The little bird-creatures in Paul Klee’s painting Twittering Machine jiggle and exclaim with thoughtless ecstasy, unaware of their spring-loaded connection to a turning crank. It is the image of our age, not merely because the vacant-looking critters are tweeting, but because they are part of a machine, set in motion, free of any ridiculous notion of free will, an idea Nietzsche mocked with his withering wit:
The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.
Humans are machines. Composed of cells and neurons, they’re especially good at seeing patterns and making connections. I am a human, and an artist of a sort. But I don’t create. I take dictation. I watch the flow and follow where it leads me…
While visiting the London Science Museum, I noticed among an assortment of archaic IBM computers and cellphones the size of bricks, a shining machine composed of steel rods and gears. It is one of only two existing difference machines designed by Charles Babbage.
A figure of the early Victorian era, Babbage was a man of many interests. He was a founder of the Royal Astronomical Society. He contributed to the creation of the Royal Post Office. He studied electrodynamics, was an accomplished cryptographer, and wrote books on mechanical engineering, statistics, factory efficiency, and theology.
But what Babbage is best known for was his difference engine. Mathematicians and engineers in the early nineteenth century depended on books filled with tables of calculations (logarithmic and trigonometric functions, for example) that were created by groups of human “computers,” but they were often riddled with errors. Babbage conceived of a machine that would automatically calculate these figures with the turning of a crank. The British government was interested, and in 1823 commissioned Babbage to make one.
But owing to the technical limitations of the time (metal pieces could not be milled to the precise dimensions), the engine proved difficult to execute. Eventually the British government lost interest and the project was abandoned. In 1989, scientists from Australia began to build a difference engine based on Babbage’s schematics. In 1991 it was completed, and to this day it works exactly as designed. Had it been finished, it would have been the world’s first working computer.
Babbage had peculiar obsessions. He disdained “the mob” and worked to combat nuisances he observed on in his walks through London: he was incensed by broken windows, street performers, and children playing games. Babbage especially abhorred the street urchins playing tip-cat, a early form of baseball in which one hits a stick whittled to a point on both ends (the cat) with a flat stick (the bat). The inventor/author sponsored legislation in parliament to ban the game.
In his story, “Making Do,” Italo Calvino describes a town where everything is forbidden, everything except the playing of tip-cat. The residents played it every day and soon learned to excel at it. After a several years the town rulers decided to repeal the exclusionary laws and once more allow the citizens do whatever they wished. But all the people wanted to do was play tip cat. Messengers from the city assured them they could return to their old pursuits, but they continued to play. The city constable then banned the playing of tip cat. In response, the people rebelled, killed the town leaders, and returned to their games.
Calvino was one of the twentieth century’s great fabulists, a spinner of tales encrusted with amethyst and myrrh, parables of love and desire set in imagined cities more lustrous than Venice, more blue than the lapis lazuli buildings of Jodhpur.
Observing Calvino’s funeral for the New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal recalls a scene from Calvino’s final book:
Palomar is on the beach at Castiglion: he is trying to figure out the nature of waves. Is it possible to follow just one? Or do they all become one? Or do they all become one? E pluribus unum and its reverse might well sum up Calvino’s approach to our condition. Are we a part of the universe? Or is the universe, simply, us thinking that there is such a thing? Calvino often writes like the scientist that his parents were. He observes, precisely, the minutiae of nature: stars, waves, lizards, turtles, a woman’s breast exposed on the beach. In the process, he vacillates between macro and micro. The whole and the part. Also, tricks of eye. The book is written in the present tense, like a scientist making reports on that ongoing experiment, the examined life.
Watching the mourners under a stormy sky, Vidal notes that Calvino had a loathing for cement, which obliterated much of the Ligurian coast he loved. After the coffin enters the ground, Vidal looks on in disgust as workers pour a layer of “horrible cement” over the writer’s tomb. Calvino, alas, has no say in the matter.
“Therefore Palomar prepares to become a grouchy dead man, reluctant to submit to the sentence to remain exactly as he is; but he is unwilling to give up anything of himself, even if it is a burden.”
The artist most enamored of cement was Le Corbusier, that modernist architect whose machine-age edifices are almost exclusively made from concrete. It is poured, shaped and molded into brutal and and utilitarian buildings that defy any concession to the human. Cold and hard like the pyramids, their stacked blocks and gray faces are an impersonal machinery, a fascist aesthetic that cares nothing for comfort.
And yet Le Corbusier’s greatest achievement, the Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, a village in the French Jura mountains, is the one exception. Its poured cement swoops with curved lines, and its randomly placed windows give the building a sense of human surprise and playfulness. And that soaring roof. Germaine Greer once described it as that “apparently impossible roof, ﬂapping clear of the walls like a nun’s starched bonnet.”
Since living in Geneva, I had a vague sense that Le Corbusier was Swiss but then Wikipedia reminded me that I see his his face nearly every day. Eeach time I open my wallet pay for a carton of eggs or an espresso, there he is on the Swiss ten-franc note with his trademark thick-framed glasses perched upon his forehead. That gaze has always disturbed me: sometimes his eyes are slits, critical with disdain. But other times (perhaps this is a feature to prevent counterfeiting) his eyes seem bizarrely wide open, with the goggly gaze of a madman.
All the Swiss bills feature artists of some sort (which is refreshing… I miss the days of the Little Prince and St. Exupery on the French Franc). There’s Giacometti, and the art historian Jacob Burkhardt, and Dada artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Can you imagine the United States replacing the genocidal face of Andrew Jackson with Jackson Pollock or Georgia O’Keefe? Yeah, me neither.
The 20-franc note features the composer Arthur Honegger, who I was not immediately familiar with, but I learned is best known for a short orchestral piece called Pacific 231. Inspired by a love of trains, Honegger tried to capture their energy in a dissonant, percussive work that was eventually transformed into an avant-garde film by Jean Mitry:
How Swiss, to compose an homage to the locomotive, in this country where trains are fast and sleek and always run on precise time. Honegger spent most of his career in France, and he was famously associated with the Le Six group of modernists in Paris. He also claimed to have been a member of the French Resistance, composing the “Chant du Liberation.”
But in a New York Times piece several years ago, music scholar Leslie Sprout found that Honegger wasn’t quite the partisan he portrayed himself to be. Looking at manuscripts of Honegger’s composition in a Paris archive, Sprout discovered that composer had conveniently added the revolutionary lyrics to the “Chant” near the end of the war, after he’d been kicked out of the resistance. He’d been asked to leave after traveling to Vienna several times and meeting enthusiastically with Nazi officials, including Heinz Dewes, the head of Goebbel’s music department.
So perhaps Pacific 231 has a taint, the oily stink of machinery gone too far, of the trains that efficiently carted their cargo of millions, including Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and Irene Nemirovsky, to their fates. Sometimes, one wonders if resistance is possible. Is the universe set in motion like the great clock in Bern, where the figurines follow their appointed paths on strict schedule? Or does the universe have moments of chance, of rebellion? Perhaps it’s as Lucretius imagined: that the smallest bits of matter, what he called atoms, sometimes swerve from their appointed paths and defy predictability with an occasional jog of whimsy.
Einstein, of course, famously hated the notion of randomness in the universe. He derided the uncertainty outlined in quantum physics, and was certain that all its strange behaviors–wave collapse, the particle-wave duality, and Schrodiner’s infernal cat–were simply a failure to correctly grasp the order of things.
Erwin Schrodinger was more comfortable with uncertainty. A devotee of Schopenhauer’s work and a student of Hindu philosophy, the Austrian physicist (who, like Einstein, fled the Nazis) found that our understanding of things on a very tiny scale has to be founded on probability. It was a profound step away from a deterministic world once imagined by physicists, including LaPlace, who conceived of a demon who, if he knew the speeds and masses of every particle at the time of creation, could predict the future with complete accuracy.
Richard Feynmann said of Schrodinger’s accomplishment: “Where did we get that (equation) from? Nowhere. It is not possible to derive it from anything you know. It came out of the mind of Schrödinger.”
Coming of age in Vienna, Schrodinger was no doubt aware of the intellectual cauldron bubbling over in the city when he enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1906. Sigmund Freud was working out his theory of the unconscious over pastries at Cafe Landtmann, while composers Arthur Schoenberg and Alban Berg were making a racket with their atonal music, and Arthur Schnitzler was shocking audiences with his sexually frank plays.
But it was in painting that Vienna experienced its most furious creative flourishing. Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka were breaking taboos, carving the wet, hunger of sexuality onto their canvases. Gustav Klimt, that passionate painting-machine dressed in purple robes, was igniting scandal with glittering visions of beauty taken to excess. It was at the University of Vienna, where Schrodinger studied, that Klimt was commissioned to paint several large works for the ceiling of the Great Hall. The authorities were shocked at the result, and the three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence were condemned as an example of “perverted excess.” The pictures were never displayed and Klimt angrily paid back his commission and sold the paintings a private collector.
Klimt’s painting Philosophy is one of the sublime expressions of human experience emerging from the chaos of the cosmos. The figures float in a starry field, a kind of stellar amniotic fluid. Some of the humans are in embrace, while another, an old man, stands in lonely despair. The figures are indeterminate, moving from the field of probability into possibility, and then fading away again. It is a thoroughly haunting image.
The owners of the Klimt triptych were Austrian Jews, and so the paintings were seized by Nazis in 1938. Even though they considered the images “degenerate,” Nazi officials allowed Klimt’s paintings to be displayed in a gallery in 1943. The three paintings were then were moved to Schloss Immendorf, an elegant castle in the Austrian countryside, to protect them from the Allied bombs raining down on Vienna.
On the final day of the war, May 7, 1945, after Hitler had killed himself and the surrender had been signed, a group of SS officers arrived at Schloss Immendorf for a final fling before the war was officially over the next day. Thirteen of Klimt’s paintings hung upon the walls, including Philosophy. Jonathan Jones describes what happened next:
…the Nazis, the castle’s owner later reported, looked at the paintings with appreciation, and one was heard to say that it would be a “sin” for the Russians to get their hands on them. Klimt’s sensual art turned out to be a fitting backdrop for the events of that night: according to a 1946 police report, the SS officers “held orgies all night in the castle apartments”. Who knows what this means, but it is a strange and macabre image — the SS holding their orgies as Klimt’s maenads and muses looked on.
The next day the SS unit placed explosives in one of the castle towers and blew it apart. The building went up in flames and burned for days. None of the paintings, including Philosophy, survived.