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:

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