FOR A PUNNATURAL HISTORY
Let us turn cabinets of curiosities into objects of curiosity: Desirous of seeing more - as the etymology of the word ‘curiosity’ suggests - we will have to follow Augustine’s path and let our eyes indulge in the sins of seeing. If our act, in this very space of the exhibition, will involve an unexpected state of being seen by the curious things that make us curious, the curiosities that also happen to have eyes, perhaps the joke will be on us. Often seen as the precursors to modern museums, the cabinets of curiosities, or the Wunderkammern, were already indebted to the birth of our visual culture: With the advent of optical instruments such as microscopes and telescopes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nature revealed itself to the human eye in ways hitherto unknown. But unlike the scientific systems that our modern eyes are accustomed to, these cabinets displayed the ‘Book of Nature’ in such disparate and disorderly assemblages that we could only understand as chaotic. Objects from foreign lands, shells, horns, automata, vases, coins, sculptures and paintings would be presented in such a way that would blur the lines between nature and artifice, as well as natural history and art history. The reason behind this ambiguity was not a lack of will or discipline on the hoarder’s part: “The Kunstkammers,” Horst Bredekamp writes, “did not offer merely a link between artifacts from historically, geographically and ethnically foreign cultures and all realms of nature; they also provided an opportunity for experimentation in merging form and meaning…The arrangement of the genera did not serve to separate all the various areas, instead, it built virtual bridges to emphasize the playfulness of nature through the associative powers of sight” (110). Such playfulness incites the eye to see the world in terms of resemblances and similitudes through the lens of emblems, myths, fables and proverbs while at the same time categorizing the collected items according to their appearances as well as their own eccentric stories and histories. Every accidental aspect and detail pertaining to the specimen become significant in the collector’s classification and exhibition of the collection. “The essence of the [emblematic world view]” William Ashworth writes, “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible. To know the peacock…one must know not only what the peacock looks like but what its name means, in every language; what kind of proverbial associations it has; what it symbolizes to both pagans and Christians; what other animals it has sympathies or affinities with; and any other possible connection it might have with stars, plants, minerals, numbers, coins, or whatever” (312). The collector desperately assembles and arranges the specimens, the signs of the Work of God, in order to understand and decipher His Work in what Westerhoff calls a “pansemiotic” framework that relies on the associations between animate and inanimate objects, naturalia and artificialia. Words are not only words; they reveal the essences of things.
This dream of capturing the whole is long gone. The aesthetic pleasures of collecting and arranging shells, which became prominent at the end of the seventeenth century (Dietz 369) seem to be always haunted by the memory of Augustine, for whom the image of a boy who tries to empty the sea into a hole in land by pouring sea water with a shell becomes an allegory of humanity’s inability to understand the work of God. It is because of this never-ending web of associations that “taxonomic impulses,” in Maria Zytaruk’s words, “were inflected with a discourse of mourning for a lost prelapsarian order,” a melancholic awareness of ineptitude that would turn each and every cabinet of curiosity into a site of mourning (3). But as she herself notes, the early collectors of the cabinets were fascinated by what was then called the ‘jokes of nature’: A fruit that seems pregnant, a specimen that resembles human appendages, oddities that would forge unforeseen connections would all excite the collector’s imagination. Monsters and monstrosities were dear to collectors even at the peak of the scientific culture of collection in the 18th century, as the Royal Society would value entertainment as much as scientific learning. If the Adamic language of the prelapsarian era was devoid of any sense of humor, it would be the lapsus of the tongue and the slips of nature that would turn the work of creation into a carnival of unlimited associations and unexpected resemblances both in words and in things. What was seen as a thesaurus or a treasure (Daston and Park 74) by the wealthy collector would then reveal itself to be a rich thesaurus of words and things, inviting for all sorts of jokes and puns. Once again, the joke would be on us.
What about puns then? Are puns natural? Do they belong to natural history? Perhaps we could start with the assumption that they are not. As unnatural exceptions to the rule, they would be little monsters thrown into the natural order of things, or as the etymology of the word ‘monster’ suggests, they would be little warnings from a deity, created by our Artist to invite us to devout worship and adoration of this perfect order, in which words and things exist in unquestionable unity. By its perverse logic, the exception would prove the rule. But etymologies, the revered cousins of puns, are monstrous entomologies that try to make sense of these little bugs called words, the very words that continue bugging us with their uncanny quality. Even a questionable etymology of the word ‘pun’ traces its origins to ‘puntiglio’, ‘small or fine point’ that threatens to puncture us like a little monster with spikes. An ingenious world-revealing word play can turn into a tasteless joke if it is not stored properly in the freezers of our culture that we call museums, just as every beautiful animal can turn into a monster if it has teeth and spikes. The surrealists, with their visual puns and chance encounters, knew this. In their fascination with the material and artificial world of the early twentieth-century they also pushed for an overcoming of the now dry and tasteless distinctions between kitsch and art, words and things, reality and fantasy. It is high time to bring their unnatural puns back to the nature, the goddess of the Romantics that breathes life into the teary I’s of poets. That would be quite an enjoyable punishment for them and for us.
Mert Bahadir Reisoglu
Koc University - Department of Comparative Literature
Ashworth, William. “Natural History and the Emblematic World View.” Reappraisals of Scientific Revolutions, ed. David Lindberg and Robert Westman. Cambridge, 1993, 303-332.
Bredekamp, Horst. The Love of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammern and the Evalution of Nature, Art and Technology.
Daston, Lorraine and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
Dietz, Bettina. “Mobile Objects: The Space of Shells in Eighteenth-Century France.” The British Journal for the History of Science 39.3: 363-382.
Fontes da Costa, P. “The Culture of Curiosity at The Royal Society in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 56.2: 147-166.
Westerhoff, Jan C. “A World of Signs: Baroque Pansemioticism, the Polyhistor and the Early Modern Wunderkammer.” Journal of the History of Ideas 62.4: 633-650.
Zytaruk, Maria. “Cabinets of Curiosities and the Organization of Knowledge.” University of Toronto Quarterly, 80.1: 1-23.