The Chemistry of Tears

The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

The “Canard Digérateur,” or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

I recently read Peter Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. What drew my attention was the automaton at the heart of the story. Automatons, puppets, magicians and dolls fascinate me, as they have the fiction writer Stephen Millhauser, who has devoted a great deal of prose to them (the movie The Illusionist is based on one of his stories). A few years ago, I read Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by British journalist Gaby Wood. It is a cultural account of the history of robotics, from ingenious inventions to outlandish hoaxes, including observations on film and cinema and a talking doll invented by Edison. It also goes a bit off-topic in its chronicle of the Doll Family, a group of circus midgets (or living dolls) who toured in a circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz. The popularity of the fantasy life of hobbits comes to mind as well.

The German poet Heinrich von Kleist wrote eloquently about the poignancy of artifice in his famous essay “About Marionettes”:

“ ‘ We have seen that in proportion as reflection dims and weakens in the organic world the more radiant and commanding grace emerges. As the line which intersects another will continue through infinity only to find itself back before its starting point, on the other side of the line intersected, and the concave mirror after casting an image through infinity suddenly displays it immediately before us, just so knowledge must traverse an infinity before grace reappears. And for this reason grace is greatest in those whose bodies are totally devoid of self-consciousness or where it is infinite, that is, in the mannequin or the god.’ ”

Rainer Maria Rilke was famously disquieted by dolls. (“Are we not strange creatures to let ourselves go and indeed to place our earliest affections where they remain hopeless?”) For Baudelaire, toys were pathways to imagination and art.

In Carey’s braided novel, the heroine Catherine Gehrig, an horologist at the Swinburne museum in England, is tasked with restoring a 19th century duck (which winds up becoming a swan) that was originally commissioned by a wealthy Englishman named Henry Brandling, who travels to Germany in search of an artisan who can reconstruct the original plan invented by M. Vaucanson (such a duck by such a personage actually existed). The duck is meant as a gift for his consumptive son. Brandling magically believes the project will ensure his son’s mortality. The narrative is braided between Catherine’s raging grief over the death of her long-time married lover, a fellow conservator at the museum, and colorful excerpts from Brandling’s journals. The name Brandling sumptuously evokes “candling” and “brandy,” a name perfect for a patron who sets in motion (animates) an exploration into the mysterious territories of life, love and illusion.

It is thrilling novel; sadly the descriptions of the relationship between Catherine and her recently deceased love, Matthew, a coupling that runs like an artery through the narrative, ring false, and is the novel’s greatest flaw. The 13-year tryst is meant to evoke the heights of passion, a once-in-a-lifetime, soul-mate bonding. Unfortunately, the cloying renderings of this great love sound adolescent at best. Perhaps such Edenic renderings are meant to express how love is another kind of illusion, but in this context they sound hopelessly naïve and sadly unrealistic, somewhat dulling the power of the story.

Still, the tale compelled me. There is something both sacrilegious and riveting about the animation of inanimate objects, the melding of art, science and craftsmanship reflected in clocks, puppets and automatons, not to mention computers and robots. This theme is echoed in The Chemistry of Tears, with its occasional hints of the dark side of inventive genius – the internal combustion engine, for example, which has meant liberation of one kind, destruction of another. The book is framed against the backdrop of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (“an ‘accident’ that seemed the end of history itself.’ ”). A lesser but notable exegesis can be made of the ways in which bureaucracies are infiltrated by personal emotions and agendas.

An aside, excerpted from Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, published in 1948: “At every stage of technique…the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and study automata has always been expressed in the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the rabbi of Prague breathed life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes the clockwork music box, with the little effigies pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton opens doors by means of photocells, (see intelligent building) or points guns to the place at which a radar beam picks up an airplane, or computes the solution of a differential equation.” Weinder is widely regarded as the originator of cybernetics:

Back to the novel. Cat’s assistant, Amanda, is brilliant, and somewhat insane (or is she?), as a result of dabbling in these confluences of science, magic and technology. “Lucifer is very beautiful,” she observes. Add an obsessive 19th century genius named Sumper and a child-prodigy named Carl (who may or may not be Karl Benz, the German engineer who invented the world’s first practical automobile), and you have a rousing tale combined with a philosophical meditation on the nature of the universe:

“I saw below me lakes and seas on the surface of which I beheld living beings which I cannot properly describe. They had systems for locomotion similar to those of the sea horse. They moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes, which they used as wings.”

“You are wholly unable to associate what you see with what your life has taught you.”

And best of all: “Those beings who are before you now, who appear to you almost as imperfect as the lowly zoophytes, have a sphere of sensibility and intellect far superior to the inhabitants of this earth.”

“. . . there were mechanisms beyond human knowledge. . . systems we could never know, worlds we had seen and forgotten. If animals possessed senses of a different nature from our own, how would we know? Those creatures, despised by us, might have sources of information we cannot dream exist.”

Modern instruments of technology such as the Mac, the thumb drive, digital photography, MP3 files, and a “Frankenpod” are contrasted with the riveting of seven hundred pieces of metal into five chains that animate the swan. The final motto (of the commission, the restoration, and the novel itself), inscribed in Latin on the swan’s silver beak, is, fittingly, “Illud aspicis non vides: You cannot see what you see.” How does technology improve or impair us? What have we sacrificed to achieve it? It is timely to read and write of these things, especially given the recent viral obsession with the latest end-of-the-world prophesy. The truth is that the world begins and ends every day. Therein lies our tragedy, and our hope.

Automaton Writing a Letter in the Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d'Art)

“Automaton Writing a Letter,” Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), 

A Child’s Christmas In Wales

Child'sXmasinWalesCoverA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is a deep exercise in nostalgia, one of the great evocations of childhood as idyll.  Originally inspired by a sketch written for the BBC in 1945 called “Memories of Christmas,” five years later Thomas expanded it, incorporating some sections of a 1947 essay, which resulted in its current form, published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950.  During his 1952 tour of America, while staying at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, he was approached by two recent graduates who believed there was a market for recorded poetry.  Unable to find backers, the two women funded the project themselves, under their new company, Caedmon Audio.  Thomas appeared drunk and unprepared for the reading, but over time the record became popular, and is credited with launching the audiobook industry.  A Child’s Christmas in Wales became one of Thomas’ most popular works.

Last weekend I heard the book read aloud by Abraham Schechter in the cozy library of the Irish Heritage Center in Portland.  Abraham is a photographer, poet, speculator and librarian who maintains a picturesque and thoughtful blog called La Vie Graphite.  It was delightful, and authentic Welsh pastries were served.  The presentation included Abraham singing a lovely Welsh lullaby, accompanied by guitar, and a slideshow of Abraham’s trip to Wales, where he and his wife had the good fortune to stay in Dylan Thomas’ house.  Happily, Abraham is the kind of writer who brings his own portable typewriter with him on a trip to Wales.

I am enthralled by Dylan’s poetry, which resonates throughout this short fictional memoir, rescuing it from schmaltz through such airborne passages as:

“Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.”


Hearing the work read aloud brought the rhythms and descriptiveness into rich and pleasurable focus.  As new snow billowed through the frozen air outside the historic church, the past and present merged and blurred as we sat quietly receiving a great gift of  imagination and artistry, transmitted across the decades to us.

“And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers.”


Everything Is a Mirror

Organic Fractal by Sven Geier

Organic, an original fractal by Sven Geier

Everything Is a Mirror was the title of the “Night Owl” adult workshop I attended this week at the Telling Room. Subtitled “Nonfiction and the Art of Interpretation,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Instructor Jaed Coffin turned out to be a great teacher, full of energy and ideas. Although the workshop was targeted to memoir and nonfiction, most of the ideas were applicable to fiction as well, and since I am interested in essay writing, criticism and journalism, besides fiction and poetry, it sounded interesting. And it was.

I have been to a small slew of creative writing workshops, and a lot of them feature a published author, writing prompts, writing time, and some relatively gentle critiquing. I’ve always found them valuable for the interactions, insights and motivational aspects, but sometimes they can get repetitive. It’s hard to teach great writing — to convey where it comes from and how you do it. This workshop was a departure from the norm, in that there was a lot of discussion about narrative structure and theory. Jaed had some extremely practical advice on how to tap into the most energized synapses within a narrative. We also discussed how narrative often has an underlying theme or themes of which the writer is not even aware. Some of his ideas were a little formulaic, but they were good and useful ideas.

This workshop made me really think about how dominant the desire for linear narrative can be. Life isn’t really linear (though we often look at it that way), but chaotic. We try to impose order on reality, but we actually experience it in complex and startling ways. Reality is often synaesthetic. Every moment is a fragment of a multidimensional web of memories, thoughts, cultural references, psychology, fears, desires, etc. We are interconnected with the world in aggregates of ways. We don’t live, we collide. Why should writing or art be any different? Truly interesting writing explores those interconnections, the places where the synergy happens. In my own writing I can tell the difference between a boring, plodding passage and a lively, gripping one. That excitement needs to drive the narrative. Sure, order is useful and traditional narrative is very effective. But sometimes mixing up the process a bit can be good too. There is magic in the unexpected. New approaches are invigorating. There are patterns in the chaos.