ruins and putting pieces of ancient objects and utensils together, in an attempt to deduce what human life must have been like in long-forgotten times. Those possessing both nose and curiosity need only to take a look around for any lingering doubts to be quickly dispelled. What we know at the moment is very little, but it's more than enough to conclude with relative certainty that our part of the Earth didn't always look the way it does now—that is to say, flat.
This initial premise opens up an immense space for speculation. The first question that occurs: what could life have been like back then? Clearly, it must have been quite different from how it is today.
Different how, though? Here things start to get complicated. In the absence of any definite facts, we are faced with a situation in which the most absurd opinions are put forward as verified truths, something that only serves to discredit those learned few who dedicate themselves to the matter in earnest, doing grueling and exacting work, like blind men feeling their way along in a thick fog. In the midst of all this—at times, grotesque—confusion, some people question whether it's worth wasting time on onerous investigations that may lead nowhere other than perhaps to insanity, when the great problem of the day is how to live on this flat Earth, which will never be round again—that is, if indeed it ever was.
The argument is sensible and, therefore, strong. Is it really of any interest to know how people lived on a supposedly round Earth, if Blancandrin is irretrievably dead, and noble Roland too, if valiant Gumercindos1 dead body was exhumed and quartered, if Jocelyn2 was robbed of laughter and then of his life, and if all the other noble knights vanished into the mists of strange lands? Surely it's more useful to concern ourselves with life on this immense plain, which will continue being flat when there is no longer anyone around to tread upon and abuse it, much less to make ostentatious plans to restore the rounded form it may have had in the distant past? [End Page 190]
Perhaps. Yet, be it only as a simple pastime or as a form of mental exercise, it's still worthwhile to ponder the advantages and disadvantages of life on a round Earth. It might also be the starting point for a new branch of science.
One of the most serious and gifted investigators to have emerged in this new field was Dr. Emílio Sorensen de Moura, who, sadly, disappeared at the end of 1978 during an expedition to Alto Xingu. For years, Dr. Sorensen had been gathering evidence of the Earth's roundness for a book he was planning to publish, to which he made reference at a conference of the Geographical and Historical Institute.
All the work once thought to be lost with Dr. Sorensen's passing has now been collected and published in book form with drawings by Dr. Margarette de Moura, Sorensen's widow (The Case for Roundness by Emílio S. de Moura; Mount Kisco, NY: National Geodetic Society, 1982). In spite of the apparent absurdity of some conclusions the author draws from his discoveries while traveling across practically the entire country, the book contains plenty of food for thought. Setting aside the obvious conclusions—for example, that people had more freedom on a round Earth, at least as far as their movement was concerned, simply because curvature made it less easy to be vigilant—there are additional ramifications, which leave the reader alternately alarmed, fascinated, envious, and thrilled.
It's fascinating, for example, to imagine that the roundness of the Earth must have meant that almost everything on it was also round. Simply to imagine that men (and animals, plants, and minerals) would not be flat like they are today, at least not as flat, is enough to make one want to have lived back then. Sorensen illustrates this point with drawings of rounded stones he unearthed in the field, and of others found by workers on building sites in cities. They are very pretty stones, of varying shapes and sizes, but always tending towards roundness, quite different from the entirely unremarkable flat circles we see today, which no one ever bothers bending down to pick up.
Sorensen mentions an animal skin discovered in an old house in Recife, where the family of a foreign consul would have once lived. According to him, the skin is dotted with yellow and black blotches, forming a bizarre pattern. The bony articulations in the tail were removed without the skin being opened, leaving only the tube of the tail, which a tanner filled with tissue or cotton to preserve its original roundness. On the inside of the skin are engraved the following lines, which Sorensen copied: Taiga, Taiga, burning forth / In the forests of the north/What immortal hand or mind/Dare frame such a ferocious hide? This discovery in Recife seems to prove that an animal with a rounded body, known as a "taiga" or something similar, once walked the Earth in ages past.
The book also contains innumerable drawings of statues, the locations of which, quite understandably, are not revealed by the author. These statues are quite different from the flat pieces that block up our squares and the entrances to public buildings: they all show rounded human figures. The drawings allow us to see quite clearly the curvature of the head, the neck, the trunk, and even, when visible, the hands. On equestrian statues, the horse also has a round [End Page 191] body. One of the funniest pieces is a section of a sculpture of a girl caressing a puppy: even the dog is round!
It's already been insinuated that Sorensen and his wife invented these objects and sculptures, but for that to be true, they'd have needed to be brilliant artists, which does not appear to be the case: as art, Dr. Margarette's drawings leave much to be desired; it's quite obvious they are merely copies, done with good intentions but with a somewhat precarious level of technical skill.
Sorensen puts forward three hypotheses to explain these sculptures. The first is that the artists of that time reproduced the figures as they really were. The second is that, obeying some aesthetic ideal of the time, they made the figures round. The third hypothesis is that the artists were forced to make the figures round by some law or decree.
The most likely hypothesis, then, seems to be the first, for the simple reason that in a free society, which it apparently was back when the Earth was round, it would be inconceivable that artists could suffer such impositions on their creative work. The second hypothesis would be acceptable if only some artists, or a certain school, had adopted the technique of making figures round, rather than all artists at the same time—but we don't have a single example of a flat sculpture dating from the time when the Earth was round.
Why did they make the Earth flat? When did this Cyclopean undertaking begin, and how long did it take? Sorensen wasn't able to find any concrete data, but that's not to say he lets the matter pass without comment. "It's evident," he writes, "that the flattening was a slow, drawn-out process, a little one day, a little the next, one of those things that people aren't aware of as it is happening, like the lights going off in a cinema before the film starts: the brightness starts to fade almost imperceptibly, people in the audience are distracted by their own thoughts, and by the time they notice, they're already sitting in darkness."
It's also evident, Sorensen continues, that the flattening required great sacrifices to be made by several generations, who had to work hard and under the threat of severe discipline, paying onerous taxes while being told that they were contributing to a grandiose undertaking, which would fill the race with pride as long as it lasted—large-scale repetition of the work done by the Egyptians when they made the pyramids, with one difference: where the Egyptians raised, we squashed.
While the people smoothed the Earth down, teams of scientists of various disciplines and specialties took care to erase any traces of roundness, a meticulous undertaking that included gathering up and destroying or concealing objects, utensils, and works of art. The fact that almost no paintings remain from the round times can be explained by their being made from materials that were easy to destroy.
The committees responsible for gathering and destroying were not only looking for tactile objects and works of art. Poetry and fiction also underwent a ruthless expurgation. The people sniffing around for signs of roundness [End Page 192] developed such a fine sense of smell that they ended up condemning poems whose mere rhythms suggested circular motion. Sorensen managed to recover sections of poems that were condemned for their rhythms alone. For example: Pale stars/Lacustrine wildernesses/Rudders and flagpoles/and the alabaster/of the balustrades. Another: You, last night / Weary / from dancing … Another: Brightness falls from the air / Queens have died young and fair / Dust hath closed Helen's eye. According to Sorensen, this last poem was condemned because of the word eye: eyes, in those days, were spherical.
The meanings of many words that signified or suggested roundness were also altered in the dictionaries, and with time people began to accept these alterations. Some philologists say that the word ball, for example, could denote any spherical object. That may be the case, but it's difficult to understand how this word's meaning could have evolved from "sphere" to its current one, "tabletop"
To illustrate this, Sorensen says there was once an extremely popular sport that used an inflated sphere made of plastic or rubber and that was played, believe it or not, in a stadium!
Such apparent absurdities aside—quite understandable in a man who was passionate about the subject of his research—Dr. Sorensen de Moura's book makes for reading that is at once stimulating and disturbing. What a shame that there is no edition in our own language.
And now, even as commentaries are still being made on Emílio Sorensen de Moura's important work, another bombshell has landed, in our own language this time. The magazine Line of Attack, published in mimeograph by the Pelotas-based La Salle Institute of Human Studies, contains a long article by Professor Urbano Santiago (issue 27, corresponding to July of this year).
Professor Santiago, a specialist in psychobiology, puts forward an audacious thesis, which is that the Earth has never stopped being round. (Please, don't laugh if you're not acquainted with Professor Santiago's work.) According to him, the Earth continues to be round, as it always has been. What happened was that people, generation after generation, were conditioned from a young age to accept the dogma that they live on a flat Earth; and as they only saw flat shapes wherever they looked, they ended up believing it.
Later, this conditioning process was substituted with a simple, painless operation called the Ay-Sing Application, whereby pressure is applied to the optic nerve of every child at birth. This application inhibits the capacity to see round shapes or perceive them through touch, with the subsequent atrophying of the corresponding cerebral region.
Professor Santiago says that it's possible to reactivate the perception of roundness in people over forty years of age (that is, born before the Ay-Sing Application was made compulsory); he himself has had some modest success in his small, private laboratory, and bemoans his inability to get backing for the installation of a well-equipped center of operations, where the results, he guarantees, would be spectacular. (The professor's earnest naïveté is remarkable: [End Page 193] who on Earth is going to fund a project of this kind?) This affirmation is based on several case histories written down in his diary, with the names of the patients changed, of course.
Professor Santiago's article closes with the case of the "Anápolis wolf boy" covered in detail by the press at the time, though purely for its sensational aspects.
As you will remember, a lad some twenty years of age appeared in this city on the Planalto Central some years ago, his hair, nails, and beard all overgrown and his body almost completely covered in hair. He communicated using gestures and emitted only grunts and shrieks. He was taken to a hospital run by missionaries and examined by doctors and psychologists, who concluded that until that point he'd lived his whole life without any contact with human beings. He must have lived since childhood in what remains of the old Canastra forest.
Once the public hysteria had abated, the Anápolis wolf boy was replaced in the press by other equally strange cases, like the one involving the medium from Caldas Novas who operated on patients with the shards from a broken glass bottle, and the illiterate boy from Birigui who wrote German poems in the style of Rilke. It is said he was taken to Philadelphia by a missionary couple who became interested in him, and he runs a transcendental meditation program in Los Angeles.
Now Professor Santiago has rekindled the subject, revealing a hitherto unknown fact about the Anápolis wolf boy. He says that in the psychological exam, the results of which he consulted, it was shown that the patient had a rounded vision of the world and of objects. And, most shockingly of all, in the days immediately following his appearance in Anápolis, he had a chubby, rounded body, according to the accounts of the doctors and functionaries who worked with him in the hospital. Later, once their vision had adjusted, everyone saw him as flat, as is the rule nowadays.
Another shocking revelation made by Professor Santiago is that the "wolf boy" could draw reasonably well with ochre and charcoal, his strokes bringing to mind ancient cave art. Asked to draw anything at all that was linked to his previous life, he drew a coconut palm with a round trunk, loaded with round coconuts! Professor Santiago confirms that he has seen this drawing, but laments that it does not serve as conclusive proof, because after a person looks at it for a few seconds, any sense of contour fades away. Because of the effect of the Ay-Sing Application, one's vision adjusts and what remains on the paper is a mere coconut palm with a flat trunk like any old utility pole on the street, and flat coconuts like those small balloons children force their parents to buy for them in amusement parks. This, by the way, is a comparison made by Santiago himself, who says he had the impression after a few seconds that the coconuts drawn by the "wolf boy" resembled a bunch of balloons that had escaped from the vendor's hand and somehow managed to end up on top of the palm tree.
According to Professor Santiago's theory, then, Earth, along with a great deal of the things that exist on it, continues to be, and always has been, round. [End Page 194] The fact that we perceive it as flat is nothing more than a monumental optical illusion, reinforced by the conditioning of our internal vision—the false perception and the conditioning instilled in people from the moment they are born.
It's a revolutionary theory. If true, it opens up equally revolutionary possibilities. Assuming what was done artificially can be undone, we can dream of the day when people with rounded bodies might inhabit a round Earth as they did before, when each one of them will explore it at their own pace, not caring for so-called feats of arms or ancient heroes, seeing every object as round or in whatever true shape it may have, perhaps even thinking round thoughts. Such a possibility is so intoxicating that it makes one feel quite dizzy.
Unless—and this idea occurs to me only now, under the influence of Emílio Sorensen and Urbano Santiago—Earth really has been round since the dawn of time, and nobody actually sees it as flat. Everyone is merely pretending to believe in general flatness because they are too tired and lazy to contest what has been decreed. [End Page 195]
José J. Veiga (1915–1999) was born in Corumbá de Goiás. After obtaining a law degree in Rio de Janeiro, he worked as a journalist for the BBC in London and the newspaper O Globo. His first novel, Os cavalinhos de Platiplano [The little horses of Platiplano] (1959) won the Fábio Prado Award. In 1997, he received the Machado de Assis Award from the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
1. General Gumercindo Saraiva (1852–1894) commanded rebel troops in the 1894 Federalist rebellion, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, after the proclamation of the modern Brazilian republic. After his death, his body was desecrated.
2. Jocelyn Borba, colonel in the Federalist war.