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The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away

Mystery Solved: Rijnsburg Lathe, a 19th Century Woodturner’s Lathe

Stan Verdult over at the excellent Spinoza site http://spinoza.blogse.nl/ has done excellent research and unearthed the origins of the Rijnsburg lathe, which for some reason the Spinozahuis seems to have been less than forward about. He has uncovered a 1984 Bulletin which tells us that H.G. van de Sande Bakhuyzen who was at that time [±1899] director of the Leiden observatory made an inquiry into the buying of the cutting lathe from a wood turning shop (houtdraaierij) at Leiden, the name (“Dusoswa”). The device had been used for a long time and was to some degree worn out. For a time it was held in the foyer of the observatory before it was taken to Rijnsburg. Without any doubt it is a product of the nineteenth century. It appears to be in mechanical form, less like any grinding lathe Spinoza may have used, and more like a woodturners lathe, used for carving [the above description is my wide paraphrase from Stan Verdult’s most generous rough translation of a portion of the article for me].

Here is an article portion, for those that read Dutch:

I post here my response to Stan Verdult’s call that the lathe should be removed. It makes such an interesting case for those that take Spinoza’s philosophy seriously. Spinoza’s central distinction between Rational and Imaginary knowledge comes into view. The useful impression that the lathe was authentic is part of a museum’s theatrical powers, the attempt to re-create many of the associations that one would have, that Spinoza must have had when walking into that room. In a sense, the “inauthentic” lathe (IS it inauthentic?) delivers many of the affects that an empty room could not. Is this a knowledge that Spinoza would favor?

My posted comment at Stan’s site:

I loved what you have said about the lathe. This is wonderful research. And I do question why the Spinoza house has not been more forthcoming about the nature of its exhibit. But if you are recommending that the lathe be removed from the Spinozahuis in September I’m not sure that that is a good idea. First of all, the lathe gives a strong sense that Spinoza himself worked at lens-grinding. It creates an impact that is important. One should only take it out if there was another that would replace it (which may not be more authentic: perhaps if it was modeled on an image from Hevelius for instance this would be an improvement, but still it would only a guess). Secondly, the lathe there has become a bit iconic. It forms a large part of the visual memory of the house for those that have been there over the years. An empty room would not do. The big problem is that it is not properly labeled. One should simply know that this is a 19th century woodturner’s lathe, just meant to give a general idea, an impression. Lathes in the 19th century had not progressed much from the lathes of the 17th century, and it seems likely that Spinoza used a lathe that was fairly simple in design. (The semi-automatizing “improvements” of savants like Christiaan Huygens were not necessarily seen as improvements by Spinoza: see Letter 32). The odd thing is that the story you have uncovered is a fascinating one. It reveals the texture of the Spinozahuis itself, its living history, the way that history is made. A museum simply does not exist “sub specie aeternitatis”. Revealing how the lathe got there, and acknowledging its role in the living history of the museum would actually direct our attention to some of the more important features about a house trying to keep the memory of Spinoza alive, that history is an effort and a narrative. The important thing is for the exhibit to be clear, and when it is not clear, accurate, I would think.

With the 400 year anniversary of the telescope coming to Middelburg in September, this would be a natural time to emphasize the Spinozahuis lathe’s history, and to organize additional information around the piece letting others become more aware of Spinoza’s commitments to optics, not a small portion of his life.

Spinoza writes of the sun, “when we look at the sun, we imagine it as about 200 feet away from us, an error that does not consist simply in this imagining, but in fact that while we imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and the cause of this imagining. For even if we come to know that it is more than 600 diameters of the earth away from us, we nevertheless imagine it is near. For we imagine the sun so near not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of the body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun” (E2p35s).

The Spinozahuis imaginary presentation of a lathe in a taken-to-be authentic environment provides an interesting case of the theater of the past. We want to affectively feel what the past was like, and part of feeling that is knowing the facts of the past. Though our affective affinities the Spinozahuis lathe communicates many of those facts in a most imaginary way, the wood in its size and geometery speaks to us, and this is important. But if we are to be freed, in a Spinoza sense, our affects must be coupled with knowledge, the tracing out of that tenuous line to the past, one that might mitigate from moment to moment our imaginary composition, but will not diminish it altogether. The sun will still appear to be 200 ft away, and the sun will still rise up out of the sea, even though we know that it does not. But we will be free to know why it does these things.

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One response to “The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away

  1. Pingback: To Understand Spinoza’s Letter 32 to Oldenburg « Frames /sing

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