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), 

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