Next year my novel, Rupetta, will be released through Tartarus Press. It’s been a long time coming, which is a story all on its own. The novel’s main character is a four hundred year old mechanical woman – not a robot – who comes to life/consciousness in 1619. I chose 1619 – November 1619 to be precise – because it’s when Descartes had the dreams that inspired his life work. Descartes being both the author of the infamos Cartesian cogito and, reputedly, the owner of an early automata: a little girl perhaps constructed after the death of his daughter.
After his death, a rumour arose that while travelling by ship to Sweden at the behest of Queen Christina, Descartes had told the captain and crew that he was travelling with his daughter. No one aboard ship, however, had heard or seen her. This is hardly surprising since, by the time Descartes set sail for Sweden Francine had been dead for nine long years. She had died at the age of five from scarlet fever. Finally, overcome with curiosity, and on the night of a terrible storm, the sailors entered Descartes’ cabin and discovered a cabinet, inside which was a living doll: a replica of his dead daughter. The sailors – superstitious by nature as sailors are in stories of this kind – took the mechanical Francine up on deck and threw her overboard. Did the storm abate? Were the sailors fears assuaged by her sinking into the sea to become a rusty hulk on the ocean floor? Who knows: the story is almost certainly apocryphal, though does appear to have had an interest in automata. One of his correspondents – Poisson – asserts that around 1619 (but before he had his dreams) Descartes planned to build automaton driven by magnets. Specifically, he had envisaged constructing a dancing man, a spaniel chasing a pheasant, and a flying pigeon. Whether the mechanical daughter was the cause of the storm, or her sacrifice appeased the gods of the sea or not, the ship sailed safely to Sweden, where Descartes served as a kind of personal tutor/intellectual companion to Queen Christina for six months: until his death on 11 February, 1650.
It’s a fitting myth for a philosopher who argued that, though everything else could perhaps be false, created and presented to him, perhaps, by a demonic other the one thing that could not be doubted was that he was a thinking being: even if he was deceived, there was a ‘he’ that was being deceived and that that ‘he’, when all else was stripped away, had one essential characteristic. It was able to think. Descartes, therefore, was an instance of something – some creature, some consciousness – who engaged in thinking.
I find stories such as this, and the provocative images they conjure up, fascinating. While I was writing Rupetta, I kept a scrapbook of automata: both people and animals. Fakes and myths, rumours and realities. I thought I might open up a new thread/series of posts to share that research/interest (both complete and ongoing). As personal, peripatetic, and idiosyncratic as it is/was. ‘I think’ is true, even if everything I think is false: Cogito ergo sum. The mechanical Francine – whether a true or false story – is a riddle of consciousness like the writing automata who scrawled the Cartesian cogito on tablets for admiring audiences in the 18th century. Was she alive? Was she thinking? Did she dream of mechanical sheep? Was she, like her father, a thinking being? If so, then Descartes (like the inventors of other automata) was guilty of a strange and magical feat: he had usurped the role of the creator.
To begin, then, a couple of curiosities.
First, an artificial arm, manufactured somewhere between 1850 and 1910. The arm is made from steel and brass, with a leather upper arm. The arm was made for an amputee; probably a result of a wartime injury. Although the science museum curator’s notes call its appearance ‘sinister’, I think it’s rather beautiful in its slim, spare aesthetic. The back and palm of the hand are both decorated with a filigree pattern, and the fingers, with their long, curved fingertips, are – to my eye – strangely lovely.
The arm is quite flexible, with a spring at the elbow, a wrist that has some rotation as well as flexion, and fingers that curl and straighten.
The second of today’s curiosities is a karakuri ningy? (??????): a Japanese mechanical puppet based on those first made during the Edo Period about 300 years ago. Below is a video made by Matthew Allard showing Hideki Higashino making and modelling contemporary karakuri ningy?. The video features a tumbler, an archer, and a lady-writer. (Writing is a consistent trope of automata across time and cultures, signifying as it does the performance of intellectual activity and calling into question the state of consciousness of the figure. Other common intellectual activities include performing music, and playing chess or other games requiring intellectual dexterity). Traditional karakuri were Butai karakuri (used in the theatre), Dashi karakuri (used in religious contexts, where they acted out traditional stories), and Zashiki karakuri (smaller automata used in the home). Karakuri were often powered by wound whalebone springs, weights and pulleys similar in appearance to those inside a large case clock, and cams and levers which were located either inside the karakuri, or concealed in a desk, cabinet or other piece of furniture.