In the galleries of these museums are gathered together examples of the art and craftsmanship of man, from the most remote stone age to the present day. The study of such objects teaches us how man has reacted to his surroundings, what products of art or industry he has achieved, how he has used or misused his opportunities. They are at once the material and the illustrations of written history, and to a generation becoming daily more dependent on the picture than on the written word their importance is increasing.
The study of history not only widens our mind by increasing our interests, but contributes to the stability of our civilisation by its
record of the actions of men, and their results, in conditions more or less analogous to our own. History is vicarious experience, and
the neglect of it leads to rash ventures and disastrous ex perimerits.
These pronouncements seem to indicate as naive a faith as that of the two clerks in the capacity of giving an adequate representation of reality as it was or as it is. The onto-theological temptation to equate the Encyclopedia-Library with the Museum is
as understandable as it is surprising. The Encyclopedia-Library is a lay version of the medieval metaphor of the Book of Nature. Implicit in that metaphor is the assumption that the world can be completely textualized and, vice versa, that any element of the world can be treated as a textual element. Borges, for example, significantly begins his "Library of Babel" with the words: "The
Universe (which others call the Library)...." A linguistic critique of the onto-theological pretensions of the Library accentuates the open-ended boundaries of the web of language to which the Library tries to give a center and a limit. If the Library is not the mirror of a presumed World or Nature, then the Library is the
emblem of the infinite autoreferentiality of language. Such critiques, while underscoring the open-ended play of language and its uncentered labyrinthine structure, nevertheless often maintain a nostalgia for the center--witness Mallarmé's quest for The Book, or Borges's search for the "Catalogue of Catalogues." This is hardly the case for the Museum. The set of objects the Museum displays is sustained only by the fiction that they somehow constitute a coherent representational universe. The fiction is that a repeated metonymic displacement of fragment for totality, object to label, series of objects to series of labels, can still produce a representation which is somehow adequate to a nonlinguistic universe. Such a fiction is the result of an uncritical belief in the notion that ordering and classifying, that is to say, the spatial juxtaposition of fragments, can produce a representational understanding of the world. Should the fiction disappear, there is nothing left of the Museum but "bric-a-brac," a heap of meaningless and valueless fragments of objects which are incapable of substituting themselves either metonymically for the original objects or metaphorically for their representations.
Flaubert's critique seems radical enough to question, by means of the Museum, the possibility of reaching any truth, essence, or
origin through a representational mode. If the Museum as concept has at its origin the same metaphysical ambition that the Library has in other contexts, namely, to give an adequate ordered rational representation of reality, nevertheless its project is doomed from the start because representation within the concept of the museum is intrinsically impossible. The museum can only display objects metonymically at least twice removed from that which they are originally supposed to represent or signify. The objects displayed as a series are of necessity only part of the totality to which they originally belonged. Spatially and temporally detached from their origin and function, they signify only by arbitrary and derived associations. The series in which the individual pieces and fragments are displayed is also arbitrary and incapable of investing the particular object with anything but irrelevant fabulations. Again, the critique implied here goes beyond a critique which would limit itself to linguistic representation, even though it includes it. Linguistic representation carries within itself, in the Library, its own memory, its own origin, its own arche--displaced or hidden as it may be. The Museum, on the other hand, testifies to an archeological memory that cannot be recovered except through fabulation. The chapter on Bouvard and Pécuchet's museum, in fact, repeats other statements by Flaubert to the same effect. For example, in a chapter
in Par les champs et par les grèves, he described the ruins of Carnac, ironizing all attempts to understand them:
Thus we find this famous field of Carnac that has occasioned the writing of more stupidities than it contains rocks, and one certainly does not come across such rocky paths every day. But, in spite of our natural penchant for admiring everything, we saw in it only a hardy joke, left there by an unknown age to excite the spirit of antiquarians and stupefy travelers. In front of it one opens naive eyes and, all the while finding it quite uncommon, must admit at the same time that it is not very pretty. We understood then the irony of these granite boulders that, since the age of the Druids, have laughed in their green lichen beards at seeing all the imbeciles that came to stare at them. Scholars' lives have been spent in an attempt to determine their past usages; don't you admire this eternal preoccupation of the unfeathered biped with finding some sort of usefulness for everything? Not content with distilling the ocean to salt his stew, and assassinating elephants to make knifehandles out of them, his egotism is again provoked when he is faced with some debris or other whose utility he can't figure out.
It should be obvious from such a passage that the cornerstone of Flaubert's critique is in a way remarkably similar to Nietzsche's
critique of representation-namely, the anthropocentrism of meaning. If the Museum fails at reaching the nature and essence of the objects it displays, it is because it tries to understand them in relation to the spectator rather than in relation to the objects
themselves. "Meaning," the result of metonymic or metaphoric displacements, is anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, and it is because of its anthropocentrism that it is necessarily doomed to failure. Archeology, ultimately, is not an objective science but a fantasy of the perceiving subject.
Another parenthetical remark may be in order here. Flaubert's critique is of consequence for us. Archeology is still a discipline unlike others not only because it pretends to deal with origin and meaning, but because, today as for the nineteenth century, it offers a possible epistemological master pattern. Take, for example, Foucault's Les Mots et les choses and L'Archeologie du savoir: both books claim an epistemology based upon an archeological master pattern. Foucault hopes, through the treatment of linguistic entities by archeological metaphors, to avoid what he considers the implicit idealism of a problematic rooted in linguistic representation. If, however, Flaubert's critique is correct, then the whole enterprise is a fabulation unable to recognize itself as such.
Foucault describes the épistemè, the epistemological invariant, of the Enlightenment as being governed by a quest for a perfect
representation. The taxonomies of Linnaeus and Buffon are, for the twentieth-century thinker, quests for a well-constructed language that would provide an adequate representation of Nature. The isomorphism between the order of Nature and the order of Language is rooted, somehow, in their discontinuity. The relationship between the order of Words and the order of Things is presumably problematical neither for the eighteenth century nor for Foucault. Things, of course, are slightly more complicated. The botanical and zoological taxonomies did not, as the author of Les Mots et les choses argues, originate in or through any presumed space between the order of Nature and the order of Words which is assumed to have governed Classical representation. The eighteenth century generated its botanical nomenclatures by a procedure based upon the same epistemology that would later on be applied to archeological artifacts. The botanical and zoological taxonomies assumed that a single specimen could stand for a species, that part of a specimen could stand for a specimen, that the parts could be related and named, and finally that they could be seen to stand to each other in a contiguous ordered fashion. The possibility of a perfect representation of Nature rests then on a complex series of metonymies and metaphors bridging the gap between the
natural object and its representation. Assuming such a continuous representation the Enlightenment could then originate the idea of giving an ordered representation of Nature in various botanical gardens. It is in this idea of an ordered spectacle of Nature, supplemented by an ordered language that would describe the spectacle, that the idea of the Museum was born.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the development of an archeological method, and an archeological idea of the Museum, was simply the displacement onto human history of what was until then considered "natural history." This displacement guaranteed archeology a metaphysical basis by providing it with a "natural" master pattern. Such a metaphysical basis was all the more necessary in that the passage from the fragments of archeology to the discourse of history is much more problematical than the passage from "Nature" to the language of botanical and zoological taxonomies. At any rate, Foucault's epistemology is rooted in the epistemology of the Enlightenment
he describes so well and, like it, is vulnerable to a critique that takes as its point of departure the questioning, through representation, of the continuity between Word and Thing, Taxonomy and Nature, and Language and Stone.
To return to Bouvard and Pécuchet, if the Museum as boththeme and concept is important, then it ought to account for more than the central chapters related to archeology and history.
In Bouvard and Pecuchet, and in the nineteenth century generally, the archeological metaphor is closely linked with geology and its specific epistemology. It is, in fact, the scientific nature of geology which guarantees the displacement of its metaphors toward archeology. The central name in geology is that of Cuvier, whom the two clerks, of course, had read: "Cuvier ... had appeared to them in the brilliance of an aureole, on the peak of a science beyond dispute". This is not surprising, since Cuvier's Discours sur les revolutions de la surface du globe was a very widely read text whose influence in the earlier part of the century was comparable to that of Claude Bernard's Introduction à la medecine experimentale in the latter part. Cuvier described his enterprise as that of an archeological antiquarian:
Antiquarian of a new type, I found it necessary to learn at the same time to restore these monuments of past revolutions and to decode
their sense; it was my task to collect and to put together in their original order the fragments which composed them, to reconstruct the antique creatures to which these fragments belonged; to reproduce them conserving their proportions and their characteristics; to compare them finally to those which live today at the earth's surface.... I was sustained, in this double work by the fact that it promised to be of equal import both to the general science of anatomy, the essential basis of all those sciences which deal with organized bodies, and to the physical history of the earth, the foundation of mineralogy, of geography, and even, one could say, of the history of men, and of everything that it is most important for them to know concerning themselves.
If it is of interest to us to track down in the childhood of our species the nearly eradicated traces of so many extinct nations, would it not be of greater interest to search in the darkness of the childhood of the earth for the traces of revolutions that took place prior to the existence of all nations? ... Would there not be some glory for man in knowing how to overstep the limits of time, and in rediscovering, by means of a few observations, the history of this world and a series of events which preceded the birth of the human race?
Cuvier's text is exemplary; for him, geology is a form of archeology. The function of the geologist is to reconstruct a continuous temporal history out of the fragments handed down to him. His task, like that of the archeologist, is twofold: to reconstruct the entities to which the fragments belonged and then to arrange those same entities in a series so as to discover the history of the globe-a history which, incidentally, is of necessity as anthropocentric as that proposed by archeology: "All of these ages have been separated from each other by cataclysms, of which our deluge was the last. It was like a fairy-tale in several acts, having man for the finale". To the geologist, the earth in its entirety is a museum.
When Bouvard and Pécuchet, their fancy having been caught by geology, attempt such a reconstruction in imitation of Cuvier, they fail, but their failure is the failure of the epistemology of the Museum to offer an adequate continuous representation between Words and Things. That is to say, attempting to understand the history of the globe through geological fragments is as futile as trying to understand human history through archeology. Disordered fragments lead only to a multitude of contradictory fabulations, something that even the two clerks seem to understand, since to Bouvard's "Geology is too restricted!" Pécuchet replies, "Creation takes place in an up-and-down and haphazard manner. We should do better to start on something else". Their only blindness is in not seeing that what they will pursue next through archeology is the same thing they attempted to find in geology, namely, a continual temporal order where there are actually only disconnected fragments.
The figure of the Museum is so pervasive that Bouvard and Pécuchet's failure at the various branches of agriculture can also
he read as a failure of the Museum, or, more exactly, their failure at agriculture should signal to the reader from the start the
failure of the Museum. Mouchard had already put forth the argument that the two clerks' concern with agriculture, being aesthetic, deals primarily with the question of selecting and ordering, that is to say with precisely the activities upon which the Museum is based." I believe the argument can be generalized, and that perhaps the fact is that we still have a theological nostalgia for the Museum that has in part prevented us from seeing the obvious. If the Museum of Natural History is singled out, it is because, as I stated earlier, the ideology of the Museum was first applied to Nature. The Museum of Natural History was, strictly speaking, the first French museum. Its function was to give an ordered representation, a spectacle of Nature. By displaying plants, metonymically selected and metonymically ordered, it meant to produce a tableau of Nature. The botanical failure of Bouvard and Pécuchet points directly to the failure of understanding Nature. In spite of our hopes and wishes, Nature will always escape any attempt on our part to comprehend it through the representation we give of it to ourselves, in our cultured, cultivated, tame fields and gardens.
Soon after their failure in the various branches of botany, Bouvard and Pecuchet undertake a study of anatomy. The order of succession seems random only if one does not take the Museum into account. Edward Said has already perceptively pointed out how anatomy in the eighteenth century epistemologically belongs to the realm of the laboratory and the museum:
Both linguists and anatomists purport to be speaking about matters not directly obtainable or observable in nature .... The text of a linguistic or an anatomical work bears the same general relation to nature (or actuality) that a museum case exhibiting a specimen mammal or organ does. What is given on the page and in the museum case is a truncated exaggeration... whose purpose is to exhibit a relationship between the science (or scientist) and the object, not one between the object and nature.
This is also true, in a caricatural way, of the anatomical episode in Bouvard and Pécuchet. In the first place, the two clerks do not study the anatomy of a "natural specimen" but of a mannequin, that is to say, a representation: "It was brick-coloured, hairless,
skinless, striped with numerous blue, red and white filaments. This was not so much a corpse as a kind of toy, horrible-looking, very spick-and-span, and smelling of varnish". The function of each part of the mannequin, instead of having any relation to a presumed nature, is the cause of imaginary fabulations; for example, "the brain inspired them with philosophical reflections". More important, however, throughout the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries anatomy was, along with botany, very much a part of the Museum.
Anatomy stands in the same relation to animals and humans that botany does to plants. Significantly, the Museum of Natural History had from its very beginnings a chair of anatomy attached to it. By taking up anatomy after the various branches of botany, Bouvard and Pécuchet in fact exhaust what were the domains of knowledge associated with the Museum of Natural History and it major epistemological ideology from approximately the time of Buffon to that of Cuvier.
In summary, then, Bouvard and Pécuchet retraces the changes, the evolution, the archeological metaphor on which the Museum
is based. Representation of Nature, representation of the globe, representation of history, the Museum believed it possible to
make visible the implicit order of Nature and of History. It failed. It failed not only at its pretense of displaying the order of Nature and History, but in comprehending them as well. Behind our gardens and our fields hides a Nature to which we cannot have access. As for the past of our globe or of human societies, it is given to us only in the form of senseless fragments without a memory, and any attempt of ours to reconstruct a history is nothing but vain fabulation. We are irrevocably cut off spatially from Nature and temporally from our past. There is no continuity between Nature and us, any more than between our past and us. And in this sense, beyond language, Flaubert is an epistemological nihilist.
Eugenio Donato, "The Museum's Furnace" (1979).