The Chemistry of Tears, by Peter Carey


“The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes was prepared for you on the day you were created.” Ezekiel 28:13

Illud auspicis non vides. “You cannot see what you can see.”

The Chemistry of Tears is a fantastic book. I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense. It is a slim book with considerable intellectual heft, containing elements of the sacred and the profane. It includes animals, both human and otherwise, and automatons. At times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

”But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and cannot be born. Descartes said that animals are automata. I have always been certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him saying the same held true for human beings.” [p. 17]

In addition to Descartes the book features guest appearances by Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) who “exhibited in Paris [in 1738] a mechanical duck which could waddle and splash, beat the air with detailed feathered wings, wag its head, quack, pick up grain, ingest this with swallowing movements, and eventually excrete the residue…”* [Kenner, p. 13]; Charles Babbage [renamed Arthur Cruickshank], “the father of the computer” [Kenner, p. 24]; and a very young and frightfully clever Karl Benz, inventor of the gasoline powered automobile.

*Remember the duck test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Not included in the book but notable in his exception is mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954). In response to the question of whether a machine could ever be mistaken as human, Turing posited something that has become known as the Turing Test (or game).

Attacking the tedious question whether machines can think…he proposed a game for three players. One player is a machine; it is trying to pass itself off as a person. Another is a person, trying to make it clear that he is a person. The third is an observer, trying to decide which is which. All communication is by electric teletypewriter, with the observer in a separate room. [Kenner, p. 109-10]

This is not something Charles Babbage envisioned and even in Turing’s latter years (the 50’s) it seemed far-fetched. But this year was a break-through year for the automaton: Artificially Intelligent Game Bots Pass the Turing Test On Turing’s Centenary (Sept. 26, 2012)

”Babbage will occupy us further: we shall be sampling his informed enthusiasm (from which no one would guess that mills are dark and satanic) for the rationale for the Victorian factory, a wholly mechanized environment. Here Vaucanson was again the forerunner: having been named Inspector of the Silk Manufactures he planned and built near Lyons about 1756 the first wholly rationalized industrial plant in the world, linked machines executing all processes from the cocoons onward, the whole driven by an overshot waterwheel. Temperature and moisture were regulated, but for the benefit of the silk, not the workers; these latter were the first men in the world to know they were spending their waking hours wholly inside a single vast coordinated machine , whose dependencies they were.” [Kenner, p. 24-25]

Thus was born the age of mechanization—the age we live in today. Processes, computer or otherwise, devolve from observation. And observation requires detachment from ourselves, in order that we may become instruments of perception (or part of a machine given to observation). The advent of the age of machines meant more than fulfilling the idle fantasies of the wealthy; in the beginning it meant humans, often children, performing robotic tasks for the better part of the day. The poet laureate of the age of machinery, Charles Babbage describes these processes in his 1832 publication Economy of Manufactures and Machinery. In recent years it has meant humans being displaced by machines which can perform the tasks more economically and efficiently. And other unforeseen consequences, like climate change.

This is a story filled with wondrous invention and unspeakable environmental carnage. The contrast between an elegant, silver-plated mechanical swan and the Gulf oil spill could not be more pointed. The implication is that one leads to the other. “It is meant to kill us all. That is what the machine is for. It is not the work of humans.

The principle character in “Chemistry” is a woman named Catherine Gherig. Gherig is employed at the London Swinburne Museum in the horological department, usually a male preserve. When the book opens she discovers that her Museum colleague and lover, Matthew, has died. Her grief, the grief of a loner who has invested her all into a seventeen year affair, is almost inconsolable. She drinks, does drugs, and spends a lot of time revisiting e-mails that she and Matthew have imprudently sent, received, and stored on Museum servers. She believes the affair has gone unnoticed but her supervisor, Eric Croft, was also a close friend to Matthew and he moves quickly to contain the damage caused by his subordinate and his friend. He offers Catherine a deal she can’t refuse: the reconstruction of a mechanical device rescued from oblivion. The hope is that in thus engaging Catherine’s considerable talents, not only will she be profitably engaged but the restoration may prove attractive to the Tories who have a stranglehold on Museum finances.

In the beginning she is under the impression that it is Vaucanson’s Duck, but as the inventory of the parts is conducted it soon becomes apparent that the mechanical creature is an even more splendid apparatus. Catherine is guided in her understanding of the workings of what she soon learns is a swan by the notebooks of the man who initially commissioned the automaton, an English railroad magnate named Henry Blandling. Blandling takes the design to a region of Germany renowned for its clockmakers, only to have the plans stolen from him by the unscrupulous Herr Sumper, a prodigy of Albert Cruicksahnk.

Henry’s saw-tooth pen strokes had cut wormholes into time. I had been there. I had witnessed Herr Sumper unwrap the articulated neck. I had glimpsed Carl’s exploding toy roaring past the inn, his voltaic mouse, his blue cube, Thigpen’s immense scientific instrument [Cruickshank/Babbage’s Analytical Engine] the size of an elephant. Through one of these wormholes, as thin as a drinking straw, I had seen all that bright and poisonous invention. [p.136]

Sumper’s genius proves equal to his ego, and the reconstructed swan succeeds in the 20th century after being in oblivion for over a century.

The Chemistry of Tears is “about” loss and renewal. Loss is represented by tears which, if produced by emotion (as opposed to those needed for lubrication) “contained a hormone involved in the feeling of sexual gratification, another hormone that reduced sex; and finally a very powerful natural painkiller” [Leucine enkephaline]. Renewal is represented by the act of making love or simply hugging, an act that involves the skin, “the largest sensory organ in the body. It contains over four million receptors.” [p. 224]

[cf. Descartes, for whom the human body can “be considered as a kind of machine, so made up and composed of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood and skin, that although there were in it no mind [or soul] it would still exhibit the same motions which it at present manifests.” Kenner, p. 11]

Do machine’s have feelings? Do tears make us human? It may just depend on who you ask.