The impossibility of knowing everything.

Grasshopper Monologue

by Mark Dion

“We insects were at least as curious about Jean Henri Faber, as he was about us. We considered the old man utterly mad. […]

Perhaps I should explain. I am the descendent of the locust that the entomologist Jean Henri Faber so carefully studied in his laboratory at the edge of the village of Serignan. It was my great, great, great grandmother, some 90 generations distant, who the entomologist witnessed molt her exoskeleton and which he wrote about in his book The life of the Grasshopper. […]

Mark Dion, Grasshopper Monologue, 1997.

It was a stony, sun-scorched, thistle-ridden speck of land, unfit for agriculture or even grazing, yet for him it was a garden of Eden. The locals thought he was a tramp, a potential poultry thief or at the very least insane. He constructed a wall around his plot transforming it into the open-air laboratory where he would remain devoted to entomology for the rest of his life. While other naturalists were off exploring the mighty Amazon or crossing endless deserts or sailing the oceans in search of the answers to life’s great mysteries, Faber’s journey took him into the microcosm of his walled in garden. It was in this exotic new world that he encountered the peacock moth, the thistle weevil and the mason bee. […]

The naturalists of Faber’s day were largely museum men, cloistered in dark vaults smelling of formalin and camphor, where dry bird skins lie in rows in drawers, and fish and reptiles float immobile in liquid preservatives and us insects, stabbed through with pins wait in boxes for classification. The study of life proceeded through the ordering of death. Faber’s studies burst out of the dusty glass cabinets and into the brilliant sunlight of the country side. He had learned the simple fact that a living specimen will give away more secrets than a thousand dead ones. […]

Jean-Henri Fabre in his laboratory in July 1907.

His pursuit of knowledge was indefatigable. We teased him often; intentionally frustrating him or leading him down the wrong path. From time to time an insect would allow him a glimpse of the truth, a tiny piece of the vast puzzle. These tidbits of knowledge would often just be enough to make clear the grand scale of his ignorance. Humans need to be humbled every now and again. Faber was never discouraged by the fact that he would never know everything. […]”

Quoted from Mark Dion: The Natural History of the Museum, exh. cat. (Nîmes/Helsingborg/Pfäffikon SZ), Paris: Archibooks, 2007, 38-39.

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