The Battle between Nature and Artifice

When last week, I was reading Hooke’s Micrographia it immediately made me think of a Spanish book written just a decade before Hooke composed the chronicle of his microscope observations: the renowned masterpiece by Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, El criticón [The critic] (1651-1657). Among the pages of this allegorical novel,  Gracián defended relentlessly artifice and its supremacy over nature:

Art is nature’s complement and another second self. It holds itself in high regard for having added another artificial world to the first; it habitually disguises the oversights of nature, perfecting it in everything: as without this help from artifice, it [nature] would remain unrefined and coarse. (the translation is taken from in Bradly J. Nelson, The Persistence of Presence. Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain, University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Gracián came to my mind in particular when I was reading Hooke’s Observation V, “Of watered silks and stuffs”:

There are but few Artificial things that are worth observing with a Microscope; and therefore I shall speak but briefly concerning them. For the productions of art are such rude misshapen things, that when viewed with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity… So that my first reason why I shall add but a few observations of them, is, their misshapen form; and the next, is their uselessness. For why should we trouble ourselves in the examination of that form or shape (which is all we are able to reach with a Microscope) which we know was designed for no higher a use, than what we were able to view with our naked eye?

But what I had perceived at first as a radical opposition between these two seventeenth-century approaches to the duality nature-artifice was rather the consequence of a huge distance between different scales of seeing: the naked eye vs. the microscope.

When I arrived at the NatureLab a week ago all these ideas of nature-artifice-perfection that I had also explored when dealing with Fuchs’ De historia stirpium were very much in my mind: how does our sensorium work when, as Hooke put it in his preface, we are given the chance to supply the infirmities of our senses with mechanical instruments? Would Gracián’s opinion have changed if he could have observed nature under a microscope? How did my twenty-first-century eyes fit in this controversy? Struggling with my clumsiness and my lack of expertise handling mechanical devices of any kind, the first thing that amazed me was how unnatural and aseptic perception became when you look at things under the lens of a microscope: it was like I was deprived of all my senses except for sight, or rather as if the harmonic relationship between taste, smell, sound, sight and touch that we tend to experience when we experience nature and urban spaces in a kinetic way was totally disrupted in the NatureLab. My body was rigid and all my energies were devoted to adjusting my eyes to the uncomfortable artifact.

I realized that my mind couldn’t help but work in an analogical manner –very much like Baroque authors– trying to build bridges between nature and artifice: seaweed looked like glitter, a wisdom tooth looked like nacre, aloe vera’s flesh looked like the melting glass we saw in the Hot Shop, bugs looked like polished sculptures, gold leaves looked, first, like the inside of a kaleidoscope and when I finally adjusted the microscope they were like shiny sequins, flower petals looked like velvet, and I discovered something like tiny pearls on the leaves of rosemary.

In the end, I don’t know if I am on Hooke or Gracián’s side, but what I found out in the NatureLab is that the limits between nature and artifact become totally blurred when removed from their original context. And, above all, I discovered that my system of perception seems to be always invaded by human intervention: when I left the NatureLab, I had the weird feeling that I could only understand that uncanny side of nature I had seen through the magnifying lenses if I resorted to the comfortable and familiar world of nature turned into artifact.

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