An eventful history of nature
Once there used to be no natural history. When in the first century AD Gaius Plinius Secundus wrote his Naturalis historia, he did not present diachronic developments, processes of progress or decay, but rather an encyclopaedic collection in 37 books with well-nigh 2,500 chapters. In the preface he explained that he wanted to touch on everything that the Greeks called tes enkykliou paideias, some 20,000 items that were unknown (ignota) or not reliably researched (incerta ingeniis facta). Pliny had therefore taken as his subject what today we would assign to different sciences: for example, to physics, astronomy, meteorology, geology, mineralogy, geography, ethnology, zoology, botany, anthropology, medicine, pharmacology and the agricultural sciences. Some topics were commented on several times; for instance, meteorology in the 2nd and 8th books, or zoology in the 8th to the 11th and in the 18th books. The order of the reports, drawn, as Pliny proudly noted, from some 2,000 books, remained unsystematic. This reflects a picture of the world in which diversity dominates over the successions of mythical eras (as in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis).
With the spread of the Christian religion this picture was reinforced, in keeping with the creation story in the Book of Genesis, according to which God created all beings in six days and found them good. In short, everything has been there since then and could be ordered in a scala naturae, a chain of being. Such ideas still influenced the Baroque cabinets of wonder; there in accordance with the classifications of Casper Friedrich Neickel’s Museographia of 1727 consorted together Naturalia (stuffed animals, plants, minerals), Mirabilia, Scientifica and Artificialia. Although curiosities, monsters and apparently unique objects were collected and exhibited, the system aimed primarily at the encyclopaedic completeness later to be caricatured in stories of the production of a map on the scale of 1:1 (Jorge Luis Borges), in an Encyclopaedia of the Dead (Danilo Kiš), or expressed in the impossible desire of the British book collector Thomas Phillipps, which three years before his death in 1872 he formulated in a letter to Robert Curzon: “I buy printed books because I would like to have a copy of every book in the world!!!” The main work of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, published in Paris in 44 volumes between 1749 and 1804, still referred the discourse on the “époques de la nature” to the horizon of the royal cabinet of Naturalia, as his subtitle betrays: “avec la description du Cabinet du Roy”. The temporal ordering that was to gain Buffon the reputation of a precursor of the evolutionary theories of Larmarck and Darwin was shaped by Christian chronology: the creation lasted six and one days, and since the creation of man at most six thousand years have passed; based on the Jewish calendar Buffon even calculated the exact date of the creation of the world: 7 October 3761 BC, eight o’clock and eleven minutes. Even so, it was admitted that the dimensions of the biblical creation story could be expanded: for God, after all, a thousand years are as a single day.
Once there used to be no natural history. That is why Arthur O. Lovejoy, in the William James Lectures at Harvard in 1933, propounded the thesis, which he published three years later under the title of The Great Chain of Being, that perhaps the most significant epistemic rupture of the nineteenth century could be characterized as the “penetration of time into science”, as the temporalisation of the chain of being. Although the theologically prickly question of whether the convergence of what is possible and what is real restricted God’s creative freedom was already discussed in the High Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas had argued that, while God had indeed conceived of an infinite variety of possible things, he had not chosen to realize all of them, an answer that naturally exacerbated the problem of theodicy: if God had chosen freely, why did he choose the existence of evil (or at least deficiently good) existences, and so possibly foregone the realization of the infinite possibilities of the good? But it was only in the nineteenth century that the time of the history of the earth and of evolution extended ever deeper into the past, while the future became an unforeseeable project of technical progress and a gradual “education of mankind” (according to Lessing). Since then, not only has the (in comparison with the cosmic spheres of the ancients) boundlessly burgeoning space of the universe filled human consciousness with fear and terror, as Pascal and Nietzsche confessed, but also the extension of time.
The question of a Historia Naturae, posed by Jan Švankmajer in his nine-minute short film from 1967, is therefore by no means a trivial one. And his answer is exceedingly subtle: for it cites the history of the representation of nature before its real historisation in the nineteenth century; that is, precisely the visual worlds of the cabinets of wonder, the idealizing of encyclopaedic fullness, the tableaux of early modern natural history; but it cites this iconography of nature so as to set it in motion by cinematographic means. The opening fames the usual credits with some of the allegorical portraits by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593). These portraits are proto-surrealist collages consisting of fruits, beasts and plants; they show the four seasons or the four elements. Specifically, on the left of the screen appears repeatedly the representation of air; on the right the portrait of water. Then a dedication is faded in: it is addressed to a contemporary of Arcimboldo, the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), who installed in Prague a significant cabinet of wonders. From 1575 to 1587 Arcimboldo was Rudolf II’s court painter before he was allowed to return to Milan; between 1590 and 1591 he painted the portrait of Rudolf that represents the facial features of the Emperor with the aid of flowers and fruits from all the seasons as Vertumnus, the Etruscan-Roman vegetation god of transformations.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Air (1566), private collection Basel
Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Vertumnus (1590/91), Skoklosters Slott (Sweden)
Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Water (1566), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The eight chapters of Historia Naturae are introduced by another pictorial quotation that invokes the context of the cabinets of wonder: namely the 1622 title engraving of Continuatio rariorum et aspectu dignorum varii generis quæ collegit et suis impensis æri ad vivum incidi curavit atque evulgavit by Basilius Besler (1561–1629), a Nuremberg apothecary who was curator of a botanical garden and cabinet of naturalia. The eight sections follow according to the scala naturae. It begins with the aquatic animals (Aquatilia): mussels, ammonites, crabs and crayfish are shown in rapid frame rates and with numerous zooms, and in several places the forms seem to shape a speaking mouth. The second chapter is devoted to the hexapods (Hexapoda): butterflies, beetles, bees and crickets, black-and-white and coloured illustrations, tableaux (in display cases) and close-ups alternating with one another. Not only media and historical differences are crossed, but also the boundaries between life and death: anatomical specimens are animated into living animals; suddenly crickets walk in their glass cases before again going rigid. (By the way, a parallel cinematic machine with six legs of varying length, which allow for a great deal of mobility in all degrees of freedom, is also called a hexapod. This hexapod was invented in the 1950s; it is used mainly for flight simulations.)
Basilius Besler: title engraving of Continuatio rariorum (Nuremberg 1622)
The third chapter leads into the realm of fish (Pisces): fish watercolours, skeletons, fish eyes and scales in close-ups, fish specimens that circle – reminiscent of an aquarium – a skeleton in a glass case, and finally an animated skeleton that explodes this glass prison. The next chapter treats reptiles (Reptilia), living turtles, colourful turtle shells on the wall, snakes that, coiling incessantly, pass into skeletons, salamanders, lizards and frogs, and shortly before the end a living frog in a glass. The reptiles are followed by the birds (Aves): beginning with many-coloured eggs, a life-like stuffed dove on a table over which a cage (of varying sizes) is placed before the dove comes to life. We see early modern bird water colours, close-ups of birds’ eyes, feathers and wings and dancing bird skeletons in the cage; and finally a skeleton lays an egg, which cracks. The scala naturae then leads on to the mammals (Mammalia), to the tiger, restlessly and in greatly accelerated fast motion treading up and down his cage, to the zebra, the porcupine and the armadillo, again as stuffed animals and skeletons, before in the seventh chapter the apes (Simiae) perform a kind of dance in rapid alternation between diversely coloured illustrations and film shots of living members of their kind. In highly expressive frontal portraits they seem to make faces, to grin, to frighten; they swap fruits – and yet again mutate into skeletons. The last and eighth chapter treats – how could it be otherwise? – man (Homo). We see anatomical wall charts, folding pictures, engravings of the uterus, musclemen in the tradition of Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) and his De humani corporis fabrica (von 1543), wax models, close-ups of human eyes, ears and mouths.
Each chapter of Historia Naturae concludes with a short sequence: it shows a man who with a fork guides a cleanly cut piece of beef to his mouth, chews and swallows it. The chewing and swallowing noises are as loud as if they had been recorded from within the body. Only the final chapter on Homo presents a skull; it too eats meat. The message is easy to grasp: collectors, artists, emperors, historians and biologists remain in the end eating beings. The meat disappears in the close-up of the mouth, as before the flesh from the skeletons of snakes, fish, birds and apes; and even the dead want to eat. Recently the New York science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert published a disturbing book: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (translated into German by Ulrike Bischoff under the title of Das sechste Sterben. Wie der Mensch Naturgeschichte schreibt). The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. In the prologue Kolbert writes: “No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one. When it is still too early to say whether it will reach the proportions of the Big Five, it becomes known as the Sixth Extinction”.  The wonder cabinet is a cemetery, a danse macabre of gorging.
“How man writes natural history” (the subtitle of the German translation of Kolbert’s book): Jan Švankmajer has staged his Historia Naturae as suita. Each chapter is assigned a dance: the Aquatilia a foxtrot, the Hexapoda a bolero, the Pisces a blues, the Reptilia a tarantella, the Aves a tango, the Mammalia a minuet, the Simiae a polka and Homo a waltz. The composer of these dances is the Czech film composer Zdeněk Liška (1922–1983); he wrote music for more than 160 films and television productions, including The Shop on Main Street (by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965) and Shadows of a Hot Summer (by František Vláčil, 1977). Music is not of course a mere extra to Historia Naturae, as the intertitles of the Besler model already announce. It sets the temporality of the encyclopaedia in motion; it rhythmises the narrations of the collage. The objects and tableaux, formed by Švankmajer into pictorial lexica and showcases of fantastic zoology, mineralogy and anatomy, are translated into time lapses and actions. This is about historicising so as to make visible the temporalisation of the scala naturae (in Lovejoy’s sense), but also about forcing the “petrified relations”, as Marx wrote in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, to dance by “singing them their own melody”. In short, Švankmajer too wants to make the “petrified relations” of nature, as they appear in museums and collections, in display cabinets, stuff animals, panel paintings and artfully assembled skeletons, dance by singing to them their own melody.
Peter Greenaway: A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)
The artistic influence exercised by Jan Švankmajer’s films should not be underestimated. In 1984 the twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay succeeded in making Švankmajer’s work known to the Anglo-Saxon world; that year they produced their film The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer. One year later Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts was released. The opening credits of this film begin, underscored by Michael Nyman’s memorable music, with two children dragging a reluctant Dalmatian to three glowing blue capital letters: ZOO. The view switches to a tiger cage. The tiger treads ceaselessly from one end of the cage to the other; on the floor lies the head of a zebra. On the right side of the screen sits a young man, who is measuring the tiger’s movements with a stopwatch. Braking and accident noises startle him. A car has rammed a red and white barrier. A woman screams while the left half of a windshield is filled by a swan, which evidently has collided with the car. At the same time in the right upper third of the picture we see an Esso advertising billboard emblazoned with the familiar slogan: “Put a tiger in your tank”. The next shot shows a photographer before the cage of a gorilla; the sounds of the frame counter, shown in close-up, are reminiscent of the stopwatch. The gorilla is crippled; he lacks a right hind leg. From the bird’s eye view we see again the unfortunate car, on which paramedics are now working with welding equipment; behind it we again recognise the capital letters “ZOO”. This film will revolve around letters and animals, around the strange encyclopaedic entanglement of animals with the alphabet, as we know it from children’s games in which a randomly selected letter must be associated with a city, a country or an animal: monkey, bear, chameleon, dolphin, donkey – on until whale, yak and zebra. Greenway’s film may be seen as a kind of commentary on Historia Naturae; it shares with it the love of wonder cabinets, of the diversity of representational media, of musically inspired stagings of museumed nature preserved in cages and display cases. In some ways it seems the Greenway, like Švankmajer, reaffirms Elias Canetti’s remark that “he thinks in animals as others think in concepts”.
Translated from the German by Jonathan Uhlaner
 Elizabeth Kolbert: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt & Company, 2014.