Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The dark side of Leonardo

Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne all record in their journals a moment when the shrill whistle of the Fitchburg Railroad intruded upon the tranquility of Concord village. The track of that railroad passed very close to Walden Pond, and Thoreau especially took note of the way the smoke-belching locomotive disrupted his reveries.

Meanwhile, nearby, American entrepreneurs were building yet more railroads and canals, water mills, factories, and ingenious machines for weaving cloth and forging iron. Even as Thoreau hoed his bean field, the Industrial Revolution was under way, and by the end of the 19th century Americans had made themselves the internationally-acknowledged masters of machines.

The writers of Concord and the mill-masters of Lowell are two sides of the American character. Since our beginning as a nation, we have had a love/hate relationship with machines. We have unabashedly flung a web of machinery across the land (and into space), and at the same time we long nostalgically for a simple life in unspoiled nature.

Perhaps it is this ambivalence toward machines that lets us find so much to admire in the Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci. His mechanical inventions were centuries ahead of his time. His drawings of flowers and cloudscapes are suffused with tranquility. In Leonardo's work, the lion of technology seems to lie down peaceably with the lamb of nature.

The Chester Beatty Library here in Ireland is now enjoying a Leonardo exhibit, the centerpiece of which is the Codex Leicester, on loan from Bill and Melinda Gates, seventy-two pages of drawings and notes showing the master at his polymath best, everything from hydraulics to astronomy. Here is the "Renaissance man" who seems to live in harmony with technology and nature.

But there is another Leonardo, a Leonardo who stands apart from the public image. For every graceful wildflower among his drawings there are sketches of violent storms, explosions, and turbulence. For every sweet-faced cherub there is a face distorted by anger or fear. For every madonna and child there are men and animals locked in mortal combat. And weapons of war! Spinning scythes surrounded by dismembered bodies, bombards raining fire, and shells exploding in star-bursts of shrapnel.

Leonardo's vision of nature and machines was not as harmonious as it sometimes seems. Yes, he bought caged birds in the shops so that he might set them free. And, yes, among his technical sketches are many machines designed to increase human well-being and alleviate drudgery. But he also saw a dark conflict between nature and technology that resisted resolution.

Leonardo wanted to learn from nature a more humane way of living, with machines as willing servants. But what he discovered in nature was not always pretty, and where his studies led him was not always a technological utopia. There is a grim and terrible underside to Leonardo's genius. His experience offers little hope of resolving our own love/hate affair with machines.