I am still in the middle of a solid two months of non-stop travel. As a result, I am again unable to write an original Substack piece this week, so instead I thought I would share with you a very rare and special document that I have had in my possession for some time now.
Years ago I found myself idly searching in the archives of the Stādẓbyblioteka of the Margravate of Lower J***, in that hospitable region’s picturesque capital city of P***. Without really knowing what I was searching for, I unexpectedly came across the treasure I am about to show to you. I’ve hesitated to share it previously because I cannot be entirely certain of its provenance, nor of the reliability of my transcription. You see, my discovery co-occurred with a quite precipitous loss of consciousness, after which, the next thing I knew, I was coming to my senses in P***’s modest but well-functioning polykłinika, from which I was soon transferred to the lone psychiatric hospital of the Margravate. There I was given a diagnosis of “archive fugue”, which seems not to exist in the American DSM nor in any other country’s roster of mental ailments, but to have remained on the books in Lower J*** since the era of that country’s well known pioneer in the field of psychiatry, Prof. Dr. Wladysłaus Krāk (1834-1907), who wrote in 1898 of a patient, known only as “Professor Vole”, hospitalised after “copying out” over sixty manuscript pages of a “lost work” of the Brandenburg-born astrologer, and pioneering Sorbologist, Albinus Mollerus (1541-1618). Upon a thorough investigation of the archive’s holdings, no such work could be found. Professor Vole spent his final years as a patient in the very same hospital to which I was sent, pacing the courtyard, perpetually mumbling in Sorbian, a language he had never studied, what sounded like a reading of some long-dead burgermeister’s star-chart.
The document I myself transcribed is labelled “SBzJ ms.109b”. It is written in French, by a certain S***, to an unknown recipient. As near as can be determined, S*** was an Austrian-born courtier at Stockholm under the reign of Queen Christina of Sweden, which ended abruptly in 1654 when she abdicated the throne under accusations of sexual licentiousness, left for Rome disguised as a man, and eventually converted to Catholicism. The letter is dated 20 February, 1650, just a little more than a week after the death of René Descartes, who had arrived in Stockholm a few months earlier to serve the queen as her private philosophical tutor, only soon to fall gravely ill with pneumonia — or at least that’s how the story usually goes. S*** was evidently charged with the task of sorting through the philosopher’s affairs, and determining which items should be sent back to France. A simple inventory of one of Descartes’s malles, which he had brought with him on arrival and which had remained unopened throughout his brief Swedish sojourn, was the immediate purpose of the letter in question.
Beyond this, we may discern from the contents of the letter that S*** was not operating in Descartes’s best interests during the latter’s lifetime, as he was evidently assigned, likely by Christina’s closest aides, to monitor the philosopher’s comings and goings, and to watch particularly for signs that he was exposing the queen to harmful ideas — or at least to ideas more harmful than the ones she had managed to come by on her own. Even before Descartes’s arrival rumors were flying around the court that he was a freemason, that he was a Jesuit spy, and so on. It is not surprising, therefore, that in a milieu so charged up with suspicion and mistrust, Descartes’s death should also have been held by some to be the result of foul play. (One satirist suggested that it was Cold itself, offended by Descartes’s denial of the existence of Real Qualities, that decided to murder him.) But this possibility must remain the topic for another occasion.
Our author, S***, at least makes a valiant effort to discharge his obligations to Descartes upon the latter’s death, even if during his life the philosopher no doubt made an unfortunate error of judgment when he let down his guard and confided to him about certain unusual events that transpired in his earlier life, and that stalked him until his dying day. We must surely also be grateful to S***, even if Descartes himself could not be. For without him we would never have known the true story of Francine, René’s poor daughter, who died at the tender age of five, nor of the most remarkable afterlife this innocent was to receive, thanks to her father’s dark and desperate machinations. In the end the tale S*** tells is a tale of love, which has been known at times to surmount every obstacle the world throws up against it, yes, even to break right through the wall —which men of lesser intellect and feebler will have presumed indiscerpible—: to break right through the wall, I was saying, of death itself.
Tourbet El Bey, Tunis
20 February 1650
As you are already aware, I have been given the task of inventorying the possessions left behind by the feu M. Descartes, so that his survivors, few as they are, might make a selection of items to be shipped to Amsterdam, and eventually to be returned to his native country. I shall begin this task in the present letter, though here may only accomplish a portion of it, as he left quite a rich selection of possessions indeed, and nearly every one of them seems to deserve not only enumeration, but explanation. All the more so as M. Descartes himself, in his final days, grew unexpectedly loquacious about these sundry objects and their meanings to him.
Some objects, to be sure, had no meaning but the one determined by their function, given perhaps an additional charge of importance by their monetary worth or their ornamental beauty: a small looking glass, a traveling spoon carved in hartshorn, an elfenbein-plated comb, a Dutch chaise de commodité, a crystalline aiguière accompanied by its bassin en faïence. I can scarce begin to enumerate the titles from the personal library this learnèd man had transported hither. Many of these were just what you would expect from a partisan of the new philosophy recruited to impart its precepts and reasonings to our Queen, including several copies of his own eminent works.
M. Descartes also proved himself an eager student of the history of the Septentrional countries, and of the manners and characters of its inhabitants. He possessed a copy of Olaus Magnus’s history of the Northern peoples, of course, as well as Saxo’s august compendium of the celebrated deeds of the Danes. In conversation he appeared quite taken with the the new theory that it is Gotland, and not the Holy Land nor any far-flung Ararat, that is as they say the vagina nationum, the matronly sheath from which all peoples primordially emerged, and shot from there as arrows throughout the globe. If I may say, M. Descartes seemed unusually eager to present himself as a lover of all things Swedish. I suspect that this is in part because his unusually swarthy complexion, and his stout and somewhat ursine appearance, had many Swedes taking him for a hyperborean Lapon, and he wished to correct this misperception not through insistence upon his Franco-Gaulish origins, but through overzealous identification with the nation whose Sovereign he had come, on his own understanding of the assignment, to enlighten.
You may be surprised to learn of the great number of titles M. Descartes carried with him that have, to say the least, no place in the new philosophy: dark, obscure, and devilish works such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s several books of occult philosophy, and even the Great Philosophy, along with the Great Astronomy, the Great Chemistry, and the Great Surgery, of none other than Theophrastus Bombastus, late of Hohenheim. When I asked M. Descartes about these titles, he dissembled with some variation on the conceit that we moderns must have a clear idea of what it is we oppose. Perhaps, I said inwardly to myself, but this claim of mere comprehensiveness does not sit well with the evidences of certain other articles in the same collection I have been called upon to survey and to describe.
I have found a single large wooden malle to contain the telltale items whose appurtenance to the philosopher call into question somewhat his favored depiction of himself as a proud and resolute novator, for whom there are no powers in this world of bodies other than those explicable by the mass, figure, and motion of dull corpuscles. Within it we find numerous garments of blue nankeen, neatly folded. These include mostly dainty robes and caftans, camisoles and dishabilles, all sewn to the most petite specifications. Beneath these garments we find a flattened Flying-Deer, or what the English call a “kite” after the bird by that name, made from a luxuriant decorative green and gold paper of apparent Chinese origin. Attached to the Flying-Deer at its base we find a piece of rough twine, which extends across the bottom of the malle and at the other end attaches to a spool about which it is wound. The spool rests gently beside the passive hands of an undressed wooden doll, hewn simply but precisely out of common fir, about the size of a five-year-old maiden, and perfectly dimensioned for the garments that accompanied her to Stockholm within the malle.
I should not have much more to report to you about these surprising articles, had M. Descartes himself not fallen shortly before death, as I have said, into the most talkative spirit. It no doubt helped to loosen his tongue that along with his evening repast, which I had been designated to take with him by his bedside, I brought on his tray several thimbles of akvavit, which, I claimed, Dr. Oxenstierna, who was then out in the countryside of Södermöre investigating a claim of quintuple birth to a peasant-woman (“valpar” —“pups”—, a disreputable Stockholm broadside called them), had recommended for a patient in his condition. M. Descartes disputed this, but I reminded him he was himself no doctor, in spite of his many contributions to the science of medicine, and soon enough he was swallowing down that Scandic eau de vie as if it were his last hope for a cure in this world.
He told me of his great love for Hélène, the servant-girl he found in the home of a friend with whom he lodged in Amsterdam some fifteen years prior. She gave herself to him, he said, quite as if the two of them dwelled in the Garden of Eden, in ignorance of sin, where the love is itself the marriage, rather than marriage being a preliminary rite by which love is subsequently authorised. He said that he would never renounce his account of the generation of living bodies in general, whereby the seed of the male serves to trigger a process of coagulation in the blood of the female’s womb, which, once sufficiently thick, begins to throb as a heart, and eventually splits into separate chambers, sprouts a liver, a pair of kidneys, and so on for the other viscera, soon enough hardening along an axis down its center into what will become the vertebral column, and so on, and so on, until after some weeks we find ourselves with as it were a universal animal, not a bird or a fox or anything so easily specifiable, but an animal, which then is given its species, and then soon enough its individual traits, through the most wonderful operations of the animal spirits traveling down to the matrix from the mother’s nerves, delivering a most faithful message from the pineal gland at the base of the brain that serves to sear into this generic being all of its specific and individual quiddities, so that, after some months, it makes its appearance in the world not only as a bird or a fox, but as this bird or that fox: — he would never renounce this account, I was saying, yet he could never convince himself that such forces were all that was in play in the generation of his beloved Francine. Let all the other creatures arise from the mass, figure, and motion of corpuscles, he said. But Francine is a miracle.
Francine! Little personification of France, unpronounceable in Dutch (“Fransintge” was the best they could do), tiny miraculous poepje of my heart (said Descartes)! The new little family of three settled in Deventer, where, because he and Hélène were in truth Edenically married, Francine was baptised not as a bastard-girl, but as the true and proper first-born daughter of Mijnheer Rayner Jochems — as he had taken to calling himself in the Low Countries.
From the earliest age Rayner taught his girl the names and natures of things. On family strolls along the Ijssel, all endimanchés and beaming after church, he told her, as she explored from her knee-high posture, what was a daisy, what was a buttercup, in French, Latin, and Dutch, and she repeated these sounds as she was able, while Hélène looked on smiling. If his Edenic wife was not quite fully happy, it seemed to Rayner, this was only because of the filaments that in the present tie each of us to the past, with all its disappointments, and to the future, with all its uncertainty, and not any quality of the moment whose composition included this smile of Hélène’s — which composition, Rayner thought, could not be further perfected. And if on occasion among the townsfolk of Deventer he lapsed into the habit of presenting the girl as his niece, and the young woman as his maid and caretaker, this was not out of any desire to disown the pair of them or to extricate himself from the web of life and love he had spun, not by any effort, as when a man builds a machine, but only as a sort of spontaneous outgrowth from himself: unplanned, inevitable, and unstoppable as the frenzied appearances that come to us unbidden in dreams. If Hélène and Francine were periodically demoted to nanny and niece, he told himself, this is only because it seemed prudent to a man of his station to maintain a certain public distance from the domestic entanglements of the pater familias.
What a shame before God! M. Descartes cried out, three nights before his ultimate surrender, after I had refilled, and he had emptied, his glass of akvavit a good number of times more than usual. To pass off my own daughter as a niece! Rayner travelled often to Amsterdam, where he knew a butcher who furnished him at no cost the leftovers he required for his researches into the physiology of vision; as long as the maggots had not got round to the optic nerve, a cow’s head otherwise fit to be thrown out could still be of service to science. On one such trip the guilty wretch happened upon a store selling sundry chinoiseries, where he got it into his mind to purchase a gift for his niece-daughter, who was by now three years old. There were silk peignoirs decorated with all manner of Oriental scenes; there were woodblocks used in printing inscrutable Chinese characters; there were strange little puzzles with levitating pieces relying upon the principles of magnetism; and there were Flying-Deer made up to resemble ferocious dragons. The merchant, who had Jesuit associates evidently more concerned to carry wares back to Europe than to carry salvation in the other direction, recommended to Rayner a delicate green and gold kite, which resembled nothing so horrible as a dragon, but only realised an abstract geometrical pattern ideal for aerostatic experimentation, and for the amusement of little girls.
Back on the banks of the Ijssel, Rayner could not have imagined a greater triumph than what he now witnessed. Francine took to kite-flying so swiftly and naturally, it was as if she herself was born to fly, as if she had extended her own soul up through the twine and into the paper object, which, when airborne, expanded into what seemed an impossible arrangement of cube-like compartments, some of which appeared to be missing sides, and some of which had too many of them. She laughed, and declared it a wonder. She proposed to lengthen the string, and fly it to the moon, and then to lengthen it even more, and to fly it out “forever”. Rayner undertook to explain the principles of flight, as best he understood them, how an airborne object depends on an encircling atmosphaera, a sort of gaseous envelope that attaches to the earth, but that could not possibly extend to its satellite — he began to explain all this, yet he quickly fell silent, feeling that there are moments, indeed, when understanding impedes understanding.
Soon enough the explanations came however, and the understanding, and by the age of four Francine was both an expert kite-flyer and something of a natural philosopher too. She had a fixed idea, whose sources Rayner could not fully comprehend, that to remain firmly on the ground while holding the string of a kite is nevertheless to fly, not to fly some thing, but to fly oneself. I can feel myself up in there, she sometimes said. I’m the same as it. Rayner thought of all the different respects in which we know our own bodies better, in the piloting of them, than we know the objects we manipulate and control at a distance; and yet even here we are not “the same as” our bodies. He thought of these things, and remained silent. Francine had been an exception from the beginning. Who was to say where the limits of her soul’s dwelling lay?
This question might have remained purely theoretical, M. Descartes told me on the second night before his death, if the delight of entertaining it with her had not been so brief, and fever had not taken her in the autumn of the next year, when, he would later worry, he had foolishly left her with her mother at an inn in Amersfoort, while he took himself onward to nearby Leiden for some business or other with the erudites there, some quarrel or other to prepare or defend against with the erudites at Utrecht — who can remember exactly, who can deign to care? The fever fell upon her and turned her all purple, they said, and she died within three days. Rayner returned, and father and mother dwelled for three weeks, inconsolable, not bothering with provisions, licking crumbs now and then from discarded trays like animals, and scraping traces of compote out of jars the fortunate and the lucid would surely have deemed empty. And the dreams that came at that time, M. Descartes told me that night, as I poured and repoured his akvavit, seemed more real than the world itself — the kites become deer become dragons, metamorphosing, breaking free of their twine, carrying Francine, at first gleefully, then regretfully, then in sheer terror, off to the moon and beyond. Upon awakening Hélène was asleep upright in a chair, and the dull inert motes floated in the sunbeam that crossed over the bed and hit a knot in the floorboard appearing, by chance and by help of the imagination —which was now the only thing left of the dream-life—, to take the form of a devil. Ugly, unmeaning reality!
Hélène awoke, the sunbeam passed, and Rayner fell asleep again. Now he returned in his dreams to a youthful escapade years before as a mercenary in the Battle of White Mountain, in far-away Bohemia, and entered the field-surgery tent where a number of his comrades were languishing, less fortunate than he had been in combat, when the things and men were exploding as if at random, while other men just kept walking about, and other things sat proudly whole. He saw there the soldier, a square-headed German boy named Hans, who the day before, standing right next to him, had suddenly, with a faint boom that were better called an explosiuncula, ended up with one arm less. Hans lay on his straw bedding and looked up at René. It’s still there, Hans said. I can’t see it but I can feel it. My arm is still there. René looked around the tent and saw that it was cluttered with disarticulated doll parts — feet, hands, forearms, torsos, hands, but no heads to be seen. I can’t be mistaken about what I feel, Hans said. Not when it feels so real. René searched about the tent for a suitable arm, found in a corner a good handsome one carved out of balsa, with fine metal joints allowing for an easy swivel at the elbow and wrist. He brought it to Hans, now beaming with square-headed hope, and proceeded to fuse it with the gaping red socket of his shoulder, as if these were two interlocking parts of a machine.
When Rayner awoke again it was night, the motes were gone from the air, and reality no longer seemed quite so unmeaning. The following week, after completion of the conventional obsequies, the added line to the church roster of funerals and the toy-sized coffin lowered into the ground, he left for Leiden, Hélène still too disconsolate to protest. There he set to work in a spacious atelier furnished to him by his loyal friend Henricus.
A man as desperate as he but more foolish, Rayner reflected as he set about his work, might begin with a visit to the university’s Theatrum Anatomicum, where he might hope, after careful conversation with the off-duty anatomist, to procure such human parts, otherwise destined to be discarded like the head of a cow at an Amsterdam butcher’s shop, as, when stitched together, might suffice to constitute a serviceable new person. But here the anatomists only deal with executed criminals, or an occasional adult man robbed in the night from a grave by underfed medical students; never with little girls. And anyhow the human body, being no less subject than any machine to the laws that govern all of nature, may just as well be furnished by any suitable arrangement of matter, by any extended stuff no matter its qualities. It may for example be sculpted out of common fir with a few well-placed strokes of the knife. The tricky part comes with the superaddition of the soul.
Doll-Francine was ready within days, but she was still just a doll. The significant work came next, as Rayner devoted himself assiduously to the great body of extant literature pertaining to the production, by chemical means, of a viable homunculus, understood not simply as a counterfeit human being, but as a human being in the full and proper sense, except that it is generated by artifice rather than by nature. He forswore any method that drew upon the dark arts —no entreaties to the devil, no admixture of secretions from the paps of a crone, nor anything at all like that—, which significantly shortened the list of relevant works on the subject.
It pains him now, M. Descartes said to me two nights before he died, to recall the early fumbling attempts he made at animating Doll-Francine, as when he followed out a suggestion in The Great Surgery and procured for himself the womb of a freshly slaughtered mare. He placed the lifeless girl-automaton within it, and proceeded —the shame of it!— to anoint this whole grotesque assemblage with his own seed. Rayner had tried, but failed, to convince himself in a Verulamian vein that in some circumstances the sinful taint of Onan may be canceled out by the contribution this act furnishes to learning, as a variety of auto-experimentation; and all the more when the experiment is conducted in the name of love. There were at that same moment after all, elsewhere in the city of Leiden, humble experimenters examining all the excrescences they could muster —the tiny scraps from the depths of their dental cavities, the “jelly” as it is called that sometimes collects between their toes, and, yes, the fluide gluant et blanchâtre too that appears at the moment of a man’s greatest arousal—, for all substances bring with them the potential for new discovery. The Dutchmen with their flea-glasses seek ever to know which of these several fluids may be found on close inspection to contain worms within them, and, from among the worm-bearing ones, which of these host their worms natively, as it were, and which only become infested with them at the onset of their putrefaction. But this was not the question that interested Rayner. Let the worms wriggle where they may! What matters is that this automaton should come to life.
Other methods were indicated by other authors, some of them more morally compromising, some less. According to certain Kabbalists there was hope yet that the soul of Francine had not entirely left her mortal body, but had only been reduced to a very small part of it, a bone called the luz that may be the same as what we call the coccyx. These authors gave some hope that, retrieved from the grave, a simple transfer of the lower vertebra into a suitable nook in the woody anatomy of Doll-Francine, accompanied by the prescribed incantations in the Hebrew tongue, might vivify her lifeless automatic frame. In the end M. Descartes rejected this approach, in part out of a distaste for anything resembling the magical spell, but more out of horror at the thought of robbing, however noble the purpose, his own daughter’s sunless grave.
It was only on the final night before his death that M. Descartes revealed to me, much to my astonishment, the means by which he succeeded, so he claimed, in bringing Francine back to life. By now he was too weak for any akvavit, but the habituation to confession that I had brought about in him by use of this spirit had by now quite remarkably set him in a sort of perpetual motion of speech, no longer in need of any external propellant to keep going.
He said that he had long held to a secret philosophy, which supported and gave life to his publicly held beliefs, even if at first glance it seemed to stand in contradiction of them. He said that, properly understood, the doctrine of the non-overlapping and utterly distinct natures of the soul and the body had some remarkable practical consequences for those prepared to follow them out all the way. Along with his friend Henricus he had discovered some years prior that, by a series of concentrated meditative exercises, one could in effect separate the soul from the body, leaving this latter lump in its bed, not totally lifeless, but only capable of maintaining the bare vegetative functions of respiration, etc., while meanwhile the soul was free to fly about from place to place, and even to make a quick transit to the moon or beyond in no more than a few hours.
The truth is, he said, that the peasants of France had from time immemorial been adepts of this practice, although they had not bothered to flesh it out with any abstruse philosophical ideas about “substance” and the like. They simply went roaming at night whenever the desire befell them, holding contests of speed as they raced over mountain ranges and down to the depths of the ocean, forming constellations of souls in the night sky that they found they could cause beautifully to glow by spinning in place. The only danger, the peasants said, was that a cat might come while the soul is away and suck the breath out of the abandoned body, leaving the soul nowhere to return. But Henricus and Rayner were generally careful to lock their bodies up safely whenever they went out for a night-flight of their own. They amused themselves greatly at this pastime, M. Descartes told me. For a while, early in their marriage, he had tried to initiate Hélène into it as well, but she said she found it diabolical, and in any case she felt —that angelic woman!— that their love was already sufficiently transportative.
Henricus did once land in a bit of a scrape shortly after being inducted into the practice. His soul out soaring with the buzzards of Peru, a servant boy came by his atelier only to find the door of it locked. When the boy climbed up to peek through a window, he saw Henricus’s body slumped over in a chair. Taking him for dead, the boy ran to notify the medical student whom he had agreed to inform of the chance discovery of any fresh cadavers. By the time Rayner found him, Henricus was on the table at the center of the Theatrum Anatomicum, just on the verge of being sliced open by the anatomist’s able knife before a crowd of aspiring surgeons. Rayner salvaged the body of his friend with some quick-thinking and a sack full of guilders, and dragged him back home, and later the two would agree on some fundamental rules of mind-body separation: never to engage in the practice alone, for one thing, and always to blacken out the windows, in addition to locking the door, of the rooms in which the body is left behind. But the more instructive aspect of this unfortunate incident came on Henricus’s coincidental return to Leiden right at the very moment his body was being heaved onto the anatomist’s table. Unable to find himself at the atelier, and concerned that he was now condemned to wander about forever in a disembodied state, he got into his mind to attempt something neither he nor Rayner had ever considered before, and to implant his soul into the most beastly of the gargoyles adorning the façade of the Pieterskerk. To his surprise, it worked. He dwelled there for an hour or so, accustoming himself to his new stony nature, until he happened to see Rayner, of all people, along with that troublesome servant boy, lugging his own body back in the direction of the atelier.
This meant, M. Descartes told me in a faint voice, as he lay dying, that the soul is not only separable, but metasomatisable as well, capable of being transplanted from one body into another. Nor must needs that body be a living one, but any body, animate or inanimate, will do. With this in mind, after reading all the dark secret books at his disposal and considering all the possible pathways towards a reunification with his beloved Francine, Rayner knew what he had to do. While a part of him still hoped, for her sake, that Francine’s soul was now united with God and completely beyond this low world of death and sorrow, the truth is, he said to me, that he had no idea what becomes of the soul upon the death of the body, and that for all he knew each of us, including not least Francine, was destined to float around in the atmosphaera for all eternity. If so, perhaps she could be contacted, by some subtle entreaty sent out in a whisper across the voices of the air, and enticed to make Doll-Francine her new host.
Rayner took up Doll-Francine in his arms, and then he took her old Flying-Deer, and he marched out to the banks of the Oude Rijn. He released the kite into the gusty day, and the twine unreeled from his hand as the paper cubes assumed their full shape in the sky. He placed the spool in Doll-Francine’s hands, and he set her up sitting on the banks of the river, and sat down beside her, and waited, and inwardly focused his hope in a manner not wholly unlike prayer. The girl-automaton continued to sit motionless for another minute or so, whereupon, M. Descartes told me, she slowly turned her head to him, and nodded in a manner, it seemed, that approximated a smile and that conveyed her daughterly love and gratitude.
This was the beginning of M. Descartes’s second paternity, as he put it. The two of them were inseparable. He could never bring himself to tell Francine’s mother what he had achieved, and Hélène would eventually remarry — or marry for the first time, depending on your judgment of the importance of rites and ceremonies.
How long did this period last? I asked him, and he told me it was going on still. Francine is with you even now? I persisted. Yes, he said weakly. For the sake of discretion I keep her enclosed in the large malle in my wardrobe. She does not seem to mind. Perhaps you would be so kind as to bring her out for me one last time?
By now M. Descartes was only hours from death, and he was lapsing in and out of consciousness. Dumbfounded, I began to stand, in the aim of obliging him, when I saw he had drifted again into some sort of sleep-like state. All the same, I continued up the spiral stone staircase of the castle into the principal chamber of M. Descartes’s apartments at Tre Kronor, which he had come to occupy only some months before. I proceeded trepidatiously to his wardrobe, and I unlatched the great wooden malle.
I do not write this in order that you will believe me at a first reading, for I know that no rational man could credit such a fantastic report; I write it only to relieve myself somewhat of the burden of being the lone surviving witness to such a dark marvel as M. Descartes conjured into the world. When I began my inventory of his worldly possessions and glanced into the malle for the first time, you will recall that I saw the spool of twine resting next to the passive hands of M. Descartes’s wooden doll. When I returned a second time, at the dying man’s request, I swear to you that this is what I saw: Francine, still enclosed within the malle, but now clutching that same spool tightly within her hands. I could not say whether those hands were wood or flesh, nor whether this Francine I beheld was doll or girl. What I can say, as certain as I am writing to you now, is that this being —for that is what she now was— looked to me upon my opening of the malle, and gently nodded.
I stumbled backwards in horror, and raced back down the stairs. M. Descartes was still unconscious, and would never awaken again. I have not yet returned up the stairs since, nor am I certain whether I shall find the courage to do so. I shall be grateful for your advice as to how to proceed with the inventory under such circumstances. You may well believe that these circumstances are only the product of my descent into madness, but they are my circumstances all the same, and I dread, as I once dreaded death itself, the thought of returning to face that horrible malle with its strange and inscrutable lodger — the impossible Francine reborn.
Your humble servant, etc.,
Famously, at the annual congress of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte des Mittelalters in Munich in 1913, Prof. Dr. Jörg Ewig speculated that “upwards of 80%” of all historiography since the era of Bossuet may well be the product of archive fugue — that is to say that in his view the great majority of claims made by professional historians, consciously or not, are based on imaginary sources. (One surprising twist in all of this is that, whatever may be the case for modern history, over the past years a great deal of what we had previously considered the falsified medieval histories of the descent of kings has turned out to be veracious — thus in 2017 the original eighth-century Brythonic manuscript upon which Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed to base his eleventh-century Latin translation of the Historia Brittonum was found by chance, remarkably well-preserved, in a peat bog near Machynlleth. It turns out it was all true: Britain really was settled by Brutus of Troy, and King Arthur was no mere legend. The “Matter of Britain”, then-Prince Charles was heard to opine, starts to look a lot different when it actually materialises.) It is widely agreed that Ewig’s speech marked the high-water moment in the history of appeals to archive fugue as a psychiatric phenomenon, not to mention as an explanation of the constant stream of falsities and distortions in historical research. After World War I diagnoses of this syndrome, as well as general cultural interest in it beyond the confines of the psychiatric clinic, would largely vanish… except, that is, in the Margravate of Lower J***. See J. Ewig, “Ueber die Vorstellungskraft in der Geschichtsschreibung,” Zeit. f. mittelalt. Gesch. 27/4 (Herbst, 1914): 72-99.
I anticipate some readers will take the letter that follows for a stunt, especially given the recent proliferation of superficially similar AI-generated stories on the internet. It does indeed complicate my claims to veracity that not long ago I found myself messing around with the Propp-O Folktale Generator, and was surprised to discover a hidden functionality that yielded up the most peculiar results. Other users will have learned that Propp-O does its work when the user enters up to four numbers from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Folktale Classification Index, and the machine combines these in a novel way. Thus, to imagine the simplest of cases, if you enter, say, ATU 330 (“Smith and Devil”, or, more correctly, “The Smith and the Devil”) along with ATU 311 (“Rescue by Sister”), you might get some combination of scenarios where, say, a metalworker makes a pact with a malevolent being, but is saved from the consequences of it by his sweet sibling. Such mash-ups are great fun in themselves, but sometimes a Smith feels compelled, by some devilish megrim, to go yet further. Late one night, after I had tried out several hybrid variations on our rich Indo-European heritage of lore, I got it into my head to push the AI further than its intended purpose and to start entering negative numbers instead. This gave me the most delirious variety of original stories, which at a first glance appeared “absurdist”, “experimental”, “surreal”, etc., but which, on closer inspection, seemed rather to be the predictable result of the AI’s best effort to process more complex mathematical demands of it than the ordinary addition function of, say, 330 + 311. Next I began experimenting with hyperoperations on infinite sequences of ATU values, both positive and negative. You will forgive me if I hold back from sharing the results of these experiments with you at present. I don’t mean to sound like a tease when I say that the world quite simply is not ready for them yet — that is just how it is. For now I will only acknowledge that some of my journeys into the negatives did yield up outputs that look a great deal like the letter I am sharing here, but I swear to you that this letter has its true provenance quite elsewhere, in the realm of plain historical fact — at least as far as I can determine, notwithstanding the counterevidence from the psychiatric diagnosis I was given in the Margravate of Lower J***. I’ll close here by noting that the last time I visited Propp-O, these peculiar functionalities I have described were no longer on offer, and the only inputs the site was allowing —prudently, no doubt—, were of finite and positive values.
This is the second installment in a cycle of Gothic tales. Not to put the point too algorithmically, but if you enjoyed it you may also like the first installment, “Boogaloo”.
Speaking of Gothic tales, I was delighted to have the opportunity to go on Jennifer Frey’s great podcast, Sacred and Profane Love, to talk about Edgar Allen Poe. That episode is out now. Listen to it!
I wrote a piece for UnHerd, advising everyone to calm down about the spectre of AI-generated art.
Finally, I wrote a long and very personal piece for Liberties, about depression, happiness, and why, in my view, it is the depressed who are the true “happiness experts”.
This is the most Borgesian collection of writing I've found outside Borges. Bless you for this wonderful substack.
What else is there to say? Another great addition to the JEHS universe. Thank you.