This essay by the important Canadian poet, Alden Nowlan, is from his 1978 collection of essays entitled Double Exposure. The Flat Earth Society of Canada, of which Nowlan and Ferrari were founding members, fizzled out in the mid-80‘s but not before Dr. Ferrari finished his manuscript called “The Earth Is Flat : An Exposé of the Globularist Hoax” which now resides in the archives of St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. Dr. Ferrari passed away on October 7, 2010.
THE first time that I saw Leo Ferrari he was pounding his head against a stack of bricks. So violently that I winced. Not only his throat and lungs but his entire body was laughing. The bloody fool is going to fracture his skull, I said to myself. A moment later he hurled himself from his chair and, still laughing thunderously, rolled over and over on the floor. People leapt out of the way to avoid being knocked off their feet. The place was an apartment where a group of university students were having a party, and the bricks were part of a homemade bookcase. Ferrari, who teaches philosophy at Saint Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is one of those rare professors who are invited to student parties. As it turned out, he wasn’t demonstrating karate, and he was neither drunk nor stoned : he abhors drugs and seldom drinks anything stronger than beer, which he makes himself. He was merely amused and, as I’ve since learned, when Leo Ferrari is amused it’s as if he were possessed by the riotous Greek god Dionysus. His isn’t 20th-century laughter ; his body shakes as though in the grip of a mighty external force. If he finds the joke funny enough and if there’s room enough he may do a handspring or stand on his head. “My greatest fear,” he says, “is that some morning I’ll wake up stark, raving sane.”
¶ Let me explain at once that Leo Ferrari is not one of those boring amateur clowns whom cartoonists depict with lampshades on their heads. He’s a serious man, even a sad man, to whom laughter is both a personal and a social therapy. In his vocabulary, “sanity” denotes a dreary, sterile state of mind, a narrowly rationalistic outlook.
¶ He has expressed his philosophy of madness in one of the little epigrammatic poems that he jots down from time to time. It has been suggested (by me, as a matter of fact) that he has invented a new verse form, the ferrarigram. He’s published a collection of these ferrarigrams under the title, The Worms Revenge. Characteristically, he not only wrote but illustrated, designed, published, printed and distributed the book himself.
The ones that are born mad
They lock up.
The ones that go mad on the way
They pick up.
But the ones that go calculatingly mad –
They are the hard ones to catch.
¶ Ferrari’s calculated madness hasn’t prevented his establishing an international reputation among scholars as an authority on St. Augustine, the fifth-century bishop, a philosopher and doctor of the Church. “My favorite books are St. Augustine’s Confessions and A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.” He has contributed articles to learned journals throughout the world and is at work on a book-length study of St. Augustine, The Grieving Tree. Nor has it prevented his raising three children and participating in community affairs. He has written three books on racial discrimination for the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, served as chairman of a school board, been president of his local home and school association, and was a co-founder of the Save a Family Plan, devoted to helping poor families in India. He has been an active member of Lions International. But he’s determined not to become merely another suburbanite professor, middle-aged and middle-class. Leo Ferrari is nobody’s man, not even the 20th century’s. That’s proved by the fact that he is international president of the Flat Earth Society, which maintains the world is certainly flat and may possibly be square.
¶ The Flat Earth Society? You must be joking! They can’t be serious. They’re either a bunch of kooks or it’s just a spoof. Who does this guy Ferrari think he’s kidding? The world is round. Everybody knows that.
¶ “Of course, everybody knows that,” Ferrari says. “But how do they know it? They know it because they’ve been told that it’s so. The average man can’t advance a single reason for believing that the world is round. He accepts that theory on blind faith and rejects the evidence of his own senses. We of the Flat Earth Society have elected to dispute the one premise that our scientific Western civilization regards as indisputable. Nowadays if you say that God is dead, the general reaction is “so what?” but if you say that the earth is flat, then God help you. Even in the days of its greatest power, the Church was more tolerant than our modern scientific establishment. The Church at least allowed for one dissenting viewpoint : the devil’s.”
¶ The Flat Earth Society could be described as a serious organization whose members don’t take themselves seriously. It has about 100 members in Canada, the United States and Europe. “We could easily have 10 times as many, Ferrari says, “but we’re selective.” Applicants aren’t accepted until they’ve produced an essay giving their reasons for believing the earth to be flat. Members include writer Farley Mowat, television personality Paul Soles, poet-novelist Gwendolyn MacEwan, American detective story writer Lawrence Bloch, novelist Raymond Fraser, poet John Newlove, plus computer scientists, university administrators, lawyers, physicians, a professional geographer and a professional astronomer. A geographer and an astronomer? “Right,” says Ferrari, “and we’ve also got a couple of merchant seaman – these are people who realize that their particular profession doesn’t have all the answers.” Tracts are issued periodically with titles such as “The Age of Exploration : A Globularist Hoax,” “Newton’s Nonsense,” “The Death of Theology Through the Birth of the Globularist Heresy,” and “Globularism and Racialism, Twin Evils”. To Flat Earthers, those who maintain that the earth is a sphere are globularists; they call themselves planoterrestrialists or geoplanarians. “And the dupes of the globularists we call globsymps,” says Ferrari, with his Dionysian laugh.
¶ Just as St. Paul began by persecuting the Christians, so the international president of the Flat Earth Society began as a professional scientist. For seven years, Ferrari worked as an industrial chemist in Australia, where he was born 46 years ago. “Gradually, I came to realize that science is only one of the many windows through which we can look at the universe, and a very small, murky window at that.”
¶ He began to study medieval philosophy at night. “As a child I’d been fascinated by the stories of the saints. I even dreamed of growing up to be a martyr. It was natural for me to become interested in people like St. Thomas & St. Augustine when I became a man.” But he found he couldn’t get a degree in philosophy in Australia. His educational background was wrong, they told him : he was a Bachelor of Science when he ought to have been a Bachelor of Arts. “I wrote to universities all over the world and at last Laval University accepted me.” He came to Canada in 1955 and is now a Canadian citizen. “Growing up in Australia was the perfect training for a president of the Flat Earth Society : I know from personal experience that Australian people don’t spend their lives upside down, as they would do if the world were really globular.” During his three years in Quebec city at Laval University he not only obtained his degree in philosophy but learned French and Latin and at the same time held down a job as a chemist in a distillery. “That was a tough schedule; it almost drove me sane.”
¶ For the next four years he taught at a girls’ college in Halifax. “teachers’ salaries were meagre in those days, so I looked around for a second job.” He became butler to Cyrus Eaton, the Nova Scotia-born American multimillionaire who was then spending the summer at Pugwash. “I liked the work, the Eatons were charming people and it was pleasantly mad to go on picnics and boat rides in a white tie and tails, but the school felt that I’d disgraced it by moonlighting as a domestic servant.” In 1961 he joined the department of philosophy of St. Thomas University, then at Chatham, New Brunswick, and now in Fredericton.
¶ Ferrari has never been one to stand on his professional dignity. Several years ago when enrollment in one of his courses had fallen so low that the administration was threatening to cancel it, he had handbills printed and passed them out around the campus. Designed to resemble an advertisement for a drive-in movie, they described medieval philosophy as The Greatest Show On Earth, crammed with sex and violence, thrills and spills and with a cast of millions. Enrollment soared. The course stayed on the calendar. Undignified? Once more he laughs like the great god Pan. “I reckon it was, but I think most of those students learned something once I got them into the classroom.” Ferrari takes neither himself nor the academic system seriously, but he is deadly serious about the subject he teaches—a paradox that occasionally has come as an unpleasant surprise to students who have expected him to laugh with them at their inferior or unfinished work.
¶ The Flat Earth Society conducts most of its business through the mails, because its membership is so widely dispersed. Besides issuing tracks, the society publishes a mimeographed newsletter. “We couldn’t think of a suitable name for our official organ, so that’s what we called it, The Official Organ.” Ferrari and other planoterrestrialists regularly distribute Flat Earth literature at meetings of the staid and scholarly Learned Societies of Canada. He has given lectures on planoterrestrialism from St. John’s to Santa Cruz, California. His audiences have included conventions of airline stewardesses (he gave them advice as how to calm passengers when the plane flew near the edge of the earth) and professional surveyors: “They were a great audience because much of their work is based on the assumption that the earth is flat; several of them joined the society after hearing me speak.
¶ Ferrari insists that it’s “the globularists who defy common sense. They tell us that we’re clinging to a ball that’s spinning through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. The burden of proof ought to rest with them, rather than with us.” But when arguments are demanded, Ferrari is not slow to provide them. “Take that old chestnut about the ship disappearing over the horizon. Has anyone ever watched a ship disappear below the horizon? I doubt it. Also, Einstein’s theory of the bending of light rays in a gravitational field would indicate that the light rays from the lower part of the ship would naturally sink into the sea first, simply because they were at a lower level to start with.”
¶ But isn’t he being inconsistent in quoting Einstein, the father of modern science? “Not at all; we don’t say that science is completely untrue—we merely say that it isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What’s true for the scientist may not be true for the man in the street. The scientists may be right when they say that matter is actually pulsating energy, but if you break an arms or a leg that consists of pulsating energy it will hurt just as much as if it were truly solid.
¶ But what about the pictures taken from outer space by the astronauts? “How do we know they were genuine? We saw it on television. Of course. But we also saw The Flying Nun on television. Star Trek looks infinitely more authentic than those shots of the alleged moon landing. Some of our members believe that the whole stunt was faked, possibly in Newfoundland. In the light of Watergate, that’s certainly not unthinkable. But assuming that the pictures are genuine, they didn’t show a globular earth, they showed a circular one, and there’s no reason why the earth couldn’t be both circular and flat. Furthermore, to refer to Einstein again, if his theory of the curvature of space is correct, a square object photographed from space would appear to be circular.”
¶ The Flat Earth Society claims that the globular theory fosters racism. “Even assuming for the sake of argument that the earth is shaped like a globe, there would be no ‘up’ and no ‘down’ in space, yet the globe always depicts Europe and North America as being on the top and Third World countries on the bottom. Surely that’s a form of discrimination. The Flat Earth Society would put everyone on the same level.”
¶ For years there existed a British Flat Earth Research Society, its sympathizers including George Bernard Shaw, who said that the average man can advance not a single reason for thinking that the earth is round, he merely swallows this theory because there is something about it that appeals to the twentieth century mentality. Another quotation popular among Flat Earthers is Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s “A man should always question the strongest convictions of his age, for those convictions are invariably too strong.”
¶ The official aims of the Society are threefold :
1. To restore man’s confidence in the validity of his own perceptions. For more than fifteen hundred years man has been blinded by metaphysics and coerced into denying the evidence of his sense. The Flat Earth Society stands for a renewed faith in the veracity of sense experience.
2. To combat the fallacious deification of the sphere which, ever since Galileo dramatized the heresies of Copernicus, has thwarted Western thought.
3. To spearhead man’s escape from his metaphysical and geometrical prison by asserting unequivocally that all science, like all philosophy and all religion, is essentially sacramental and, therefore, all reality, as man verbalizes it, is ultimately metaphorical.
¶ Ferrari is proud of his descent from a 19th-century Italian revolutionary, Giovanni Batista Ferrari. “He had the choice of the firing squad or Australia and he chose Austr-alia.” But he doesn’t think of himself as a rebel. “Politically, I’m an agnostic; I agree with old Dr. Johnson—‘how small of all that human hearts endure, that part which kings or laws can cause or cure.’ But I think it’s tragic that human beings have lost touch with the earth and the infinite mysteries.” On an impulse he once rode all day on a train to attend a service at a Russian Orthodox Church. “It was magnificent: I didn’t understand a word they were saying. I just stood there and absorbed the beauty and wonder of it, the chanting, the candles, the incense. Our civilization is obsessed with the desire to explain everything. Mankind was happier when it was prepared to makes its peace with the unknown.
¶ In 1966 Ferrari won a Canada Council fellowship which took him to Europe for further research in medieval philosophy. “I spent a lot of time in the British Museum, a marvelous place: all the readers are completely mad.” Three years later another fellowship allowed him to take a total immersion course in German at the Goethe Institute in Bavaria. “In almost every little Bavarian village there’s an inn containing a tavern right next to the church. I love the symbolism in that.” . . .