Fathomless Strangeness of the Ordinary

Stephen Greenblatt

The closest analogues in the West to Borges’s ‘Chinese encyclopedia’, if not its direct source, are the Wunderkammern, strange collections in cabinets that signalled the prestige of many princes and prelates and served as Early Modern tourist attractions. In Borges’s description of the encyclopedia – perhaps the most famous passage in his work, and famously celebrated by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things – we are told that animals are classified as follows: ‘(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.’ The contents of the Wunderkammern are no less striking – coconut-shell goblets, elaborately carved ivory knick-knacks, seashells, bits of coral, antique coins and cameos, stuffed armadillos, geodes and fossils, polished rocks that looked like landscape paintings, unicorn horns, birds of paradise, aberrant fruits and monstrous animals, anamorphic pictures, mechanical ducks that quacked and flapped their wings, Indian featherwork capes, Turkish shoes, barnacle geese that grew on trees in Scotland, mummified hands, dragons’ teeth, ostrich eggs and so on and so forth. They are likely to evoke in us something like the laughter that the passage in Borges aroused in Foucault: a shattering, liberating laughter, ‘breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things’.

This laughter (closely shadowed by the threat of satiety and boredom) is something we can still experience for ourselves at sites that range from the Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden to Ma’Cille’s Museum of Miscellanea near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It depends only in part on the peculiarity of the objects. To be sure, some of them have come to seem absurd or fraudulent or risibly banal. (Among the treasures at Ma’Cille’s is a very large collection of pieces of barbed wire; among the wonders in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s 12th-century Roman de Troie were the magical walls of the Chamber of Beauties where ‘anyone inside can see outside clearly, but no one on the outside can see in, however hard he looks’ – now the standard appurtenance of any police station, bank or Seven-Eleven.) But others, considered singly, still have the power to excite admiration and interest by virtue of their rarity, opulence, strangeness or fine workmanship. It is the concatenation that is comically unsettling, the conjunction of disparate things and heterogeneous categories. The physical arrangement of the Wunderkammern, about which Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park write with great learning, was often calculated to heighten the sense of that heterogeneity, and the objects were typically chosen or fashioned to emphasise category confusion, to exemplify metamorphosis and to produce a dizzying collapse of the distinction between art and nature.

Laughter is not an exclusively modern response to this aesthetic. One can sense it, for example, rippling just below the surface of Christopher Marlowe’s admiring description of Hero’s boots:

Buskins of shells all silvered, usèd she,
And branched with blushing coral to the knee,
Where sparrows perched, of hollow pearl and gold,
Such as the world would wonder to behold;
Those with sweet water oft her handmaid fills,
Which, as she went, would chirrup through the bills.

Seashells were beloved of Renaissance collectors because their intricate designs, functionally inexplicable, seemed to be the work of an ingenious, infinitely playful craftsman. ‘There are to be found in the sea such strange and diverse kinds of shells,’ the French physician Ambroise Paré wrote, ‘that one can say that Nature, chambermaid of great God, plays in fabricating them.’ Typically, the shells were gilded or silvered and then turned into other objects: cups, miniature ships or, in Marlowe’s fantasy, boots further decorated with coral and mechanical sparrows made of conspicuously precious materials and designed, as he puts it deliciously, to ‘chirrup’.

Thomas Nashe characteristically pushes Marlowe’s conceit still further, describing in The Unfortunate Traveller the internal mechanism of a whole forest full of shrill-breasted artificial birds:

Who, though they were bodies without souls, and sweet-resembled substances without sense, yet by the mathematical experiments of long silver pipes secretly inrinded in the entrails of the boughs whereon they sat, and undiscernibly conveyed under their bellies into their small throats sloping, they whistled and freely carolled their natural field note.

‘Freely carolled their natural field note’ is the kind of joke inherent in the Wunderkammer aesthetic, for there is, as Nashe is at pains to insist, nothing either spontaneous or natural about the sylvan concert:

Neither went those silver pipes straight, but, by many-edged, unsundered writhings and crankled wanderings aside, strayed from bough to bough into a hundred throats. But into this silver pipe so writhed and wandering aside, if any demand how the wind was breathed, forsooth the tail of the silver pipe stretched itself into the mouth of a great pair of bellows, where it was close soldered and bailed about with iron, it could not stir or have any vent betwixt. These bellows, with the rising and falling of leaden plummets wound up on a wheel, did beat up and down uncessantly, and so gathered in wind, serving with one blast all the snarled pipes to and fro of one tree at once. But so closely were all those organising implements obscured in the corpulent trunks of the trees that every man there present renounced conjecture of art and said it was done by enchantment.

Laughter here is edging towards cynicism, precisely to the extent that wonder is giving way to an easily gratified curiosity (‘if any demand how the wind was breathed’). Too much knowledge of the hidden machinery empties the experience of enchantment and reduces art itself to a tangle of pipes and blasts of air.

For the relentlessly sceptical Nashe, it is ignorance of the ‘organising implements’ that produces the full awestruck sense of the marvellous: we glimpse in him the beginnings of the spirit of disillusioned mockery that would eventually sweep away the Wunderkammern. Many of his contemporaries, however, remained in the grip of the old passion of wonder; for them laughter, insofar as it was aroused at all by the vision of strange objects, sounded distinctly nervous. After all, like ‘fascination’, ‘glamour’, ‘charm’, and ‘spell-binding’, the term ‘enchantment’ has uneasy links to the demonic or at least to a world unexpectedly and unsettlingly made different and strange.

In a brilliant article on Hieronymus Bosch, published last year in Poetik und Hermeneutik, the art historian Joseph Koerner reminds us that Christian theologians of the Middle Ages used the term ‘contingentia’ to express their sense that the world as we know it is not necessary: their point was not only that it will pass away, but also that everything could have been otherwise. The weirdness of Bosch’s vision is in part at least an expression of this radical contingency, but where in such paintings as The Hay Wain or The Temptation of St Antony the grotesque images are linked to contempt for the world, in the Wunderkammern they are linked to very different things: laughter, as we have already seen, but also (and more often) astonishment, admiration, awe and a kind of dazed submission. For though the German Wunderkammer is often translated as ‘cabinet of curiosities’, the effect of these places is rarely to allow, let alone satisfy, active curiosity. Rather they seem designed to detach wonder from curiosity, discouraging any attempt to resolve the paradoxes and ambiguities on display and encouraging instead a reverential or aesthetic absorption.

Wonders and the Order of Nature uses the Wunderkammer as a key to understanding crucial issues in the history of Western thought and sensibility. Daston and Park observe that the questions raised by the Wunderkammern – ‘What was a work of art and what a work of nature, and how could the naturalist tell? What was wondrous about the mutual emulations of art and nature? And was nature artist or art?’ – undermined ancient ontological categories and thus helped to prepare the way for modern science. In a particularly subtle and persuasive discussion, they show that medieval philosophers adumbrated a category between the natural and the supernatural – a category Daston and Park call the ‘preternatural’ – made up of occurrences that were highly unusual but did not require a suspension of God’s ordinary providence. This intermediate zone of the anomalous and occult, ranging from the properties of the natural world (magnetism, the predictability of celestial apparitions, the therapeutic power of the be-zoar or unicorn horn, and so forth) to the cunning impostures of demons to the power of the vehement imagination to produce hallucinatory ‘vapours’, was a focus of intense speculation. As the dozens of beautiful illustrations in Wonders and the Order of Nature make abundantly clear, the objects assembled in Wunderkammern, sketched by artists and circulated in manuscripts or books, come for the most part from the betwixt and between world of the preternatural and are thus linked to a rich philosophical tradition that includes such figures as the Catalan Ramón Lull, the Frenchman Nicole Oresme and the Italian Giovanni Dondi.

Yet the mode of inquiry inspired by these objects, however canny, wide-ranging and tenacious, seems always to have been held back by invisible intellectual restraints – restraints deriving from the very passion that inspired the act of collecting and inquiring. Although Park and Daston show that the collections look forward in some sense to the rise of natural science, their account demonstrates still more persuasively that they remained linked to one of the earliest and most influential analyses of wonder: that of St Augustine. For Augustine wonder (or at least proper wonder) and curiosity are opposites. Curiosity is a particularly heinous vice: vainglorious astronomers cannot find God, he writes, echoing Seneca, ‘even though with curious skill [curiosa peritia] they number the stars and grains of sand, and measure the starry heavens, and track the courses of the planets’. Wonder, by contrast, is the appropriate expression of awe-struck humility before the omnipotence of God. It is telling that Augustine’s most sustained reflections on wonder (in Book 21 of The City of God) begin with the classic marvels of the salamander and Mount Etna, both of which were believed to burn continually without being consumed. These are not innocent examples, chosen at random, and Augustine’s point is not to encourage research into amphibians or volcanoes. Rather, he wishes to persuade sceptics that the hideous marvel preached by the churchmen is entirely imaginable, even at the level of material existence: God can indeed make bodies burn for ever. Wonder here is the ally of fear.

For Augustine therefore, the experience of wonder should not be limited to the rare or prodigious: since everything created by God was wonderful, it should properly be felt everywhere, compelling reverence and belief. For those most influenced by this view, a cool, disenchanted gaze on the world was potentially a dangerous sign of impiety, and scepticism was the hallmark not of sophisticated intelligence, but of ignorance, the stubborn refusal of narrow and hard-handed peasants to take in the fathomless strangeness of the ordinary.

This was not, however, the only available position: medieval philosophers and theologians influenced by Aristotle sought for the most part to reduce the scope of wonder. The task of the wise man, in the words of a 13th-century text mistakenly attributed to Albertus Magnus, was ‘to make wonders cease’. For them, too great a readiness to marvel at things was the sign of rustic ignorance; gawking credulity was the hallmark of those unable or unwilling to penetrate beneath the glittering surface of the world. How can we reconcile these two views? As Park and Daston make clear, we cannot; nor can we construct a neat chronology in which one account supplants the other. We cannot even chronicle a succession of sharp encounters, clear-eyed recognitions that there was a conflict that needed to be adjudicated. The positions, patiently reconstructed and carefully traced through a bewildering range of major and minor figures, swirl about, occasionally clashing but often coexisting, mutating, criss-crossing, metamorphosing into one another. By its midpoint, Wonders and the Order of Nature itself begins to seem a bit like a Wunderkammer, full of fascinating, highly wrought details but baffling in its apparent disorder, its lack of a clear path through the thicket of monstrous marvels of the intellect.

Park and Daston recognise the risk they are running. Nearly twenty years ago, in a celebrated article on ‘unnatural conceptions’ in Past and Present, they produced a straightforward narrative of progress from prodigies to wonders to naturalised objects of scientific inquiry. But the narrative proved incapable of sustaining the weight of their own subsequent researches, and therefore, as they announce in the preface, ‘we have abandoned a plot of linear, inexorable naturalisation for one of sensibilities that overlapped and recurred like waves.’ The result is a dazzling book that constantly doubles back on itself, repeating and reversing and revising, in a twisted course organised around ontologies and affects. Wonder, as they eloquently insist, has a powerful bearing on the momentous histories of science, technology and art, yet these histories somehow crumble in the course of their analysis, as if the touch of the marvellous made them shimmer and fade like mirages.

What survives the corrosive power of this touch? Not disciplines, not institutions and not even, as we might have expected, a set of isolated individuals. Daston and Park swoop in on figures like Aquinas, Cardano and Montaigne, but they are interested less in particular intellectual careers than in stances towards wonder. Hence, for example, Montaigne is cited principally as someone who ‘repeated many of Augustine’s strictures against curiosity’ and ‘consistently opposed presumptuous curiosity to devout simplicity’. This is true enough, and yet it is surely utterly misleading as an account of Montaigne who was one of the most daringly curious figures in the history of European thought. Daston and Park know this, of course; their concern is not with Montaigne’s achievement, however, but with the status of curiosity among the élite.

For it is the power of the élites that decisively shapes Daston and Park’s history. The prestige of princes and prelates was enhanced by the charismatic charm and sympathetic magic of gemstones and automata; the prestige of intellectuals was enhanced by the portentous mystery and shuddering thrill of comets and monstrous births; the prestige of wealthy burghers was enhanced by the conspicuous value of stuffed crocodiles and rare seashells brought from the other side of the globe. And when this whole massive investment began to decline in the 17th century, the loss of value came about, in Daston and Park’s view, not because of a devastating intellectual challenge but because of a social shift of élite interest and self-definition.

There was, to be sure, a serious intellectual critique of wonder, which Bacon sourly defined as ‘broken knowledge’. He himself and those he inspired remained interested in monsters and anomalies, but the rarity, remoteness, brevity and variability of marvels increasingly marked them as unpromising objects of sustained investigation. Some observers could continue to express reverent awe, in the manner of Augustine, at things exceptional and strange, but even theologians increasingly focused their admiration on the intricate regularity of the universe. Curiosity lost its stigma, and such phenomena as the luminescent veal neck or the fly’s eye aroused systematic investigation rather than pious ejaculations.

By the early 18th century, Daston and Park conclude, ‘the naturalist abandoned open-mouthed wonder for sceptical sangfroid,’ but it was not this Enlightenment shift that destroyed the old culture of the marvellous. As they see it, the interest in the new natural order, the disenchanted regularity of a predictable world governed by immutable laws, simply ‘mirrored the decorum of the new social order’. The consequences of this transformation, however it came about, lie largely outside the scope of Wonders and the Order of Nature, but the way in which Daston and Park sketch out these consequences at the end of their book seems highly problematical. The intellectual élites quietly buried wonder, they argue, just as theologians quietly buried demons as an explanatory principle. The experience of wonder was increasingly attributed to a ‘pathological imagination’ and therefore discarded along with superstition. Yet it is important to recognise that wonder continues to play a significant role in the life of the élites – including the scientific élite – in a way that Lucifer does not. And the sharp division between the imagination and the natural order of things with which Daston and Park close does not seem to correspond to the reality that most of us daily experience. Their epilogue invites us to look for the trace of the old Wunderkammern in the pages of the Weekly World News. But the latest issue of that supermarket rag features a doctored photograph of Hillary Clinton in a bikini, with the headline ‘Slim – Trim Hillary Has Secret New Boyfriend’. Meanwhile, today’s New York Times reports that the director of the National Institutes of Health testified before Congress on the implications of research with human embryonic stem cells. The Republican Senator from Pennsylvania listened and then asked, in muted wonder: ‘Do we have a realistic fountain of youth with this technique?’