Ashes to ashesDavid Bowie
Helena Jans van der Strom gave birth in 1635 to a girl, Francine, who fell ill with scarlet fever when she was five years old. What occurred after her death has given rise to a great deal of speculation. The discovery of diaries kept by the mother and by the daughter have allowed us to finally reconstruct the events that took place during the illness and the final days of Francine’s life. In 1956, the collector, Jan de Blocq, bought the manuscripts from an antique dealer who had acquired the private library of the Amsterdam botanist, Jan Otto van Waert. I’d like to publicly thank Jan de Blocq Jr. for making these manuscripts available. This lecture was part of a project, which we have renounced, whose objective was the publication and critical review of the more than 3,000 pages that make up these manuscripts.
During their first years together, the married life of Helena Jans van der Strom and René Descartes transpired agreeably, without great upheavals, despite the constant climate of fear among intellectuals in that epoch. Starting in 1635, the couple lived in the city of Deventer in the Netherlands. In this Protestant country, the philosopher sought to avoid the fate of Galileo Galilei, who remained under house arrest due to his publications from 1633 until the year of his death. Helena knew how to control René’s fear and anxiety, frequently manifested as harmless, but dramatic, outbursts of ill-temper (one of Helena’s household account books reveal expenses for the replacement of vases, windows, and doors). Descartes, in his published works, limited his thoughts to what was acceptable to the editors of the time. Meanwhile, Helena wrote without any expectation of being published unless she were willing to endure accusations of plagiarism, harlotry, or insanity, common accusations directed at female writers in the epoch. For her, the only secure province for her papers was in a chest of drawers.
The joy of the house was Francine. She was born in 1635, the same year in which France declared war on Spain and Japan prohibited its merchants from traveling overseas. Her childhood took place amid the tree-lined streets and lawn-filled parks of the city and the books and discussion circles of her home. Helena’s hospitality inspired an extensive group of intellectuals to form the Orbis de Deventer (for more information, consult historian Franklin Rudolf Ankersmit’s 2021 book by Goethe publishers). Experimental and natural philosophers, translators, astrologers and astronomers, poets, alchemists and chemists, Galenist doctors, magi, mathematicians, historians, orators, theologians, and architects met at seven every Thursday evening in the welcoming environment of the library, lit by whale oil lamps and decorated by Helena herself with burgundy-red velvet curtains and carpets. Film director Luc Besson depicted the setting perfectly in his film Passions of the Soul, which was released this year.
Conversations might begin by considering the lixiviation of ashes and end by commenting on the latest news concerning Japanese automatons or begin by elegizing machines that emitted light and end by debating the division of opinions elicited by telescopes. It should be no surprise that the girl, being brought up in such an environment, had as one of her most pronounced characteristics an incommensurate curiosity. The discussion circles kept René in perfect mental balance and bore witness to his motto: “To live well, you must live unseen,” which resulted entirely from his fear of failure in social interaction. A number of the couple’s friends and acquaintances praised Helena’s ability to know at every turn what would best serve her companion’s psychological state.
Given the events that would mark the girl’s life, those of you who form our audience can appreciate the importance of the anecdote we are about to recount. On her fifth birthday, a little before she fell ill, Francine surprised her parents by asking for a visit to Jacques Gaffarel’s laboratory as a gift.
As Helena described in detail in her diary, the three arrived at Gaffarel’s home accompanied by the young aristocrat, Margaret Lucas, and the atomist medical doctor, Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius. The lab’s workbench was crowded with sealed glass vials, each labeled with the ashes of whatever plant it contained. Their host had decorated the room painstakingly. The visitors were immediately imbued with an air of mystery invoked by the intense aroma of Arabian incense and the light of wide, finely made yellowish candles in silver candelabra. When Gaffarel asked the girl what she wanted, she bit her lower lip and tilted her head, as she so often did, and answered, “A rose.” He promptly took a vial of cut glass resembling a ruby that contained reddish ashes. “Ita renovata et restaurata avis fieri,” he whispered theatrically, imitating a Bedouin sorcerer, and shouted, “Here it is … the blood of the Phoenix!” His theatrics impressed those attending and, according to Helena, both she and her husband were deeply grateful for the performance whose sole objective was to astonish their daughter. Gaffarel brought the vial close to a flame, opened a manuscript of reindeer parchment, and read some unintelligible words. From the ashes in the vial there immediately arose a tenuous shadow from which grew roots, stems, and leaves. Then flowers opened, more vivid than any corporeal flower. When the vial was taken from the heat, the shadow withered away. In her diary, Francine would write years later some of her impressions of the day and, with aptly chosen words, compared her own destiny to the nature of that experiment. It should be added that at the time, palingenesis was much appreciated, based on the idea that the seeds of every living being remained indestructible in their ashes (for more information, consult the studies of C. Solís).
A few months after her visit to the laboratory, the first symptoms of Francine’s illness, scarlet fever, made their appearance. According to the official account, the illness began on August 21st, and the girl died three weeks later on September 7th. According to Helena’s diary, the illness began in April, and the next day the girl lost her ability to speak, a little later consciousness, and she died five months later. Francine herself, in her notes from 1650, described the sensations she recalled of those initial moments:
“The warm glow of consciousness pulled me down into an insupportable interior heat. My body became a glass vial haunted by atoms teeming amid red ashes. Some atoms found a proper place inside myself and squeezed in harmoniously. Others simply remained suspended, colliding from time to time in senseless struggle. Some atoms were terrestrial, flat, and square; others aqueous, round, empty, wet, and spongy; or gaseous, long, and straight; or igneous, acute, and sharp. Their random movements traced out the destiny of my new world. A world where, for a long time, I would be merely a body without a head.”
Anyone familiar with 17th-century scientific texts can spot connections between this description and the atomic poems of Margaret Cavendish in which health and illness, and even a mind’s degree of creativity, depended on the movement and degree of unity among atoms.
The fever struck in April 1640. In that same year, John Wilkins would publish his celebrated discourse concerning a voyage to the Moon, Peerson would compose his masterpiece, and Rubens would die. Helena remained stalwart during her daughter’s illness. She knew the sole way to give the girl strength was by acting confident and positive. She only broke whenever she saw Francine gesture so characteristically during the delirium of fever, biting her lower lip and tilting her head as if her eagerness to learn had not fallen infirm. Then Helena would rush from the room and weep alone. René, however, sat in despair alongside the little girl’s bed, and only when Helena admonished him would he lock himself in his room where he channeled his frustration into shouting and beating his fists on his desk. As the philosopher himself admitted in a letter to Henry More (correspondence studied by González Recio), in one of those moments of desperation he burned some of his manuscripts out of fear that the illness was a reprisal by God for his daring to penetrate the secrets of nature.
So that the girl would not be distressed by a depressing environment, Helena insisted on maintaining the weekly discussion circles. This gave rise to diligent daily visits by Margaret Lucas, Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, and Jacques Gaffarel. The five sat next to Francine, considering possible solutions and observing her as if they were studying the surface of the Moon with a telescope or the rhizome of a fern with a magnifying glass.
As a consequence of the scarlet fever, Francine’s skin became covered by a rash. In certain spots, her skin became scaly, swollen, and gangrenous. Six days into the illness, a finger began to putrefy, the little finger of the right hand. On that day, Descartes repeated incessantly: “Nothing that I think makes sense if I can do nothing when my daughter loses a finger.” Franciscus answered, “A finger is just a finger. Let us proceed.” And that is when it all began.
With the aid of Franciscus, René constructed a finger from cherry wood covered with porcelain from the Chinese city of Shangri-La. Helena described that finger as more lovely than anyone could ever have imagined. That little finger on the right hand was followed by the right ring finger and thumb, and the little finger on the left hand. The observers surrounding the girl agreed that like themselves, Francine was made of universal material adorned with natural structures and, at the corruption of natural matter, the preternatural must be produced to achieve incorruptibility. In that fashion, when the girl suffered a cut that resulted in a small loss of flesh, the missing organic matter was replaced by bits of porcelain that a Dutch painter adapted using natural pigments in wild plants from the Trondheim mountains.
In Helena’s entries, we can hardly find any evaluation of these substitutions in the girl’s body. She called the interventions “preternatural stopgaps” and compared the procedure to the transformation of opaque, dense, metallic lead into transparent, light crystal.
The description of these first interventions was technical, sterile, and distant as if it came from an anatomy text. Still, we must point out some humorous remarks. For example, the margin of one page contains a sketch of the astronomer Tycho Brahe with a long nose (we should recall that the astronomer’s nose, lost in a duel, was reconstructed with gold and silver) and a sketch of Franciscus’s face drinking gin (the invention of the liquor is attributed wrongly to him even today). We do not know who drew these sketches. In any case, after two weeks of illness, efforts began to make repairs to internal organs.
Before continuing, I wish to pose some questions that arose as I read these diaries. On average, children die two weeks after the first symptoms of scarlet fever, and yet, the interventions managed to prolong Francine’s life for months.
But what was the real objective of those interventions? To substitute the diseased body with a new receptacle for her mind? Did they follow a pre-established plan or did they act in accordance with the natural evolution of the illness?
For reasons of time, I will not enter into the technical details of the process here. But we might dare to suggest that, in fact, a pre-established plan existed. The interventions anticipated the advance of the illness with a final objective ultimately achieved in 1643. In any case, this is mere speculation. We must not forget that we are interpreting records created for private use and due to their spontaneity, lapses, and omissions, they offer an interloping reader both satisfaction and frustration.
The team that carried out surgical interventions was composed of ten to fifteen people. Before the scarlet fever reached the ganglions in her neck, they substituted her throat with a copper resonator; when her heartbeat became so forceful and irregular that they could see arteries pulsating in her arms, they gave her a blood transfusion following instructions in still-unpublished documents by William Harvey; they carried out open-heart surgery using Lazzare Riviere’s method. According to her mother’s description, they cleaned the orifice of her aortic aperture, which was full of small carbuncles, and replaced the three half-moon cusps leading to the aorta with metalwork pieces.
For the brain surgery, Helena recounted how they followed the guidelines in Observationes medico-chirurgicae by Jobus Meckren, published in Russia in 1639. Helena wrote: “… the doctor describes the brown powder and a sparkling black stone implanted in the pineal gland. He explains that when the brain that has received these implants is submitted to Gaspar Schott and Thomas Browne’s machine, it produces a soot that has reactivated dead portions of animal brains and has even created extraordinarily intelligent animals. According to Franciscus, some have spoken of implanting this dust in the brain of a Russian nobleman …” Before I continue, allow me to pose some questions: given other citations in the text, we can conclude that “Thomas Browne” refers to the man who used the word electricity for the first time in 1646 in a work entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica, but does “Gaspar Schott” refer to the celebrated teacher Otto von Guericke, who constructed the first electrostatic friction machine in 1663? Given the subsequent developments, does “brown powder” mean silicon, and “black stone” mean graphite? Can we suggest that silicon and graphite were implanted in Francine to carry out neural functions?
Two and a half months after the first day of fever, Francine could no longer open her eyes, by which time her left eyeball was now a pigmented glass sphere from Bratislava. According to what she told her mother after her death, during those days she was unconscious of everything and only perceived images projected on the insides of her eyelids:
“Francine told me she did not think during the operations and only noticed a tickle inside her body. She saw black specks, glowing sheets, and shining cubes that fell from nowhere and became crystals of mercury pulled into silver cascades falling over nitric acid, forming infinite tiny ocher branches with green balls at the end; and there, as if she herself were the famous tree planted by Diana de Poitiers, was where her body rested while some of its parts ceased to be what I had brought into this world. I give thanks to the ashes for becoming at those moments the only refuge for my daughter. Our states of being inhabit and conceal themselves within those red ashes.”
We can affirm that the surgeries were successful, considering that they prolonged the life span of someone suffering from scarlet fever. Yet, in early September, five months after the fever appeared, Francine stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. According to earlier entries, that was the time to submit her to the machine devised by Gaspar Schott and Thomas Browne.
On September 5th, Francine ceased breathing and her heart stopped beating. Her parents pondered their daughter’s body. They had engendered a human being who died as a doll made from organic remains adorned with porcelain, wood, and metal. As Helena explained, Gaffarel was able to maintain the body at low temperatures following methods described by Mersenne, Quercetanus, and Van Helmont, and the parents decided what to do with the girl’s body two days later.
From this moment on, we can detect a change in Helena’s discourse. Here she abandoned technical and objective language along with her confidence in science. It is as if when breath and heartbeat stopped, her scientific dream ended, and now she was also incapable of keeping her companion’s hope alive. Although it was not clearly explained, we understand that Helena did not wish to continue with the plan and would not permit the application of electricity to the girl’s body to revive her.
After noting some personal impressions, Helena wrote of her conversations with René, Margaret, Franciscus, and Jacques. We can group the issues discussed into two main themes. First, with a personal tenor, she detailed the debates between herself and René that were, basically, the confessions of parents left hopeless and devastated by their daughter’s fate. In Helena’s words, René oscillated between hysteria, depression, and immaturity. For example, she described how René locked himself for several hours in his office, and when he emerged, he handed Helena a bundle of papers covered with almost unintelligible scribbles. The philosopher had written a brief treatise against women to express his ire with Helena, who would not let him carry out the plan.
Second, the couple discussed the similarities and differences between what is human and mechanical and between beings that are living and dead. My intention here is not to analyze these dialogues in light of Descartes’ literary production, only to highlight some of the comparisons compiled by Helena that, later, Descartes and other scientists, such as the medical doctor William Harvey, would use in their texts. Helena compared the deceased person’s body to a dismantled clock, the heart to a pump, and the lungs to a bellows.
After those discussions, the parents decided to carry out a false interment and keep the girl’s body as if it were a doll. According to the official account, here is where Descartes constructed an automaton as a substitute for his daughter.
Within the span of two days, Francine became a doll. This was the first part of her post mortem life. Without Francine’s breathing and Helena’s support, the house was plunged into silence and Descartes into deep sorrow. According to their diaries, in the following days, Helena would wage an internal battle to distance herself from her daughter’s body and would even prohibit the use of Francine’s name in their home to refer to it. René, on the other hand, could not be separated from the body, considering it still the receptacle of the girl’s mind. However, according to Helena, he thought it reasonable to accept her decision and abandon the initial objective: to submit the girl to an electric impulse to revive her. Even so, he was determined to have her recover some bodily movement.
A few days later with the help of a watchmaker, René was able to make her blood circulate again and her lungs inhale and exhale air. In addition, by pushing various buttons, he made her turn her head, open and close her mouth, raise an arm, and even emit a few words. Thus Francine changed from a doll into an automaton, a mechanical being with the ability to move its components. This was the second part of her post mortem life. As Helena defined it, this automaton object became for René a physical tribute to the thing that he loved most. But Descartes was well aware that a machine would never have a mind and for that reason would never be a human being. Effectively, it was a machine; it could imitate the movements of a human body, but it did not move consciously or willfully. It could speak words but could not formulate them since it did not know how to use speech to declare thoughts.
During those weeks, Descartes kept his automaton daughter sitting in a chair in the salon. Some nights, after eating and before going to his study to answer letters, he arranged her clothing, stroked her hair, and occasionally pushed the button to have her say a few words: “Papa, Mama,” “Good night,” “It’s sunny …”
Helena continued her private battle to maintain her distance from this imitation of her daughter, and she seemed to find consolation only in conversations with an innkeeper in that city, whom she would later marry. Meanwhile, visitors were surprised to see that slow-moving doll with porcelain skin so fine it seemed authentic and hair so silky it seemed more bright and real than a genuine girl’s. And they all shared their relief to see that Descartes had recovered from his sorrow.
One morning, Descartes sat the doll at the table as a breakfast companion, and a week later, put a plate in front of her. Two weeks later, as they ate a midday meal, he placed her near the stove, fearing she felt as cold as he did. One night in March, after eating, he placed her on her bed. The following night, he covered her with a blanket, and soon after that, he sang her a lullaby. It was that night when, before he left her room, he whispered her name, Francine. In May, he began to read letters, books, and various projects aloud to her. In June the conversations started.
According to Helena’s diary, René told her, “… one day, after supper, when I was getting ready to read my mail, I noticed that Francine seemed worried. I asked her why, and she answered with a question: ‘Papa, I don’t have a mind, do I?’”
The diary reproduced the conversation in detail, just as he told it to Helena. I shall read a portion of it:
“Yes, you do,” René answered as he opened a letter.
“How can that be?” she insisted. “I’ve read your books. In them, you describe how machines don’t have minds. I’ve stopped breathing naturally, and although I still have parts of my organic brain, the replacements have turned me into a machine. I’m a machine. My blood circulates as if it were a system of pipes, pumped by a metal heart. How can I have a mind?”
“What I write in my books is one thing, and what I think is something else. You have a mind. You do,” René answered with self-assurance, setting aside the letter.
“Why?” the girl asked with wet eyes.
“Because the mind is given by another,” he told her, taking her hand.
“How can that be?” she asked.
“I love you, and you give me happiness, and this means you possess love and happiness,” he answered with a smile. “To converse with you gives me intellectual enjoyment, and that means you possess intellectual enjoyment. If you give me something, that means you have it. So how can I deny that you have passions? And passions show a union between a body and an intelligent and reasonable mind. The mind is a substance that thinks. If you ask me whether you have a mind, can anyone deny that you do?”
In that way, René, as he himself described it to Helena, convinced himself that night that a body had a mind when another observer perceived that it did. Regarding that, as the philosopher’s biographies point out, it seemed a twist of fate that Descartes, who theorized about the division between body and mind, should suffer a post mortem division between body and brain (for more information, I recommend the book by Russell Shorto, still fully applicable, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, 2009).
During those days, Francine ceased to be a transitional being who represented the painful division between mind and body; she became a being of full mind and body. After their conversation, René tucked her into bed and sang her a song. When the philosopher entered to his own room, he closed the door, then smashed it with his fist. According to Helena’s indications, that thunderous sound marked the culmination of the father’s mourning for his daughter. And thus a new stage began for Francine.
Before considering the third part of Francine’s post mortem life, we shall comment on an episode that shows how the philosopher was fully conscious of his precarious psychological state at that time. “I am speaking with my daughter’s mechanized cadaver. I have gone mad and defied nature. Because of that, I consider myself unworthy of your admiration, my young friend.” This is found in one of Descartes’ letters sent to a very young Robert Boyle. At that time, Boyle—who would later become an eminent scientist—was a precocious boy fascinated by news that reached London regarding mysterious discussion circles in Deventer. Among Boyle’s answers, we cannot help but mention the following for its poetic image: “Francine is still Francine. Immota labascunt, et quae perpetuo sunt agitata, manent.” Here Boyle cited a famous poem by the Renaissance author Janus Vitalis, which tells how a visitor seeking Rome will not find it amid the shattered stones and buried theaters nor amid the physical remains, whether still standing or in ruins. He will find it in what flows, in the rivers, and in the idea of Rome itself. Boyle had sent Descartes the final verses of the poem (my translation from Latin): “What stands firm is by time defeated, and what flows defeats time.” Boyle, in his medical treatises, would later write with the same intent: “… the body of a human being changes constantly because it is a being in permanent flux, and because of that, the individual continues to be the same individual.” According to Helena’s observation, Boyle’s letter encouraged René. In effect, Francine continued to be Francine although her body was no longer the same; it was an organism with incorporated material, but her original identity had been preserved intact, and thus the project ought to continue as planned.
On April 4th, 1643, Descartes told Helena, “The moment has arrived. I can wait no more. She must come back now.” We may suppose that the shock provoked by the decision was the reason for the diary’s long pause. For several days we have not a single word, and a week later we only find a few wild notes: “And if it is true that she is still herself there inside?” “revive,” “… if it fails we shall return again …” “we must accept nature’s design,” “… A body is nothing more than universal material with a specific structure …” “… the proper mechanical construct …” “Resurrection is not impossible, merely improbable,” etc.
Two weeks later, Helena resumed her regular entries and transcribed the conversations between René and his friends. The dialogues revolved around three points: embryology, resurrection, and the attainment of the initial impulse. From these fragments, we shall highlight one of Helena’s remarks, underlined in red: “Embryology is one thing, and resurrection is another.”
The bibliographic citations written in the margins of the pages hold great interest for historians of science, and it must be said that, in our initial project, we would have supplemented that information with an analysis of the post mortem inventories of the libraries of the principal protagonists. We have also abandoned that project.
The conversations dealt with issues such as the transformation of frogs, toads, and silkworms and cited works in embryology by Democritus, Paracelsus, Vesalius, Münster, Duchesne, Marci, Highmore, Digby, and Croll. They also addressed experiments begun in the Renaissance with the objective of obtaining the resurrection of flesh and cite authors such as Voigt and Kircher. And they debated cases of cadavers supposedly resuscitated from their tombs and cited works by del Río, Kornmann, and Allatius.
The transcription of conversations dealing with the initial impulse or the nature of the beginning of life lack detail and, basically, consist of individual words and disjointed phrases, some underlined, others linked by arrows: “prime energy,” “vital heat,” “revive,” “drive,” “small gland located in the midst of the substance.” We will highlight here a sentence attributed to René: “May God give her a soul again, damn him!” In addition, among the notes, Helena transcribed the celebrated question that Elizabeth of the Palatinate and Bohemia asked Descartes: “How can the human soul (if it is nothing more than thinking matter) cause the body’s spirits to produce voluntary action?”
Descartes’ answer to the princess would come in May. In that same month, Helena would leave her home because she could no longer endure the idea of resurrecting her daughter. And the next year she would marry the local innkeeper Jan Jansz van Wel. In spite of everything, fortunately, she continued to write in her diary and remained present in the lives of René and her daughter.
The mother’s first annotation, after she left the house, are two names written in capital letters: “Gaspar Schott and Thomas Browne.”
In her diary, Francine related her return to the world in a very similar way to the start of her illness:
“The warm flame of consciousness divests me of death to sublimate my volatile parts. Thus I awaken. My body is now a glass vial where a child’s knowledge is reprinted on the muscles of ceramic, graphite, and flesh of my former brain. With my eyes closed, I see on my eyelids fractal crystal prisms falling from nowhere to mix with potash and ammonium salts, then everything heats and forms flowerbeds of glycine and jungles of fir trees. Everything is enormous and free. But my head is a medieval helmet of garnet chandeliers, and I do not know what it means to see or hear. And my arms and my legs are coated with amber clay and my torso is copper and I do not know what it means to move. I recover consciousness without having it. And I am relaxed and still do not know that I am thinking. And I still do not know that thinking is evidence of my existence. And, after some silence, I hear Papa without knowing who Papa is, nor what hearing is: ‘I am very happy to have you here again.’”
During those first moments, Francine did not recognize her father nor anything in her surroundings. As she wrote, she had been reborn with an automaton’s body and a baby’s mind. From that moment on, she had to relearn everything. It was May 17th, 1644. On that same day, Margaret Lucas became engaged to the man she would marry in 1645, becoming Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.
Using the diaries of Helena and Francine, one of the most difficult points of the entire process to unravel and understand is the procedure used to achieve resurrection. We can be sure of only one thing: what it described is impossible in light of official science. We have found some notes by Francine, years later, that might explain the process which permitted her return. If we interpret them correctly, the machine constructed by Gaspar Schott and Thomas Brown achieved the discharge of a voltaic arc, which would anticipate its discovery by Humphry Davy in 1800; the manipulation of sparkling black stone refers to the creation of something similar to what we now know as carbon nanotubes from graphite electrodes, something that would not come to pass until 1991; and the allusions to the creation of extraordinarily intelligent animals describe the formation of synapses between cerebral neurons with the use of carbon nanotubes, which would not even be considered until the first decade of the 21st century.
Francine learned little by little as if she had just been born. At the end of the first month, she had acquired the knowledge she had held before her death. With that knowledge, Francine became Francine again. But Francine did not know how to interact with others. She was like a machine, which exasperated René. Nonetheless, after four months, the girl tilted her head. From then on, her biologic brain regained its humanity. She recovered empathy, the language to express emotions, and the necessary skills to maintain a logical conversation. She also developed feelings related to identity. In that respect, we shall read this fragment from Helena’s diary:
“Francine asked me things like: ‘Am I myself? What remains of me? Am I an idea, a shadow of myself? Am I a reconstruction made from second- and third-hand sources? Am I a mechanical imitation of an active principle?’ My answer is always the same: ‘You are Francine.’ And yet, I do not know if I am lying with that answer, and I cannot help but think that this is all a great error on the part of René.”
According to Helena, Francine’s companionship became essential for Descartes in both his daily and his professional life. In that revenant being, he found the equilibrium he had lost on that fateful day when the fever began. We will consider one of the final fragments of Helena’s diary, a conversation between René and his daughter recorded in great detail:
“Francine, I am going to light this candle … tell me what you see as it burns,” René asked.
“The smell, the color, the shape … it all changes,” she answered.
“Now it gives off a smell, its color is altered. It is distorted, its shape disappears. And yet, it seems to grow larger. Now it is a liquid and grows hot, and if we could touch it and not be burned, we would feel that it is soft … and if we tap it with this pencil, now it makes no sound.”
“And would you say it is the same wax as before?” René asked her.
“Yes, without a doubt,” she said after a few moments of thought.
“But then … what allows us to define that bit of wax?” he asked.
“Everything has changed,” she answered. “Everything we smell, see, touch, hear … but it remains the same wax. What we know about it cannot be anything our senses tell of us of it. We do not know things by senses, we know them by comprehending them. Although the wax changes, reason tells us it does not change. Only comprehension is capable of capturing the essence and identity of things.”
After four months, Francine’s intelligence experienced what we could call “the departure.” We shall read one of her fragmentary writings from this time:
“I was broken before and after, and now I replicate myself. I see the Earth in a grain of sand and the sky in the shadow of ashes within a vial. I hold infinity in the pigmented glass of my eyes, and everything fleeting is now. I separate atoms from energy and lights lose their identity and weep while they intertwine forever. I am the sublimation of phlogiston and experience the sublime texture of other human minds. The atoms in my brain branch to form cones and unite and undertake a voyage at the speed of light. And I see tomorrow and return here where I belong to propel a spherical atom and reprogram the double helix and to create an embryo, and I mold life and multiply it and make a copy of a mirrored copy, and I copy myself until I reach the garden where all the paths fork, and here I retrace all my futures and all the outcomes that occur, I die with time and space to live in the absolute, while we give birth to the eternal omnipresent speed resting amid tenuous clouds where myriad silent purple stars crowd together, and I could launch them all to the infinite cosmos to colonize new worlds where peace and harmony reign. And I know all and can do all. And because of this, I see the great error that was made, and because of this I remain here, at the fire, so my ashes can observe without being seen.”
We can deduce this “departure” based on a thorough interpretation of pages and pages of notes when her diary ceased to relate everyday events and became a collection of ideas, reflections, and descriptions that show an extraordinary understanding of physical reality. Everything was recorded in rhythmic, musical, almost poetic language that, significantly, reminds us of the language used by Galileo and Newton (and, curiously, as you can see, with images and metaphors used later by such authors as Borges and Marinetti). While it is true that fiction has anticipated advances in the understanding of nature, we find ourselves here with such a level of detail that we can hardly believe it is all the result of an extraordinary imagination. In her notes, Francine described her mind as if it were a 21st-century computer, suggested that her mind’s impulses flew at the speed of light, and referred to her ability to manipulate material at the subatomic level and to travel in time. She suggested witnessing the origin of the universe, having the ability to create intelligent life and clones, possessing direct communication with human psyches, and holding the power to choose to be a corporeal being or not. How should we interpret this?
We put forward the interpretation that Francine became a super-intelligence. She became the rose in the vial. She transformed into a singular idea, more alive than the rose itself, in her singularity. And yet, why has this case not transcended into history? What does it mean to say, “I see the great error”? Perhaps the final entries in her diary can reveal the meaning of that sentence. But first, we shall pause to travel to the royal court of Sweden.
After 1650, diary entries by both Helena and Francine are few. Only a few notes allow us to add details to what is described in the official account regarding the demise of the automaton Francine and of her father, the philosopher René Descartes.
In 1649, the royal court of Sweden invited Descartes to give classes to Queen Cristina, with whom he had maintained a correspondence for some time. In that same year, according to the official history, steam engines were still a hypothesis; meanwhile, England initiated eleven years as a republic, and in Brazil, Matias Beck reconquered Ceará. To make the trip, Descartes embarked with Francine. According to the official record, the voyage brought an end to the life of the automaton, whom her father kept in a coffer in his stateroom. A rumor circulated among crew members that the philosopher was not traveling alone, and the captain, propelled by curiosity, discovered the coffer and could not keep from opening it. Francine sat up and spoke. At her sight, the captain became frightened and, believing her to be the work of the devil, threw her into the sea. According to Helena’s account, what happened was quite different. The crew knew about Francine, and they all admired and respected the child, who for them was a miracle. One night, a storm dragged Descartes into the sea; the crew hastened to his rescue and by good fortune brought him back on board the ship. Still, the philosopher never recovered from the water’s chill. Some have concluded that the inhumane pace of work imposed by the queen in her court precipitated Descartes’ death. But according to entries in Francine’s diary and what she described to her mother, life in the court was extraordinarily happy and enriching, and his fall into the sea caused the pneumonia that ended the philosopher’s life on February 11th, 1650.
Francine’s final entries, written in the early 1670s, locate her in London along with Helena, Margaret, Franciscus, Jacques, and Robert Boyle. We end our lecture with one of her final entries, which explains “René’s error” and which justifies our decision not to publish the manuscripts and to allow this lecture to serve as the sole and final testimony of her existence:
“…’To live well you must live unseen’: this was my father’s motto. In one of his letters to Balzac, he described how he could live out his entire life in Amsterdam without being noticed by a soul. Now I, in London, can also go out every day to walk amid the noisy multitude and lose myself without being seen among the leafy trees. If I opt to be ashes, I have all the freedom and repose I wish, and I can discover the truth in any part of the cosmos. Yet I am only happy and feel pleasure at seeing the fruit that grows in my neighbors’ gardens, reading my mother’s and Margaret’s prose, and taking quiet strolls. I know everything, and nonetheless, I enjoy celebrating every new discovery by my friends. And I enjoy discussing the flavor of cocoa or watching the Chinese wisteria bloom. Despite being wherever and whenever I wish, here I have all the curiosities of the world, and here I can live as my mother taught me. Only on Earth and at home can I find complete freedom and protect them while barely leaving a trace.”
We end by citing George Dyson: “True intelligence is sufficiently astute not to reveal its existence.” All that remains is for me to give deep thanks to this organization for inviting me and to you, the audience, for your kind attention. Good evening.