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Ironclads

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, aviator and author of, among other things, The Little Prince, was enchanted by how machines, after their first clunking, wheezing, inefficient entries into the world eventually always came to conceal themselves and their artificial natures. He was, of course, talking particularly about the first 40 years of flight but his comment seems more Platonic – he said that all machines would finally achieve the naturalness of outline “of a breast” (he was French, after all).(1)

Of course everyone already knows about ironclads and the weirdness of that moment, after centuries of confident polishing of the ideal form of the warship, when all bets were called off and man’s groping ignorance was laid bare. But somehow I was unprepared for it when I ran across the incredible model collection of the Musee National de la Marine, in Paris. Which shows metal abortions, directionless dead-ends and attempts to reinvent the whale (no, that’s not a sub). And it was finally borne in on me, what I think the fundamental impulse of Steampunk is: it’s a kind of anti-Exuperian urge, to reveal the machine in its first improvised, ludicrous moment. Perhaps to capture that spirit of invention that isn’t concerned with doing it well, but merely with being able to do it at all.

…and then I cracked up, confronted by this flanderized monstrosity,(3) armed with 4 big field guns in turrets, a metric buttload of old style ship guns, 18 “canons-revolvers” and 4 torpedo tubes. And, I don’t know, maybe a catapult or some horns.

Have you looked at a modern airplane? Have you followed from year to year the evolution of its lines? Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man’s industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the principle of simplicity? It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elemental purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.  It results from this that perfection of invention touches hands with absence of invention, as if that line which the human eye will follow with effortless delight were a line that had not been invented but simply discovered, had in the beginning been hidden by nature and in the end been found by an engineer… startling as it is that all visible evidence of invention should have been refined out of this instrument and that there should be delivered to us an object as natural as a pebble polished by the waves, it is equally wonderful that he who uses this instrument should be able to forget that it is a machine… in the machine of today we forget that motors are whirring: the motor, finally, has come to fulfill its function, which is to whirr as a heart beats – and we give no thought to the beating of our heart. Thus, precisely because it is perfect the machine dissembles its own existence instead of forcing itself upon our notice. Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1939): Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantiere, (Harcourt Brace, Orlando 1967), pp. 42-43
3: dammit, it turns out that the highly useful critical concept I understood by “flanderization” is exclusively the coinage of Zak Sabbath, since the tvtropes page on the topic claims it’s really the ridiculous exaggeration of a minor character in a work of fiction, generally to the effect of making them stupid. No: that will not do. I do mean making something worse – or more like its image – by adding other intensifying features to it. Perhaps the redundant piling up of signifiers all pointing in the same direction in order to reinforce a point.

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