A Case of Curiosities

by Allen Kurzweil


curios.gif (115884 bytes)

The Plot

The story begins in the small village of Tournay France in 1780. The young boy, Claude Page, has been born with a growth on his finger which is noticed by an unscrupulous surgeon obsessed with its "scientific value." Here, Kurzweil wastes no time in portrayal of religious people. The surgeon was a "citizen of Geneva. ... A Man of impeccable disposition, but impeccable in the sense of Calvinist doctrine, meaning that he was free from sin. He held himself in the highest regard even if those around him did not" (p. 9). This medical quack storms into the life of the Page family on the pretense of a medical/religious emergency when his real intent was to acquire a new specimen for his disreputable "scientific research." Rather than removing the growth, as was agreed, the surgeon amputates the boy's finger in order to preserve the integrity of the specimen for his collection. When this travesty is finally discovered the shameless surgeon asserts that Francis Bacon condoned this kind of "research," and the boy's loss would serve the "gains of science ... and pay tribute to God's greater glory" (p. 18). At this point enters one of the central heroes of the story - the defrocked Abbé. Prior to this discovery the Abbé appeared to be a kindly priest who was available to give encouragement to the family in their time of need. With the revelation of the surgeon's betrayal of their trust he rises up in righteous indignation. In a fury he declares, "Damn you, damn your study, damn your misreading of Bacon. I hope that this deformed person will have his revenge on you. In fact, I declare right now that he will!"

The next scenes relate the efforts of the Abbé to encourage the disheartened Claude by acknowledging his artistic gifts which were otherwise unrecognized. After much effort Claude finally responds to the Abbé's encouragement and an offer is extended to work under a loose relationship which is distantly akin to an apprenticeship, but is more like a discipleship in a new philosophy. Thus, begins Claude's relationship to the Abbé and his interest in science, mechanisms, and apostasy. The Abbé immediately begins to prepare this young boy in the many requirements of the particular art that his industry requires: artistic sketching, enameled painting, and the related technology. At first Claude finds this new knowledge interesting, but it is not long before he becomes dissatisfied because he has different leanings. Eventually the Abbé includes Claude in the mechanical aspects of his business since he is financing his "scientific interests" through the manufacture of pornographic watches. Not only does the Abbé disciple Claude by example in his mechanical interests, but also his religious acrimony. The growth of Claude's skills in these fields is beyond what the Abbé had hoped for and their cottage industry thrives since this was "an especially pornographic age" (p. 238). Then all of this "progress" takes a big setback when Claude listens outside the chapel to what was rumored to be a routine sadomasochistic affair (pp. 59, 83, 84) between the Abbé and a certain Madame Dubois. He overhears and sees an argument in silhouette on the chapel curtain which ends with an angry hammer blow to the head of Madame Dubois. Claude responds in fear and disgust, since his trust had been so foolishly misplaced, and flees without any explanation.

The next period of Claude's life begins when he runs away to Paris in order to fulfill his dreams of being a master-mechanic. His youthful naiveté is immediately exposed to the ravages of eighteenth century French society with its miserable slums and wanton upper class. Claude soon falls into despair. Out of desperation, and against the entreaties of his friends, Claude decides to accept an apprenticeship under the previously encountered and contemptible pornographic bookseller Lucien Livre. In previous encounters Livre had ridiculed Claude's interest in mechanics and declared that his name was his destiny and now he revels in the fulfillment of his prophecy. After some time Claude settles into the life of an exploited apprentice until Livre discovers that he has not forgotten his earlier mechanical aspirations. When Livre attempts to humiliate Claude the resulting circumstances cause him to meet the lust object of his pornographic past -- Madame Alexandra Hugon. Kurzweil now has this much older married woman seduce and prostitute a fifteen year old boy as though this was his "sexual salvation." The Madame is generally indifferent to Claude's naive attachment and uses him to satisfy her own perverse desires. After a long period of this new kind of exploitation Claude finally demands that his mechanical abilities be recognized and the Madame agrees to subsidize his efforts. When Claude presents his mechanical labor of love to Madame Hugon she utterly rejects it and they depart with the deeply embittered emotions that always accompany a relationship based on lust.

Now, as a broken young man, Claude grows increasingly despondent until he is shaken by the news of a devastating fire in the village of Tournay. Claude rushes home and finds that his mother and sisters were all killed in the fire. These circumstances ultimately bring the Abbé and Claude together again, but now he is mature enough to finally confront his worst fears about his former mentor. Before Claude can explain the reason for his hasty departure, and his feelings of betrayal, he learns that he had made a terrible mistake. The forsaken Abbé opens his heart to Claude by sharing his past great expectations of becoming a master-mechanic. His last hope was to secretly find the limits of his mechanical abilities by creation of an automat (robot) which he later named Madame Dubois. On the evening of Claude's observation through the chapel curtain the Abbé had become frustrated with the failure of his own creation and lowered his hammer on the head of the mechanical Madame. Now Claude knows what the reader already suspected -- there was no murder after all. Then the Abbé explained the ecclesiastical injustice he and his own mentor experienced when they were censured for their unsuccessful creation of a "Mechanical Christ." The depression and suicide of the Abbé's mentor is offered as the ultimate justification for his deep hatred of God. Then he declares to Claude that the creation of Madame Dubois was the "one last attempt to show you the skills that the Church had tried to suppress" (p. 271). Immediately Claude recognized the technical error which caused the Mechanical Christ to hemorrhage all over the church floor. It was due to "capillary action!" The Abbé responds to this insight with tears, and two are returned to their original relationship "like true lovers" (p. 272).

The next scenes involve the collaboration of Claude, the Abbé, and a host of friends to create an automat that can speak. The project passes through a series of barriers including the difficulties of fund raising, the jealousy of mechanical peers, and the technical challenges of invention. Eventually, with the help of his comrades, Claude, as the archetype of the future man, triumphs over all these difficulties and "remakes" man in his own image (p. 338). The response to this historical achievements is initially one of indifference on the part of those already in authority, but eventually the importance to humanistic progress overcomes the resistance of these protectors of status quo. Claude is not only successful as a master-mechanic, but he finally achieves a certain level of financial independence.

At this same time, and little known to these new humanists, there was another story unfolding in the progress of Humanism; the French Revolution had reached the peak of its own progress. Claude had planned to enlist the support of the aristocracy by having his mechanical man say, "Vive le Roi," (or "Long live the King", pp. 344, 345), but the French Revolution interpreted such declarations as treason against the Republic. The mechanical man was confiscated and Claude was thrown into prison to languish for as long as was allowed in The Revolution. While Kurzweil finally chose to release Claude from prison, the mechanical man received the customary penalty for enemies of the Humanistic French Revolution -- beheading on the Guillotin. Claude ends up living the rest of his life in industrial England, manufacturing inexpensive clocks and watches. Though Kurzweil does allow Claude Page to achieve a certain level of financial success in the industrial revolution he never returns to the zeal of his younger years; "in fact, the sight of the steam-operated assembly line often made him queasy" (p. 357).


The Epistemological Landscape

Allen Kurzweil's book, A Case of Curiosities, is a historical novel dealing with the watershed period in France just prior to the French Revolution. In many ways this story line is familiar, with an ambitious, but naive youth striking out to make a name for himself in a merciless modern metropolis. In the review by Publishers Weekly (cited in the fly leaf) it is stated that Kurzweil has created "a gallery of memorable, Dickensian characters"; however, there is more that should be noted in a comparison with Charles Dickens. Not only are the characters stylistically similar to those found in the writings of Dickens, but a comparison with his Great Expectations reveals a striking resemblance in the basic story line. Of course, this story did not originate with Dickens, and Kurzweil has used it toward very different ends; nevertheless, this comparison is useful for understanding the epistemological landscape of this novel.

The world view entered by Kurzweil, and France in the 18th century, was primarily influenced by a humanism bent on rejection of a relationship with God. The world view of Dickens, and of England in the 19th century, was largely influenced by the Reformation with its particular view of man in relationship to God. With this contrast in mind, Claude's effort to fulfil what he was "meant to do" (p. 92) is seen as consistent with the iconoclastic humanism embodied in the defrocked Abbé. On the other hand, we can see Pip's effort to fulfill his "great expectations" in contextual relief with the simple Christian faith embodied by Joe and Biddy Gargery. Not only are the story lines similar, but the following events are worthy of comparison: Claude's surgical encounter with the Calvinist surgeon, and Pip's graveyard encounter with the escaped convict; Claude's misunderstanding of the nature of his mentor, and Pip's misunderstanding of the nature of his benefactor. Many of the central characters of A Case of Curiosities can also be compared to those in Great Expectations as follows: Claude with Pip; Livre with Pumblechook; and Alexandra with Estella. Finally, the theme created by Kurzweil illustrates the degenerative desolation of humanism as seen in Claude's near execution in the humanist French Revolution and his subsequent exile from home; while the theme created by Dickens illustrates purposeful redemption as seen in Pip's coming to grips with his past and subsequent return home. With all of the similarities of these two novels, there is important difference that must be noted. Dickens would never have written such a vulgar and profane novel.

Kurzweil's Method

At one point in the book Kurzweil wants us to believe that Claude's thinking underwent a Kuhnian revolution that allowed him to "see" his mechanical man in a new way (p. 315). It would probably more accurate to say that he underwent a degenerative evolution that forced him to see man as a mere machine. Kurzweil is aware that a change occurred in this time period, which he portrays as shift from an "organic" to a "mechanic" world view, but this would not explain the loss of moral law in this time. In fact, Kurzweil has not merely told us about the 18th century French world, with its rejection of authority, but has himself entered into that experience, and especially the rejection of moral authority. This historical novel is largely focused on the French "pornographic age" and the profane spirit that motivated it. Kurzweil's use of the 18th century notion of a mechanistic universe has been applied universally to all domains, including the area of morals. The devaluation of humanity which is inevitable with such a view has the effect of making sex into a mere mechanical act. Therefore, the pornographic clockworks, with their moving anatomy, are the logical result. Further, the idea of morality in any form is in doubt when man is conceived as a mere machine. Kurzweil illustrates this fact in the many extreme examples of perversion given without any value judgments except, perhaps, that "everybody is doing it." The good, the bad, and the ugly are all involved in some form of obscenity. Not only is the likable thirteen year old Claude involved in the making of pornography, but so is the lecherous Livre. The examples of perversion found in this book include: bestiality (pp. 194, 320, 288), pedophilia (p. 106), sex with mechanical man (p,. 344), homosexuality (pp. 164, 340), lesbianism (p. 206), hermaphroditism (p. 216), adultery (p. 204), "and an assortment of more obscure" perversions (p.71). It is true that some of these are given by literary allusion, but they are so frequent, calculated, and lewd that many passages should be classified as "literary lechery" (p. 197) along with the pornography of Lucien Livre. In addition to these there are several explicit passages that openly drop the literary pretense. The end result of this "man as machine" view of sexuality is that the relationship between intimacy and a loving commitment is lost as symbolized by the obscene watch works which are called the "Hours of Love" (p. 68).

There is another dimension to the "man as machine" theme which is seen in Kurzweil's style of description. The detail offered is intended to be so penetrating that there is no room for human modesty. This is more than realism, but actually amounts to a vulgar description of virtually every bodily function. It is hard to think of a bodily fluid, by-product, or excrement that was not described in gruesome detail. An example will suffice:

He fidgeted for hours at a time, lifting one buttock then the other, scratching his scalp, twisting his hair, pulling out a few strands and wrapping them around his finger. He rubbed his hand in his sweaty armpit and sniffed the secretions. ... He picked his nose, probed his ears, and scraped the film that covered his teeth. He now grimaced and clutched his testicles even when not in bed (p. 312).

Perhaps the best illustration is seen in Kurzweil's preoccupation with human phlegm. From the beginning of the book to the end there are continual references to nasal discharge in one form or another. These references are sometimes used to stigmatize a person such as the wretched Livre, who is referred to as the "Phlegmagogue" (p. 150). On the other hand, the admired Abbé was known for his phlegm encrusted coat sleeve which was used to wipe his sneezes (p. 280). There was also a nun spitting "prodigiously" (p. 133), a lover spitting up (pp. 230), and even a phlegm eating child (p. 333). This last incident was intended to provide comic relief at the wedding dinner. Here, a boy secretly placed an oyster in a handkerchief that he pretended to sneeze into and then "slurped up the glutinous mass to the horror of his mother." These examples illustrate that if we think of man as a mere machine, then this type of detail is simply "technical precision," but if we acknowledge man's intrinsic dignity, then this type of detail is nothing but raw vulgarity.

Kurzweil and Science

The change of world view in 18th century Europe was, perhaps, most evident in France. Here, the growing rejection of authority that took place in other European nations had been accelerated by political and ecclesiastical misadventure. The political mismanagement of King Louis XIV not only brought France into an economic crisis, but it also caused the break down of the system of justice. The corruption and political complicity of the French Catholic church was increasingly difficult to overlook. In addition, Cartesian rationalism was moving through a series of stages that eventually stripped away the religious motivations of Descartes. The influence of Voltaire, the supreme Secular Humanist, was also being felt; first through his 'Philosophical Letters,' denouncing religion and government; then through his "satirically evangelistic" plays that captured the attention of the educated class. Eventually the course of events in France led to a breakdown in confidence in all the established institutions and the anarchy of the French Revolution was the inevitable result.

In this context the Humanist metaphor for the universe was a mechanical clock with a distant and indifferent watch-maker god. Therefore, much of what French science was concerned with at this time was the discovery of the various parts of the clock and its mechanical laws. It was in this sense that the Abbé called himself a "mechanical philosopher." French Catholicism was generally untouched by the Reformation; therefore, there was little influence from the Biblical idea of "man created in the image of God." When the Humanist view of a mechanistic universe came into its ascendancy there was no viable alternative in France to employ for a definition of man. For the 18th century Humanist, man was a machine. These ideas are seen in the Abbé's explanation that, "Our mechanical Savior was to be a tribute to ... the other disciples of the Watch-maker God" (p.267). Later, the Abbé's disciple carried these ideas to the next step for Humanism; "Claude modified Newton's famous phrase: God was not the clock maker, it was the clock maker who was God" (p. 90). This is where Humanism ultimately must lead -- the deification of man. Voltaire actually experienced this status when, in the last year of his life (1778), he returned to Paris and was treated as a virtual living deity. When "Reason" is taken as the ultimate measure for truth, since it is human reason we are referring to, we have necessarily created a new religion with man on the throne. The French took these ideas to heart, and in 1792 proclaimed the goddess of Reason by carrying her personification (an actress, Demoiselle Candeille) on the shoulders of men dressed in Roman costumes into Notre-Dame cathedral.


Humanism and Religion

At the root of this proud, self sufficient, Humanism is a basic desire to rebel against the Creator God. Humanism has alleged that Christianity made God in man's own image, and yet the alternative offered is to give man the place of the Creator. The means to this end was achieved by ridicule, as Voltaire so effectively proved. It is easy to show that all people, no matter what their beliefs, are inconsistent and at times hypocritical. This includes Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Humanists. Criticism of these inconsistencies is often easy, cheap, and profane. What is more difficult is to consider the actual beliefs of these people and evaluate how they correspond with the world they attempt to explain. This requires more than caricatures, emotional tirades, and cheap shots. If Kurzweil thinks this is an accurate picture of Humanism, then he has provided some insight into the inner workings of that mind set. If on the other hand, he intended to provide a fair minded assessment of the problems encountered in the 18th century world, then "me thinks he protests too much." In spite of all the flaws of this book, there was an important detail allowed into Kurzweil's story which reveals the outcome of Humanist ideas. Ironically, the anarchist rebellion that the Abbé served to advance nearly cost Claude, the New Humanist, his life. In point of fact, the French Revolution came at the cost of 40,000 lives, including many peasants, and the entire revolutionary leadership. For France, the Age of Reason had become an Age of Un-reason and bloody revolution.


1. Allen Kurzweil, A Case of Curiosities, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992).


Tim Nordgren, 7-22-96