Sunday, April 1, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Eats Fish Again

In early June of 1724 Benjamin Franklin, age 18, sailed for Philadelphia after visiting Boston with the hope of borrowing money from his father to establish a printing shop. When the sloop was becalmed off Block Island, passengers took the opportunity to fish for cod. In his Autobiography, Franklin describes watching them clean the catch:

Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I considered, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelled admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish take out of their stomachs; then thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see when we mayn’t eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

He was drawn to discovering things. A year after observing the cleaning of the cod, Franklin wrote Quaker merchant Peter Collinson, who shared an interest in science, that he had been in a riding party when they saw a whirlwind pass close to them. “The rest of the company stood looking after it,” wrote Franklin, “but my curiosity being stronger, I followed it, riding close by its side, and observed its licking up, in its progress, all the dust that was under its smaller part.” Franklin continued to follow the whirlwind into the woods for three quarters of a mile, “till some limbs of dead trees, broken off by the whirl, flying about and falling near me, made me more apprehensive of danger.” The most widely known instance of Franklin’s interest in natural phenomena, of course, is the kite experiment.

It is no surprise, then, that Franklin was would closely observe fishermen eviscerate the stomachs of cod. The story is notable because Franklin alters his eating habits as a result of the observation. He explains later in the Autobiography that a pamphlet he wrote in London was wrong-headed because an error had “insinuated itself into my argument, so as to infect all that followed, as is common in metaphysical reasonings.” Rationalism is suspect. Whatever principles we use to guide us through life must be grounded in empirical observation. (The concluding sentence about the convenience of being a “reasonable creature” must be an ironic, humorous throwaway. After all, Franklin, adept at the comic remark, isn’t making a reasoned argument.)

We see the same distrust of the non-empirical in John Singleton Copley’s early portraiture. Copley, badly wanting to achieve the status of European academic painters, modeled his portraits after them, but couldn’t break out of his attachment to the empirical until the mid-1770s. Mrs. Joseph Mann, painted in 1753, the year before Franklin’s cod observation, is a very unpainterly portrait, what Barbara Novak has called a “monumentality of the specific.” Copley has difficulty disengaging from what he observes. As Novak observes, Copley's technique is “an embalming process.” In Mrs. Joseph Mann and other early portraits, he attempts to transfer what he knows by observation directly to the canvas.

The empirical tradition winds its way through American arts and letters. One of the earliest American empiricists is the great Jonathan Edwards. Fifteen years old in 1718 and already conversant with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Edwards is observing nature and produce short essays on his findings. In his maturity, Edwards will find “Images and Shadows of Divine Things” throughout nature. Two hundred and thirty years later William Carlos Williams famously sums up the American attraction to empiricism in “A Sort of Song”: “no ideas but in things.” Between the two, many writers and artists have embraced the notion that meaning can be recognized only through empirical observation, in things themselves.

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