Jonathan Rée

  • Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen by Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak
    Getty, 416 pp, £30.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 89236 590 0
  • The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson
    Harvard, 350 pp, £20.50, February 2002, ISBN 0 674 00630 5
  • Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood
    Faber, 278 pp, £12.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 571 17879 0

Descartes’s Meditations tells the story of six days in the life of a rather self-important, busy young man who has granted himself a short sabbatical. Quite a few years have passed, he says, since he decided to take this meditative mini-break, and now at last he has cleared a whole week to spend in an isolated house with only his thoughts and memories for company. He is planning to retrace the steps of his intellectual development since childhood, and then start rebuilding his mental world from scratch. A fire is burning quietly in the stove, pen and paper lie within easy reach, and beeswax candles are giving out their soft glow.

Our would-be meditator has already drafted a few confessional lines to get himself started, when all of a sudden he feels a sense of foreboding. We are not told quite why, but perhaps he has a premonition of the boot-camp rigours that Descartes has in store for him – the ferocious doubts, and the terrifying speculations about God, freedom and the soul that will have to be endured before he wins through to the intellectual security he longs for. Maybe he also foresees that he is never going to get back to the comfortable truths on which he has relied in the past: once the week is over, he will have renounced the heart-warming inconsequentialities of folk wisdom and empirical common sense. In their place he will only find a chill inhuman world containing nothing except inert material particles moving around in accordance with the mathematical principles of the new physics.

Whatever the reason, Descartes’s hero throws a small tantrum before his meditations even begin. He is simply not prepared to withdraw his trust from the ideas he has picked up over the years from his senses. They may not be perfectly systematic or ideally precise, and he knows they have sometimes misled him; but he sees no point in supposing that his entire experience of the world might be shot through with vanity and delusion. He tries to reassure himself by recalling a few ludicrously simple truths that no one could ever take away from him – ‘the fact that I am here, for example, sitting by the fire in my cloak with a piece of paper in my hands . . . and that these are my hands, and this is my body.’ Of course he has heard plenty of stories about crazed melancholics who convince themselves that they are kings and queens, but he is not going to waste his time worrying about them, or about the brain-damaged lunatics who imagine their bodies are made of pottery or glass. ‘Such people are demented,’ he says, ‘and I would surely be losing my own mind if I took them as a model or exemplum that might be applied to me.’

It is a transparent literary set-up. You obviously don’t have to be sane in order to be firmly convinced of your sanity, and you would have to be really far gone to deny absolutely that you might be mad. Descartes has deliberately led his meditator into a circular logical folly. There is subtle method, moreover, in his glancing allusion to the possibility that we might be made of pottery and glass rather than flesh and blood. Projects for artificial human bodies were in the air at the time (Meditations was published in 1641) and the idea of a pottery body would not have seemed terribly far-fetched to Descartes and his mathematically-minded friends.

They would have been well aware of the first-century inventor Hero of Alexandria, whose treatises on Pneumatica and Automata had been translated and widely disseminated in the 16th century, complete with diagrams of automatic theatres in which the actions of puppets and even elaborate scene changes were controlled by dozens of separate threads wound round a central rotating axle. They would also have known about the water-driven automata in human form that Montaigne had observed in Augsburg, Florence and Rome in the early 1580s. Descartes himself had probably inspected the hydraulic Neptunes and Dianas in the grottoes of the royal gardens at Fontainebleau and Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He was intrigued, though unpersuaded, by reports of a humanoid head that could automatically recite the entire Paternoster.

Descartes had a special fondness for clockwork, and possessed a fine wall-clock of his own. He greatly admired the ornate clock at Strasbourg with its automatic crowing cockerel, and when he explored the hypothesis that ‘the body is nothing but a statue or an earthenware machine’ in his early manuscript On Man, his main conclusion was that human actions are, from a physical point of view, no more mysterious than the workings of an intricate clock. He saw no reason, as he put it in the Discourse on Method in 1637, to think that the human body had any powers beyond those of the marvellous ‘self-moving machines or automata that can be made by human ingenuity’. The late treatise on the Passions rests entirely on the assumption that the body is a ‘machine’. Even the truculent hero of the Meditations will emerge from his week of arduous self-examination as a convert to the idea that a healthy human body functions like a ‘well-made clock’.

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[*] Wood’s inquiries are extended and rounded out in Tom Standage’s delightful The Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World (Allen Lane, 288 pp., £12.99, 25 April, 0 713 99525 4).