Curious Cabinets, Pig Pianos, and Lonesome-Fret

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March 18, 2021 by libroshombre

            “Lonesome-Fret” is a condition described as “the feeling of restlessness or unease that comes from being on your own for too long” in “15 Obscure Words for Everyday Feelings and Emotions,” a Mental Floss article.   It sounds modern but is actually “an 18th/19th century dialect word defined as “ennui from lonesomeness.”  One way to battle lonesome-fret is to explore someone’s cabinet of curiosities, or collections of notable objects, according to Wikipedia.  I encountered my first official cabinet of curiosities while visiting a 17th century diplomat’s house that’s been restored in central France.  Back then “cabinet” meant “room,” and this one was filled with all sorts of animal, mineral, human, and mythological wonders.  These included some intriguing medical and torture devices -hard to distinguish between them – drawers of unusual rocks, weaponry, and bizarre animals, including the traditional stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling.

            Upon returning home, it was clear that my entire study, complete with a stuffed caiman head clutching a dried pig’s ear in its teeth, qualifies as such a cabinet.  It’s especially true of the shelves in the corner designated as my official cabinet of curiosities.  One shelf contains unusual noise makers (screaming baby head, yodeling pickle, and the pocket Mr. T – “Quit yer jibber-jabber”), a shelf of throwable things (cricket ball, disabled hand grenade), one of edible items (Shakespeare Insult Gum, Magic Fruit lozenges that made lemons taste unbelievably sweet), a shelf of things that move (wind-up bugs, a Slinky, a man rowing a scull), and games (Dung Deck cards, Luckycup dice roller, glow-in-the-dark Spitballs that “Slip, Slide, Bounce and Explode!”), and much more.

            Mine isn’t as high-faluting as those old cabinets, whose contents were usually categorized into areas for natural history, geology, ethnography, archeology, religious and historical relics, art, books, and antiquities.  They were enormously expensive and a great way to impress visitors while providing “learned entertainment,” in those pre-multimedia days, as well as affording a “memory theater” to help recall past events and adventures.  Some of these collections were truly enormous; the famed British Museum was begun by Sir Hans Sloane whose1753 will donated his incredible assemblage of 71,000 books and objects to the British nation if Parliament would pay his executors 20,000 pounds, “far less than the value of the collection,” according to Wikipedia, and that’s how the famed British Museum, which until 1973 was also the national library, was created.

            One of the two most famous 17th century curiosity cabinets was assembled by Ole Worm, a Danish physician and natural historian who posthumously published “Museum Wormium,” a catalog of his objects.  But the premier cabinet was that of Father Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit and polymath who was himself a walking, talking cabinet.  Known in his lifetime as “the Master of a Hundred Arts,” Kircher was compared in his time to Leonardo da Vinci and described as “one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain,” by Aland Cutler, a prominent modern scholar.  His biographer, John Glassie, wrote in “A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change,” that Kircher was “a champion of wonder a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness.”

Kircher published 40 major works, many on comparative religion, medicine, and geology, and he was the first scientist able to support himself solely through his enormously popular books, but he didn’t limit himself.  He’s considered by many to be the founder of Egyptology and was fascinated by 17th century technology, inventing automaton devices, a magnetic clock, and the first megaphone.  In 1646 he was also among the very first to observe microorganisms in the blood of plague victims through a microscope.  In his book, “Scrutinium Pestis,”  described seeing “little worms” or “animalcules,” and recommended hygienic steps to take to prevent the disease’s spread: social isolation, quarantine, burning the clothes of the ill and dead, and – ta-da! – wearing facemasks.

That’s not to say Kircher, who made his share of mistaken assumptions along the way, was flawless.  He was the first to suggest that Egyptian hieroglyphs have phonetic values and could be articulated as well as read.  At the same time, he was convinced that Adam and Eve spoke ancient Egyptian and that hieroglyphs were occult symbols that couldn’t be translated into words.  That didn’t dissuade him from trying to translate them; for example, the hieroglyphs scholars today translate as ‘dd Wsr’ (‘Osiris says’), Kircher rendered as “The treachery of Typhon ends at the throne of Isis; the moisture of nature is guarded by the vigilance of Anubis.”

Even a brain as capacious as Kircher’s would be overwhelmed by the deluge of knowledge available in the Age of Information, but similar solace to the distractions of the finest curiosity cabinet can be found even in this time of lonesome-fret by exploring the array of intellectual artifacts we acquire and store in our minds.  Why, just this week alone I encountered how dentures were made from teeth harvested from soldiers on the Waterloo battlefield (, an alphabetical font made from gerrymandered Congressional districts (, how a Tic Tac-sized domino can collapse a large building (, and I heard an 18,000-year-old conch shell horn being played (

The pandemic presents a golden opportunity to explore your imagination and see what you find.  That’s how Kircher came up with his katzenklavier, or “cat organ,” “a hypothetical musical instrument which consists of a line of cats fixed in place with their tails stretched out underneath a keyboard so that they cry out when a key is pressed.  The cats would be arranged according to the natural tone of their voices.  There is no official record of a cat organ actually being built.”  And he had nothing to do with a similar instrument, “the piganino.”

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