Review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders

April 20, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders

I read this whole book on the red-eye from San Francisco to Milwaukee, which may have been a bad decision, because parts of this book are the literary equivalent of an Escher drawing, and you need your wits about you. It deals with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A., a little museum whose exhibits pretty much depend on the whims of the owner, and involve, among other things, weird dioramas, microminiatures, folk medicine, and letters from people who believe they’ve seen or know about aliens. But Weschler uses it as a jumping-off point for musing on the role of wonder in society dating back to the Renaissance, and blurring the line between fact and truth.

The style is great and very readable, although a little inconsistent. The historical bits can get a little dry, but the rest of it is told in an easy journalistic style that’s fun to follow. The best part is how Weschler sits back and savors the weirdness of everything. Also, it’s given me a couple of things to add to my to-read list, like Marvelous Possessions by Stephen Greenblatt, who, of course, is a god.

One of Wechler’s major points comes through in the title; the bulk of the second section of the book deals with the history of Wunderkammern, or cabinets of wonder, which were private collections of objects from nature and art. The idea was to collect both wonders of God and wonders of man, and so a typical collection might involve a few artworks and also preserved or mounted partial or whole animals, either odd, impressive, or deformed. Weschler’s favorite is horns cut from human skulls. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is full of weird stuff like this; you can’t decide whether it’s plausible or not, although the book eventually touches on the facts underlying most of these. What sold me was the quote regarding a late-1700s American who had a particularly accessible Wunderkammer: “Peale fervently believed that teaching is a sublime ministry inseparable from human happiness, and that the learner must be led always from familiar objects towards the unfamiliar—guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life.” Um… yes. The more you learn, the more truly strange things you discover, and…the more you learn. “Reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science.” The most important thing you can learn is that really, really weird phenomena are all over the place and are totally real, totally legitimate.

Wilson tells Weschler that one of his mottoes is Ut Translatio Natura, or “Nature as Metaphor,” and one of my favorite aspects of the book is how Weschler treats the stink ant as a metaphor for obsession. The stink ant occasionally inhales a spore which grows in its brain, making it behave erratically and finally climb as high as it can, where it clamps onto the tree or grass or whatever and dies. The fungus continues to grow, finally erupting in a spike out of the ant’s head, whence spores float gently down, to be inhaled by more ants. (Planet Earth totally did a bit on this.) Over and over again, the book makes the point that a passion, obsession, or idea is a lot like a spore that, once inhaled, takes root in the brain and makes the obsessed behave erratically and eventually establish itself as a sort of fount of ideas, disseminating its obsession over the rest of the world, hoping the idea will take root in someone else’s brain, too. Creepy, yes, but also very, very apt. Maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but I definitely feel a tugging-upwards sensation when I am seized by an idea.

So what is the spore that this book is spreading? Well…I’m not quite sure. The parts of the book about the museum are unsettling: you think you know what’s going on, but you’re never quite sure whether you’re being put on or not. You feel like there’s a connecting theme or idea, but you can’t quite grasp what it is. I compare it to experiencing a string of unlikely coincidences. Maybe they’re not quite connected to each other, except by the fact that they are unlikely coincidences, and you go back and forth between being convinced something cosmic and/or divine is going on and simply thinking, This is too weird, or maybe, What? But I think Weschler is using this to illustrate the importance of wonder—I guess wonder is the connecting theme. He posits a continuous cycle of empiricism/positivism and a more wonder-dictated, helter-skelter view of the world; the moment one view is in the ascendancy, the other begins to rise to prominence, and maybe a balance between the two is the most important part of shaping your perceptions of the world (or understanding them).

EXCERPT:

Those earliest museums, the ur-collections back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were sometimes called Wunderkammern, wonder-cabinets, and it occurs to me that the Museum of Jurassic Technology truly is their worthy heir in as much as wonder, broadly conceived, is its unifying theme. (“Part of the assigned task,” [Wilson] once told me, “is to reintegrate people to wonder.”) But it’s a special kind of wonder, and it’s metastable. The visitor to the Museum of Jurassic Technology continually finds himself shimmering between wondering at (the marvels of nature) and wondering whether (any of this could possibly be true). And it’s that very shimmer, the capacity for such delicious confusion, Wilson sometimes seems to suggest, that may constitute the most blessedly wonderful thing about being human.

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