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’.

The main point of all this business about clockwork and physiology was to shake up the practice of medicine by suggesting that there is no disease of the human body that cannot be fixed by timely mechanical repair. Descartes was convinced that occasional remedial engineering could keep any decent body ticking away far longer than its allotted Biblical span. Although his hair went grey when he was 40 he still hoped to astound the world and vindicate his medical opinions by living to a spectacularly old age. When he fell ill at the beginning of 1650 while staying at Queen Christina’s Court in Stockholm, he thought he could cure himself with a brisk emetic followed by a stimulating extract of tobacco and wine – an over-confident act of self-medication, as it turned out, which was quickly followed by an apoplectic stroke, and shortly afterwards by death at the comparatively unripe age of 53. The cool young Queen was rather amused by the misfortune that befell her hired philosopher: ‘ses oracles l’ont bien trompé,’ she remarked. If the historians are right to call Descartes the father of modern philosophy, then perhaps the intellectual foundations of modernity rest on a metaphysic of over-optimistic DIY.

The earliest biography of Descartes revealed that the famous loner had fathered an illegitimate daughter called Francine, who died in 1640 at the age of five. The child was apparently the only creature he ever loved, but by 1700 rumours were appearing in print saying that she was really a machine – ‘an automat that he made for himself with the greatest care’ – and that he carried her with him wherever he went in a special hardwood case. The philosopher’s mysterious luggage with its lavish satin lining naturally aroused suspicions, and one night when he was at sea the ship’s captain stole into his cabin and furtively opened the box. Francine-machine immediately sprang into life and after a struggle the terrified captain manhandled her overboard, convinced she was the work of the devil. From that day on the philosopher looked on the world with a darkened eye.

The story of Descartes and his clockwork nymphette was to be improved with frequent retelling, and she was eventually transfigured from mechanical toy to fiery angel. She was ‘infinitely loving and beautiful’, in the words of Anatole France, and offered ‘unions of inconceivable delight’ to the genuine seeker after truth. After being thrown into the sea, according to the Rôtisserie de la Reine Pédauque, the salamander Francine sped back to the clouds to await her master’s return.

One way and another, mechanical dolls have hosts of symbolic free-riders clinging onto them. Descartes himself hoped, by comparing automata with human beings, to home in on some special factor that sets us apart from mere machines or animals. He aimed to isolate a strand of our existence that cannot be analysed into mere physical movements, bodily sensations or crude emotions, and, as every student knows, he identified this irreducible element with pure mentality, or rather ‘cogitation’: in other words, the ability to conceptualise, to utter and understand languages, and above all to reason and compute.

Times have changed since then: programmers and software designers have overtaken watchmakers and puppeteers as replicators of human powers, and it is our idiosyncrasies of feeling and sensibility rather than our feats of ratiocination that are seen as setting the greatest challenges to their ingenuity. Today, the word ‘computer’ makes us think of machines rather than people, and no one turns a hair at the idea that universal principles of cogitation might be enacted by purely physical processes. If we want to find a specific difference between ourselves and other machines we are more likely to think of stupidity and inconstancy than the operations of pure reason – ‘human error’, as it is familiarly called, rather than number-crunching brainpower.

The evolution of mechanical dolls is a remarkable story in itself. It appears to have mimicked the development of human self-conceit, only in reverse: from one generation to the next we have been content to become sillier and sillier while our mechanical counterparts have grown progressively cleverer. Androids are not what they used to be, and if you draw a line starting with hydraulic nymphs in Baroque grottoes and ending with robocops and action men in a 20th-century child’s bedroom it will be easy to detect a trend from seductive charm to impassive cruelty. Unlike Descartes and his friends we are happier with artificial intelligence than artificial emotion.

The history of human lifealikes is a difficult matter, however – not least because of a shortage of palpable evidence. The word ‘android’ has outlived the fads which launched it into circulation early in the 18th century, but the machines it referred to have mostly disappeared, worn out by the commercial imperatives of constant public performance. Anyone who visited the recent Devices of Wonder exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles will have seen a good sample of the surviving relics, and the rest of us can get some impression of them from the Getty website and the exhaustive catalogue, with lavish illustrations and meticulous curatorial notes by Frances Terpak. Terpak has left it to her culturalist colleagues to philosophise about epiphany, synaesthesia, cyberspace, the destabilised world order etc, while she describes the objects in the show. Her discussion of automata opens with a 17th-century engraving that lays bare the workings of a fountain where Galatea pirouetted on a sea-shell while a frustrated Polyphemus played on his pipes. She also describes some of the musical automata built by Jacques de Vaucanson in the 1730s. Audiences were impressed by their musicianship at the time, but since no examples have survived the goal is left open for today’s grumpy technosceptics: did the mechanical drummer-boy have a springy sense of rhythm, we wonder, and could the clockwork flautist really blow life into a flute through dry wooden lips and a mobile metal tongue?

The Getty display included one precious 18th-century automaton in excellent working order: a metre-high machine featuring a cute little quill clasped by a miniature silver hand. When you wind it up, it spends four laborious minutes writing out a Latin formula petitioning God for leisure and material prosperity, which seems a pertinent request under the circumstances. Getty’s star exhibit was a six-foot-high ‘android clarinettist’ dating from 1838. The naked manikin looks a little undignified without his instrument or his troubadour trousers, but he dominated the show with his commanding glance, and doubles as a clickable gallery assistant when you drop in at the virtual exhibition on the Web.

The catalogue quotes a contemporary report in which the automatic virtuoso sucks his mouthpiece, gives a nod to his accompanist at the piano, and tootles through elaborate passages of Weber and Beethoven in a ‘graceful, lifelike manner’. At this point doubters will help themselves to another grain of salt; and indeed I have just heard from the clarinettist’s owner, the Los Angeles collector and inventor John Gaughan, that the android’s performance was not quite what it seemed, though it was nonetheless impressive. His instrument was sealed at both ends and air was blown into it not through his mouth but through his thumb. Each of the 32 keys controlled a brass reed rather like those used in accordions or mouth organs, and they were operated by his fingers, which moved up and down as well as back and forth. ‘He is one of the few examples in the history of automata,’ as Gaughan says, ‘that actually plays the instrument rather than the sound coming from a music box within the body and the fingers just moving about.’

But what matters, as Descartes knew, is not the dolls themselves so much as the tales we weave around them. These doll-stories form the topic of Victoria Nelson’s pioneering and wide-ranging book The Secret Life of Puppets. Nelson has Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft rubbing shoulders with Kafka and Bruno Schulz, and Will Self and Lars von Trier with Carrington and Anna Kavan, as well as St Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Philip K. Dick, Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien. Her cast of ‘imagined puppets’ ranges from the entertainers in Ben Jonson’s Bartholemew Fair, through E.T.A. Hoffmann’s weird Olympia to Karel Capek’s robots, and such lower forms of life as Pinocchio, Superman, Batman and Spiderman. It’s going to be some party, but Nelson also has an axe to grind.

Her contention is that a literary interest in puppets expresses covert ‘idolatry’ or even an ‘unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul’. You would have thought it might equally mean the opposite – for example, a fascination with the notion that we are nothing more than marionettes – but rather than teasing out the ambiguities, Nelson smothers them in a lively but somewhat repetitive commentary on the spiritual predicament of modernity and the West. (Her previous books include On Writer’s Block, which counsels against obsessive authorial revision, and in The Secret Life of Puppets she seems to have heeded her own advice.) The rot began in the 17th century, she thinks, when Protestantism (which she associates, incredibly, with Aristotle and a ‘strictly materialist episteme’) tried to annihilate the ‘Neoplatonic’ spiritual world of gnosis, epiphany and synaesthesia. But the victory of Western materialism was an illusion, apparently, and our spiritual side simply withdrew for a while to a domain of ‘low-level discourse on intellectually forbidden subjects’ which she calls ‘the sub-Zeitgeist’. It may be an exaggeration to say that spirituality has been officially proscribed in the West for the past three hundred years, but Nelson thinks that a great ‘Zeitgeist rollover’ began when West Coast hippies rediscovered religion in the 1960s. The rollover accelerated with the proliferation of spooky popular fiction, scary cult movies and out-of-control information technology, to reach its ultimate crisis in ‘our uncertain millennial age’. She admits that ‘the old worldview’ may have been disfigured by certain ‘ontological pitfalls’, but feels sure that negative stereotypes about ‘outer skin colour’ and ‘the disabled body’ have by now been effectively expunged. It does not occur to her that there might be other reasons for resisting a Fin de Millennium revival of archaic spirituality, so she expects us all to sit back and welcome an age in which Virtual Reality and the World Wide Web have ‘single-handedly moved the dormant Platonic sensibility in Western culture from its exile in the sub-Zeitgeist back into the mainstream’.

The human side of Gaby Wood’s graceful account of puppets and toy stories is supplied by ‘Tiny’ Schneider, on whom Wood pays a visit in her Florida mobile home. Tiny is the last survivor of four siblings who never grew to much more than three feet in height, and left their native Dresden in the 1920s to form a troupe of circus midgets in the United States, where they changed their name, rather creepily, to Doll. Wood also takes good care of the mechanical side of the story, providing unrivalled accounts of individual automata such as Vaucanson’s flute-player, and a wonderful description of Thomas Edison’s hopeless attempts at marketing a ‘talking doll’ with a wind-up phonograph in her tummy.

A particularly good chapter reconstructs the history of a celebrated but controversial automaton known as the Turkish Chess-Player.[*] He was built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1769, and consisted of a life-size upper body attached to a plinth housing some complicated clockwork and a large rotating drum. As well as expressing his passions by nodding his head, rolling his eyes and shaking his right arm, the clever Turk could pick up the pieces on a chessboard and move them with his left hand; and when he played, he performed with such preternatural skill that he saw off even the most illustrious challengers. Catherine the Great was once caught trying to cheat against him, while Napoleon had the good sense to concede defeat. To all appearances, Kempelen’s Turk was, to use a contemporary phrase, a thinking machine, exhibiting flexible and original conceptual thought: he was a palpable demonstration, if not a living proof, that Descartes got it wrong. On the whole, however, the audiences who came to watch the Turk at work did not worry too much about metaphysics: they parted with their entrance fee not for the sake of enlightenment but, as Richard Altick once put it, out of a simple – no doubt very human – ‘desire to be baffled’.

The bafflement was sustained on both sides of the Atlantic for more than sixty years, but in the 1830s it was revealed that Kempelen and later proprietors of the skilful Turk had simply hired the greatest chess masters of their time and persuaded them to act as ‘directors’ of his movements. Audiences were hoodwinked partly because they wanted to be, but partly because they realised that no one in their right mind would be prepared to become a director, combining brilliant insight into the game with a willingness to twist and squeeze themselves into the crooked spaces between the rods and levers in Kempelen’s plinth. ‘If the automaton set a philosophical problem for those who contemplated it,’ Wood observes, ‘it could also be said to have set a psychological problem for those who inhabited it.’

The Turk’s directors were perhaps the first true anti-Cartesians, more interested in reducing their own lives to automatism than in bringing the automaton to life. When Descartes suggested that our bodies are nothing but mechanical contrivances, assisted where necessary by cogitating souls, he assumed that none of us would want to identify with our physical as opposed to our spiritual half. It did not occur to him that some of us might prefer the raptures of bodily automatism to the anguish of spiritual self-possession. Apparently he had never encountered people like the directors of the Turkish Chess-Player, who desired nothing so much as the chance to be lost from public view inside an infernal machine.

Wood writes with a crisp and witty scepticism, except when she gives her version of the tale of Descartes and his mechanical doll, and follows it by saying: it is ‘hard to know if this story is true’. The story is in fact so improbable, so late, and so poorly attested that it is easy to be sure it is false. It may of course be none the worse for that: it could, to use a phrase of John Stuart Mill, be ‘better than true’.

The same might be said of another hoary Cartesian fable, first related in a book called Voyage to the World of Cartesius, written in 1692 by a French Jesuit called Gabriel Daniel and translated into English not long afterwards. Daniel and a few companions are making an interplanetary tour which includes home visits to some of the great dead philosophers in their strange imaginary worlds. Inevitably, the tourists take in the Island of Aristotle on the Sea of Cold, and then press on to a town called Plato, which is said to be the perfect commonwealth though it is hard to tell as you would have to spend 14 years in quarantine before being allowed in. Another highlight is the chance to relax with the whimsical Irishry of John Duns Scotus, surrounded as he is by a swirling cloud composed of – well, it’s hard to say what they are, for they are really mere nothings, wispy formalities, it seems, but as lithe and pretty and slender as a fellow could hope to encounter.

No one Daniel meets during his travels has a good word to say about Descartes, who is now wandering alone at the edge of the Universe absorbed in joyless games with vortices. If he is miserable and slightly deranged, the reason may well lie in the curious manner of his death, as reported to Daniel by one of his last surviving friends. The story goes back to an occasion when Descartes, idly experimenting on himself in his little house in Egmond, discovers the precise amount of snuff required to dissociate his cogitative soul from the machinery of his body. Soon he has developed a regular habit of parking his body in his private chamber while he and his mind rush off to their old haunts in Brittany and Paris or anywhere else that takes their fancy. One forlorn winter night when he was staying at Queen Christina’s Court, feeling lonely and sorely affected by the Nordic cold, he was pleased to find that ‘his Soul had a Mind to take a little Turn for Recreation-sake.’ So Descartes’s mortal machine was left tucked up in bed while its owners went off to look for a good time. They were forgetting, however, that there is no such thing as privacy in a royal palace. A physician who looked in around midnight diagnosed a severe case of delirium and set about cupping and bleeding the absent-minded patient. He failed, of course; and anyone who has had their car or bicycle trashed will know how Descartes and his soul must have felt on getting back from their carefree nocturnal jaunt and finding their reliable old vehicle reduced to a heap of useless wreckage. They make a valiant effort to look on the bright side: life will be ‘incomparably better out than in the Body’, they say; but no one could be persuaded by their optimism. It is an ‘unlucky circumstance’, as Daniel sagely remarks. Persons proposing to consort with puppets should first check that their own heads are screwed on.

[*] 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).