Currently on my nightstand: my alarm clock, a framed photograph of Danny and me from our low-budget Thanksgiving a few years ago, a tube of Burt’s Bees peppermint foot lotion, and two books. The first, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, is a book I’ve mentioned on this blog before. I like to keep it nearby, like a bowl of candy, to dip into now and then. The second, Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology.
Weschler’s book is a slim volume, nonfiction, and a little impossible to describe. On the surface, it’s about David Wilson’s Los Angeles storefront museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, and its just plain strange collection of vitrines. The chapters of the book provide a partial inventory of these display cases, which include the ants and horns referenced in Weschler’s title but also carved fruit pits, waterfall panoramas, and miniature sculptures nestled in the eyes of needles. But Weschler’s book is also about the markers of authority — how we trust evidence, analysis, and even a certain droning narrating voice to communicate Truth and Knowledge. And it’s a little bit about that almost savory sensation we feel when that authority is destabilized and we are suddenly a little wiggly at the knees and around the brain. Museum vertigo.
Is that human horn hairy? And, more importantly, is it real? The droning narrating voice says it’s real, and that official-looking placard notes that it’s from the nineteenth century. Perhaps horned women wandered Victorian London? But what if the droning voice is LYING to me? And do I care if it is?
But more than anything I think Weschler’s book is about the human urge to collect and display, and impulse that both Weschler and Wilson connect to the Renaissance tradition of wonder cabinets, also known as cabinets of curiosity or — if you’re feeling particularly German — Wunderkammer. (Say it aloud! Wunderkammer! What fun!) What I love about wonder cabinets is their everything-ness. These were collections, sometimes entire rooms, full of artifacts that our modern-day society of specialization would never categorize together. These Wunderkammer-crafters knew — and know, as modern-day cabineters like Wilson are still practicing — that nothing is more satisfying than examining a rhinoceros horn and then, shifting one’s eye only slightly to the right, considering a working model of one of Da Vinci’s machines. The Smithsonian would dismantle the cabinet, isolate each piece as natural history, art, technology, pop culture and — sadly — garbage. No fun.
Reading Weschler’s book makes me wonder (ha!) what I would include in my own Wunderkammer. The four-leaf clover I found pressed inside a library book. Danny’s hole-in-one golf ball. A jagged, white mineral, possibly an animal tooth, borrowed from my friend Lilian, who found it in a field somewhere. The poem Lilian wrote to accompany said possibly-a-tooth. An enormous multi-stoned turquoise necklace, inherited from my grandmother. Fraudulent currency Danny brought back from Baghdad. A miniature jar, sealed with masking tape and filled with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a treasure my mom used to keep in her dresser.
It’s gone missing, but I like to think it’s featured in someone’s Wonderkammer somewhere.
Carrots readers: what belongs in your cabinet of wonders?