10. Nutshells

Object Type: Still life of walnut half, in shell, detail from Jan van Kessel, "A Study of Various Insects, Fruit and Animals"

Material: Gouache on Vellum

Image from Wikigallery.  Original from Phillips, the International Fine Art Auctioneers, UK.


The word “Nutshell” has a rare and interesting property, the kind that catches the eye of curiosity-hounds like myself.  At a certain moment in time, it was an enantioseme—that is, a word that means its own opposite.  As you can probably imagine, words like these are almost impossibly rare.  A very few spring to mind, like “cleave,” which means both to separate and to unite, “sanction,” which means both to approve and to condemn, or "secrete," which means both to emit and to conceal.  Nutshell came briefly to have similarly self-cancelling senses.  On the one hand, “nutshell” signified in a now mostly obsolete sense, as a type or thing of little value.  In this sense, nutshells figured idiomatically as trash or anything of little interest.  But, on the other, the nutshell was the type or container of immense, compact knowledge.  This sense we still hear in the phrase “in a nutshell,” when we mean a compact synopsis.  “Nutshell,” then, points us in two directions, either towards significance or insignificance, meaning or meaninglessness.  As with all enantiosemes, it all depends upon context—which is another way of saying: it all depends on how you look at it.

A micrographic Inferno: Dante Alighieri, MSS copy in unknown hand, measuring 14x23mm when closed.  National Library of Austria.

It was Jonathan Swift who, to my knowledge, first noticed this property of nutshells.  This was in his savagely ironic Tale of a Tub, where he poses a “Digression on Digressions.”  “I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nut-shell,” his narrator reports, “but it has been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nut-shell in an Iliad.”  The first is clearly a fantasy or figure of containment—for such nut-shelled texts existed.  Swift might be thinking of Pliny’s Natural History (see Peter Squires's elegant discussion); naming Cicero as his authority, Pliny had described an Iliad copied so small that the whole could lie snugly in the shell of a nut.  But there were plenty of similar experiments in the century preceding Swift’s satire.  Take for instance Peter Bales, an Englishman renowned for his ability to write things very small—so small that I doubt that anyone could ever have verified that he was writing anything at all.  Bales was known for writing out poems and prayers in impossibly small dimensions, an early practitioner of what is technically known as “micrographia,” that is, “small writing.”  He could put, so the story goes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Ten Commandments in a scope the size of a two-pence.  But Bayles's masterpiece, what would be called his magnum opus if it weren’t so small, was to take the largest, most significant text of his world, and inscribe it so small that it could be stowed away in the shell of a walnut.  Call this, then, Bales’s minim opus or opusculo; Bales had chosen not the Iliad, but the Bible, and written it so small that it could be stowed away in a man’s vest pocket.

Flemish "Prayer Nut," ca. 1600, carved from boxwood.  British Museum WB.236.  © Trustees of the British Museum

Versions of such things existed, and a few, despite their evident fragility, continue to survive—as for instance a handful of so-called “prayer nuts” like the magnificent boxwood specimen at the British Museum (right), or the vanishingly small Divine Comedy that has improbably survived for nearly 500 years since its production (above).  It is because of the fantasy enabled by such things that the “Iliad in a nut” also took its rise as a metaphor.  As a figure deployed by practitioners and champions of natural history, the nutshell names the way that something small can unfold into an entire world.  It names, in other words, the ambitions of a working museum, which gathers in one place, under the view of one pair of eyes, examples of the whole world outside of it.  The so-called Ark of the Tradescants (father and son) was one such early museum; it gathered the treasures from the world in one set of rooms.  It was celebrated as “a world in one closet shut,/ like Homer’s Iliad in a nut” (see below)  Cave Beck’s so-called “universal character,” an artificial language that sought to regularize speech according to a collection of the world's things, was likewise compared to just such a nut-shelled Iliad (in the Alan Drummond transcription, p. 16).  And so on.

lid of the Tradescants' sarcophagus.  Photo by curator, used with kind permission of the Garden Museum in Lambeth.

It’s worth pausing to touch on one other thing, just by way of tying up some loose ends.  Another thing often compared to a nut-shelled Iliad was the camera obscura (see Case II, on Design, especially Exhibits 4, 4a, and 4b).  “As in a nutshell, curious to behold,” wrote one anonymous encomiast, “Great HOMER’s ILIAD was inscrib’d of old” (p. 5).  This is because the camera obscura offered a whole world in miniature—projecting a landscape or view in miniature upon a tiny screen.  I suspect artists like Peter Bales chose walnut shells because of their size, but they have other attractions, as well—not least that they look surprisingly like the shell of a human brain (see an interesting piece in Science on cortical folding, which compares the brain to crumpled paper).  This begins to point to some of the ways that the Iliad in a nutshell starts to provide a model for the human intellect—for, just as nutshelled epic was understood to compress a whole world into a very small representation, so, too the brain was understood to contain a version of the world in nuce

A section of cork, from Hooke, Micrographia (see Exhibit 11).  Photo by Curator, from the copy at the University of Michigan Special Collections.

The fantasy, in other words, is that the most seemingly inessential thing, the merest bit of trash or specimen object, might blossom into significance.  Something seemingly trivial suddenly becomes loaded with meaning.  Robert Hooke himself (who examined at least one specimen of micrography-- more on this in Exhibit 11) suggested that most discoveries were probably through just this sort of accident—a seeming nutshell that opened into significance.  It is an insight later repeated by Horace Walpole, who called it serendipity, and again by Robert Merton, who insisted that discovery in general seems to depend upon the recognition of the strategic significance of unexpected data-- the smallest things that become world-changing.  (Walpole dreamed and fantasized repeatedly of objects like the nutshelled Iliad-- as for instance a roll of the kings and queens of the universe, "lapped up in the kernel of a nut.")  From nothing to everything; serendipity, this kind of switching, between the insignificant nutshell and the thing that opens into a world, names exactly this process of discovery and invention.  The nutshell, as an enantioseme, charts the special sort of transformation of knowledge that is the dream of the empirical sciences, that just the right detail will come along, revolutionizing a way of seeing.

It is in this light that Swift’s satire makes an additional connection clear.  It links up the nutshell to a genre, or literary form.  A nutshell, Swift insists, is just like a digression.  Swift associated the digression with modern improvements in philosophy, with what we would call “science,” of which he did not particularly approve.  And the digression was, by his account, its special form.  This is because the digression, like the Iliad in the nut (or the nut in the Iliad), begins with something small, or something seemingly insignificant and out of the way, but dilates into something very ambitious indeed.  In this special way, the digression was the genre of things like microscopy, which took something small (like a fragment of cork-- see above), and magnified it into something big (like cell biology).  It was the special genre of the study of antiquities, or of work in a museum, or any other field interested in details, for digression names the way that a curator might generate ideas out of individual objects.  Finally, for the same set of reasons, like nutshells, digressions are either pointless or the most important thing of all, depending on how you look at them.

Notes: on enantiosemes, see a wonderful piece by Jordan Finken, "Enantiodrama," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (2005).