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  • Reforming the Garden:The Experimentalist Eden and Paradise Lost
  • Joanna Picciotto

In his Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects, Robert Boyle narrates an overdetermined encounter with a piece of fruit remarkably like that which "inveigled our first parents." "How prettily has curious nature painted this gaudy fruit?" he asks, as if he had caught nature investing cura, or care, to fashion what Milton, referring to the forbidden fruit in Areopagitica, called "a provoking object."1 Admiring its "polished skin" and comparing its "pure and tempting green and red dye" to emeralds and rubies, Boyle's description of the apple suggests less a "vegetable production" than a coquette: "if, upon the hearing the praises this scarlet deserves, her blushes ennoble her own cheeks with so vivid a colour, perhaps such a livery of her modesty might justify her pride." Imputing feminine pride, along with the feminine pronoun, to the apple, Boyle lumps the object of temptation together with its first victim. This Eve-like beauty wears modesty as a costume, suggesting a mixture of bashfulness and exhibitionism as seductive to the unwary Protestant as the whore of Babylon herself.

Boyle is not inveigled. With the assistance of a paring knife, he counters nature's erotic manipulations; like Red Cross Knight faced with Duessa, he strips the temptress of her "flattering ornaments (or cheating disguises rather)" to expose her "true and genuine nature." As the agency of curiosity migrates from the apple to Boyle, it is reformed: by investing some cura of his own, he defeats the lust of the eyes Augustine identified with the cognitive appetite and gains physical knowledge without succumbing to carnal temptation.2 Once "all this gay outside is cut and thrown away, and passes but for parings," the fruit can take its place in the creation surveyed and named by the Adamic investigator. Having peeled the apple, he can even put it on trial to discover "whether it performs to the taste what it promises to the sight." So innocent or rehabilitated is his curiosity in this experimentalist fable that it reforms consumption itself into knowledge production, an extension of "the severer scrutiny of reason." [End Page 23]

In the laboratory, ripping away nature's veil of appearances was not so easy; the space consecrated to penetrating appearances also multiplied them. Exposing the things beneath "things themselves" uncovered a strange and seductive multiplicity; peeled back, the surfaces of creation revealed more surfaces, putting investigators at risk of being ravished by nature's secondary enchantments.3 When viewed under the microscope, even common insects acquired a certain star quality:

[The horsefly's] eye is an incomparable pleasant spectacle, 'tis of a semisphaeroidal figure, black and waved; or rather indented all over with a pure Emerauld-green, so that it looks like green silk Irish-stitch . . . all latticed or chequered with dimples like Common Flyes, which makes the Indentures look more pleasantly: Her body looks like silver in frost-work, onely fring'd all over with white silk. . . . After her head is cut off, you shall most fairly see (just at the setting on of her neck) a pulsing particle (which is certainly the heart) to beat for half an hour most orderly and neatly through the skin.4

Henry Power's description of a female body "fring'd all over with white silke" and garnished with emerald-colored lace transforms an anatomy of a horsefly into the stuff of romance. Power's enumeration of each body part, combined with the slide from lush description into investigative torture, even suggests the blazon. The literary genre devoted to the enumeration of the beloved's body parts could only perform a figurative dismemberment; Power is literally able to fragment his subjects while paying them the courtliest of compliments. Although he dismissed color as a cheat of fancy, nature's lurid spectacle inspires him to paint his specimens with the colors of rhetoric, even quoting Donne's "The Flea"—"so great is the mechanick power which Providence has immur'd within these living walls of jet." He ascribes to them emblematic character traits—like virtue to the ant, who "excels most men"—and emotional states, as when he affectionately remarks on the mite...


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