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From 'The Meaning And Beauty Of The Artificial'

by Douglas Harding


I suppose that my first duty to the prospective reader is to tell him in as few words as possible what he is in for. I do not wish to trick him with a title which a friend of mine, much to my surprise, tells me is a catch-penny phrase, if not a contradiction in terms. For I had quite forgotten for the moment that artificial is in some contexts a term of contumely, spoken of things that should be passed by on the other side, of things not possessing beauty or meaning worth the trouble of looking for. The seeming-paradox creeps in because nature and artifice are words of more than usual ambiguity. But this is no place for precise definitions.

The modern archaeologist discovers the palimpsests of ancient works by taking photographs from the air, so finding at a distance prehistoric evidences where at close quarters he found only wheat-stalks. It is such a view that I wish to present. Both the specialist and the man-in-the-street know a great deal about the material works of man, how they are made and used, and for what reasons they exist. Everyone is interested in new inventions, new buildings, new machines. But these things are so familiar and near to us that we find it difficult to focus our sight clearly upon them. To see them in a clearer perspective we must do mentally what the archaeologist does physically, retire to a distance where bewildering detail merges into broad outlines, if we would grasp the significance of the artificial. It is my purpose, then, to survey from one or two angles the wide territory of man’s material achievement. Obviously we shall have no place for technical detail, nor is it my intention to trace the general history of fabrication so much as to correlate this part of man’s life with his work in other fields, especially that of biological science. For I believe that all who make and use manufactured things – who does neither? – ought occasionally to see their work as a product and function of life, not only of human life, but of Life as a whole. On the other hand those whose business is to study living forms are not always sufficiently aware that, with lifeless stuff, Life through man is creating new and most wonderful forms which, crude though they are compared with the living, may yet be capable of throwing a side-light upon the Nature to which, after all, they ultimately belong. Polixines tells Perdita, in The Winter’s Tale, of an ‘art which does mend nature – change it rather; but the art itself is nature.’ To realise this fact more clearly would help those who deal with the ‘artificial’ and students of ‘nature’ to a broader understanding of their own and each other’s problems. If I succeed in persuading the reader of the value of such a mutual widening of views, half my intention will be fulfilled. The other half is that those of us who are not specialists in either field might see the world of artifice as it were through a diminishing glass, by which the matter of a hundred branches of technical science is condensed into so small a space that we are able to see the broad pattern, which may help to explain the present and suggest the outline of what may follow.

I need hardly remind the reader of the importance of our subject. It is literally a life-and-death matter. Human destiny hangs upon what we shall do with these devices or ours, the machines, now with us for good or ill. How we deal with the problems of industrialism may turn upon our appreciation of the rôle of the artificial no less than upon our answers to the many questions of economics, politics and psychology which are involved.

It has been assumed that the reader has no specialized knowledge of any of the subjects which come under discussion, so that the entire argument shall be as clear as possible to anyone of moderate education. Many, perhaps most of my readers, will therefore find it necessary to skip lightly over those sections which are designed to prepare the ground for the less well-informed. And I must crave indulgence for the way in which many complex problems are summarily disposed of. In so small a book dealing with so large a subject, it is impossible to thrash out thoroughly every question that arises. Where authorities disagree upon major points, however, I have endeavoured either to avoid taking sides, or when that is impossible, to mention the opposing view and to leave the reader to take his choice.

One point I must stress to avoid misunderstanding. We are concerned here with only facts and theories relating to facts, not with moral judgments. Whether this or that actual tendency is for our ultimate good or makes for moral and spiritual loss; whether machines and artefacts of all kinds are, as some say, deplorable engines of mischief, or the destined saviours of the race; whether industrialism leads heaven-wards or hell-wards, and all similar questions, are beyond the scope of this treatise.

The large number of books that I have consulted cannot be listed here: many of them will be found in the foot-notes. Where my work is original, and where derivative, I have tried to make evident. It has consisted largely of building up known facts into a system that is in some parts my own but owes an incalculable debt to writers upon all manner of subjects.

('The Meaning and Beauty of the Artificial' was written by Douglas Harding in the 1930s – his first book – and first published in 2016.)

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