Francine (rpg)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Descartes' only daughter Francine was to perish of scarlet fever when she was just five years old. But legend tells of a second Francine, an automaton constructed by Descartes, in imitation of his deceased daughter...

Submitted: April 05, 2011

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Submitted: April 05, 2011



Francine was the only daughter of philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, the illegitimate child of his relations with Helana Jans van der Strom, domestic servant to a certain Thomas Sergeant, at whose house in Amsterdam Descartes lodged on the 15th October 1634. The following winter, when Descartes returned to Deventer, Helena went with him. In a life of constant travel, this was to prove Descartes’ longest residence. Helena was officially appointed as servant to Descartes and lived with Francine in a small house nearby. Although Francine was referred to as an illegitimate child, her baptism in Deventer on August 7th, 1635 was recorded among the legitimate births. She visited her father regularly, though in public René was always to refer to her as his niece.  In 1640, he wrote of his plans to bring his daughter to France to be educated, but before this could happen, Francine fell victim to scarlet fever and died, at the age of five.
I wonder if you know of scarlet fever, you whom occupy another time. It begins with a rash, originating on the neck and chest, spreading out across the body. The rash, which at first has the appearance of a bad sunburn, has the texture of dry sand and is accompanied by an intolerable itching. The body falls prey to shivers and fatigue. The head aches and burns with fever. The throat is dry and thirsts for water; when quenched, vomiting often ensues. For us, there is no cure.
Having never felt close to his fellow men, Descartes remained utterly detached from his family and spent most of his life in restless, lonely travel across Europe. Helena is the only woman he is known to have been intimate with. His attachment to her and Francine stands as the singular human attachment of his life and there is evidence that he dearly loved his daughter. Her death was to prove his greatest sorrow and the event that changed his focus from science to philosophy, from investigations into medicine and the mechanics of the body to a quest for universal answers.
Prior to this, Descartes had been primarily engaged in medicine and mathematics. Though I cannot pretend to understand such matters, he claimed to have made invaluable contributions to the latter, particularly in the field of geometry. In his attempts to uncover the mechanics of the animal body, Descartes brought specimens from a nearby slaughterhouse, concealed under his coat, back to the house to dissect. In Amsterdam, seeking to explain the processes of memory and imagination, he dissected the heads of various animals. In the course of his study, he came to the belief that animals were complex machines - ‘nature’s automata’ - driven only by the organisation of their organs. They could no more engage in thought or feeling than the quill and ink he used to write with, or the scalpel he used to dissect them. God was not being cruel in allowing the wholesale slaughter of animals for food, as machines, even natural ones, are incapable of suffering.
Descartes and his followers staged demonstrations in evidence of his theory, including live vivisections on cats, dogs and monkeys. He took opposition to Dr. William Harvey’s theory of blood circulation by cutting out part of the heart of a live dog and feeling the length of the pulse in its various parts. Indeed, I was even once privy to just such a display. A number of dogs, I forget now how many, were strung up on boards, their paws nailed into the wood to prevent them from moving. The howls that escaped them were simply dreadful, and only grew more so as a burning poker was introduced to their flesh. I saw the audience visibly shrink back from such acts and indeed, I seem to remember a young lady of more delicate nature actually fainted upon witnessing the scene.  
The greatest of all the prejudices we have retained from infancy is that of believing that brutes think”, Descartes addressed his audience. “An animal can but simulate the pain response, as might a machine. A crying dog is no different from the whining gear of an engine, in need of oil.” He took a knife from the table and proceeded to open the animal with a clean cut down the chest, revealing the still beating heart within. Though my eyes remained calm, and I stirred not, I must confess to feeling somewhat sickened. Such precision, such geometry in violence appalled me. It was with some difficulty that I rose to perform my own part in the illustration.
Though outwardly calm, Descartes was tortured by a terrible grief at the loss of his only child. He spent long hours alone at his study, absorbed in personal reflection. He slept for long periods, often not rising from his bed until early in the afternoon. At times, without servant to feed him, he would forget even to eat. It was during these hours of meditation that he began the process of doubt, the great scepticism on which he was to construct a new philosophy. In order to comprehend the world in its true form, he wrote, we must begin by removing everything that is subject to doubt. If developed to its conclusion, this doubting leads to the elimination of all things physical, the evaporation of the world of the senses. The subject is left wondering whether anything can be said to exist at all, in certainty. Yet, there is one thing that remains: that which wonders, that which is doing the doubting. This alone lies outside of this primary, comprehensive doubting and led to the formation of Descartes’ famous cogito. Cogito, ergo sum: I think, and therefore am.
The cogito is the key, that which raises humans above the purely mechanical. Descartes claimed that if you were to build a perfect automaton of a monkey, it would be indistinguishable from the beast itself. Automata, like the brutes, could never learn to reason or think, and therefore could not be said to exist in the proper sense of the term. With sufficient skill, automata might be built to mimic human actions, but never human mind. They could be made to move as we do, be taught to talk, write copies of poetry, even to play the flute. In time, they may even be shown to mimic human emotion, to exhibit signs of happiness or sadness, even of love. But they would never will it; never reason, think nor feel. This was the province of the mind, which belongs to man alone.
Descartes’ own early experiments with automata only served to reinforce this conviction. You may imagine a workshop littered with the scrap of abandoned projects; heads that move of their own accord, eyes that seem to see, mouths open as though to speak. You envisage, perhaps, hands severed at the wrist, crawling across tables before their creator. Fingers clutch a quill, as though they will to write. You look upon the bodies of children, opened at the chest, wherein turn the intricate workings of innumerable wheels and cogs. René rarely exhibited his inventions before an audience and chose not to publish his investigations into automata. Historians have been left to conjecture, or invent what cannot be proven. Did Descartes continue to experiment with automata after the death of his daughter? Was his conviction of the separation between mind and body born out of these frustrations? May he have in fact been trying to build a thinking, feeling automaton; a Francine to replace the child he lost? He builds mechanisms, so that she might move her arms, but cannot grant her will to do so. He gives her eyes, but cannot make her see. He constructs a mouth, but cannot hear her speak. He is both father and creator, but cannot give her life. Might perhaps his grappling with the fundamental question, of what it means to exist, have evolved from his struggle to discover what was missing from his automaton? If only he could make her think, then she would be as his daughter returned. If only. Here, as so often it must, history gives way to legend.
By this time, Descartes name was known throughout Europe. His revolutionary thought had garnered interest from as far afield as Scandinavia, and attracted the attention of royalty. None less than Christina, Queen of Sweden, now requested his services as tutor. Descartes, though flattered, was reluctant to make the journey, and politely declined the offer. The ship sent to collect him was turned away, returning to Sweden and the predictable incensement of its Queen. She summarily dispatched a second ship to fetch the wayward philosopher, and in the autumn of 1649, Descartes set sail across the North Sea, for Stockholm.
The passage was a long and difficult one. The seas were rough throughout and the ship rolled and heaved like a whale on the waves. The men, hardened sea salts all, scampered up ropes to incredible heights, swaying back and forth in the wind, sometimes almost horizontal, so that it seemed certain they should fall. Often it took two or three men to handle the wheel, fighting both the current and the wind. They swept and swabbed the decks from morn until evening, paying no mind to the rats that scurried between their hands and legs. Each night they slept in crowded berths in the bowels of the ship, crowded into swaying hammocks mere inches away from the sweaty, reeking bodies of their fellow seamen. Yet each morning they rose at dawn, and after a breakfast of gruel and hardtack crawling with worms, they set about their tasks without complaint.
The damp was all pervasive. As they neared Sweden, with each passing day the nights turned colder. René, often seasick, lay feverish during the night and rarely rose before noon. He told the crew that he was travelling with his daughter, Francine, and was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. The crew, understandably somewhat perturbed by this, had orders to respect the philosopher’s wishes and endeavored to satisfy his whims, however strange. If he would speak of his daughter, deceased nine years previous, then that was no business of theirs. They allowed him to remain in his private quarters, and rest or dine as he wished.
That is, at least until the storm. The thunder was incredible, so loud it sounded as though the ship itself was about to explode. The ship lurched and heaved almost onto its beak, before crashing down once more. Waves rose and swept across the decks. Desperate seamen fought to bail out the water, each man working furiously with his bucket. Fearing they might have to abandon ship, they had no choice but to summon Descartes, lest he drown inside his cabin. Two men were sent to find him, but upon arriving at his quarters, they found the door locked from within. They called to their distinguished guest but received no answer. In order to save his daughter they broke down the door.
The room was empty, that is, apart from a large trunk that filled much of the floor space. Roused by the suspicious circumstances of Descartes’ travel arrangements, they decided to look inside. The case was not locked and though heavy, the lid proved little difficulty for the burly seamen. Inside, prostrate on the red velvet interior, lay the incredibly lifelike, full-size doll of a five year old girl. Francine. The seamen’s initial surprise turned to terror, as the doll sat upright and turned its eyes to them. They ran to find their captain.
Of course, the poor man had never seen anything of its likeness before. There was nothing but revulsion in his eyes, as though he looked upon something obscene. I ask you to imagine what it would be like to have a man look at you in such a manner, as though you were an abomination before God. What it might be like for a child of five.
This child is the work of black magic, the captain declared; a devil and the source of the storm that torments us. You will throw her overboard. At this he turned and went back upstairs to his post. The sailors did as they were bidden. They tied Francine with weights and threw her to the ocean. Afterwards, they say, the storm was calm, as though the devil had been cast out.
But is this history, or merely legend? How do we come to know what happened in the past? If Descartes is correct, we cannot trust our own senses, let alone those of others, and our memories are indistinguishable from dreams. This I know better than anyone. Francine, she who called Descartes father, was never on that ship. Francine died aged five, of scarlet fever. It is engraved in the memories of those who knew her and stated in the records of birth and death. She was born, as every human is, and died, as every human must die. Francine was, but I am. I can doubt all but that. Of how I came to be, not I, or anyone can know.
In October, 1649, Descartes arrived safely in Stockholm and was granted audience with her majesty, Christina. We know little of his life thereafter, except that he was made to wait six weeks before beginning her tuition, by which time the harshest Swedish winter in sixty years had set in. Descartes, whom for much of his life had slept in until noon, was now ordered to rise at four in the morning, and ride by carriage through the dark and intolerable cold to her majesty’s quarters, where lessons began at five. Unprepared for such treatment, believing himself bereaved of his daughter a second time, one cannot imagine how he suffered. Within two weeks of this routine, he caught a chill, which soon developed into pneumonia. In February of the following year, he died.
All this seems but a dream to me now. I feel the water, cool against my skin, and the sands that shift across my body with the movement of the sea. Time passes, but is impossible to say how much. The sand comes to cover my body. Later, my eyes too are buried. But perhaps it is not water, perhaps it is not sand. The sunlight does not penetrate this deep. Around me, all is darkness. I cannot move my eyes to view my body. I desire to move my hand to touch, but find myself without a hand to move. I wonder if perhaps I have not a body, nor even eyes to see. I am blind, or else, there is no world to perceive.
Yet still, there is something that wonders at this. Something remains to wonder at that which I cannot see; something wonders at this blindness. I think I had a father, once. I remember my father, or at least, I dream of him. I wonder that he fashioned me not from clay, but wood, and bade me move, though he could not make me speak. It is I that wonders, and therefore dreams; that thinks, and therefore is. Forever drowning, I will not drown. Forever dreaming, I will not cease to be. It is I, Francine. I think, therefore exist.  I dream, therefore I am.

© Copyright 2018 RGilham. All rights reserved.

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