Clockmaking

This is a picture of a 17th-century Italian clock. What is instantly striking, of course, is how beautiful and intricate the thing is. Though one cannot tell the size of the clock from the picture, the care that must have been put into its making is evident. The numbers are carefully engraved, in Roman numeral form on the outside of the outer circle; correspondingly, the slightly elevated inner circle has Arabic numerals on its rim. It is the depiction of flowers that takes up the majority of the space on both circles, however, and it is these that give the clock an especially ornate look. It is interesting to note the confluence here of the natural and the mechanical: the clock itself is manmade, though used to express something natural and completely beyond our control (i.e. time); but then the maker of this particular clock decided to decorate it with more naturally occurring things, namely flowers.

The most interesting conclusion I can draw from this design is that in the early days of the flowering of the mechanical arts (pun intended—the language itself here reveals a manner of thought), there was nowhere near as big a gap between “art” and “technology” as we see today. In our times, though certainly there always remains an element of the attractive around consumer products, this is first and foremost for advertising purposes, that is, to aid sales; on the other hand, the clock pictured above looks like it was really made with love. And that, too, no doubt, was a feature of these times: there could be a great joy and excitement in the discovery of new technological devices, which some makers and technicians liked to communicate by making of their work an artform. No doubt, even in the early days some clocks were made with an eye to practicality alone, but in any case, truly amazing productions like the one pictured above were more numerous. Commodity destroys the aura of artistic objects, true, but it need not destroy the art itself; yet one would be hard-pressed to find a new (as opposed to antique) clock today looking like this 17th-century one.

Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959), called one of the greatest German prose writers of the interwar period, expresses the old way of interacting with the mechanical arts—that is, doing justice to the “arts” part of the designation—in a short story called “The Watchmaker.” The story is dedicated “To the Memory of My Great-grandfather Matthias Jahnn” and, since it takes the form a recollection from childhood, it is not much of a stretch to presume that something similar happened to Hans Henny himself. This would have most likely occurred at the very end of the 19th century, showing thereby that in some places the art of producing beautiful technology, so to speak, must still have been practiced. In the story, a young boy visits his father, a watch and clockmaker, in his shop, and asks to be shown the clocks:

“[My father] holds a sphere-shaped repeater to my ear. He winds its spring, and with a delicate bell the little marvel counts out the hours and minutes of this moment. Suddenly a muffled din begins; bells, tinkles, animal voices, drums, flutes join in. The full hour is being greeted by a hundred living clockworks; for one minute there hovers a sacredness in the room as if the black angel of death had walked through. Only gradually does time move back to the silence of the regular tick-tock. I hold my breath.

“‘That is what is so great,’ says Father, ‘that every hour has its value, that none goes by without being praised. How many hours have I already heard!’

“With shy astonishment I look at the big pendulum clocks with their heavy weights of lead and brass hanging on twisted animal guts; their pendulums slowly swinging, counting the seconds. The sound of their bells had been silvery and pure so that I feel a reverential weakness in my knees.”

There are further paragraphs of equally breathtaking writing, Jahnn working his own craft as lovingly as the narrator’s father works his. Finally, the young boy is shown his father’s “prettiest clock,” for the display of which an elaborate clockwork morphs the entire room. Jahnn concludes the story with the following exchange between clockmaker, son, and assistant:

“‘What do you say to the clock that fills up the whole shop?’ My father asks me. The assistant answers instead:

“‘You have done better, master.’

“‘We can argue about that,’ my father becomes excited. He pushes his glass over to me, hands me bread and olives. I ask him:

“‘Why do you never eat together with Mother and me?’

“‘The clocks would be sad if I left them,’ he answers softly.

“‘We are sad too,’ I said resolutely.

“‘They would stop and never get going again. Your hearts do not stop; they do not break.—'”

Jahnn’s clockmaker is indisputably an artist, one who loves his work, is deeply dedicated to it, and is proud of his products—to the extent of neglecting his own family. These are characteristics that in our day we no longer associate with those who practice what used to be called “the mechanical arts” and are now, probably fittingly, only “technology,” but only with writers of literature, certain filmmakers, painters, etc.; whereas in bygone times—though as Jahnn shows, in some cases even only as recently as a century ago!—the distinction between art and technology was a very hazy one (which fact, of course, also brings to mind Shakespeare’s designation of Prospero’s magic as his “art”).

[“The Watchmaker” appears in Thirteen Uncanny Stories, which, published in 1984 by Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., is a translation by Gerda Jordan of Hans Henny Jahnn’s Dreizen nicht geheure Gesichten.]

Print Friendly

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar