In The Scientific Renaissance 1450-1630, Marie Boas Hall discusses the case of Leonhard Fuchs and his 1542 guidebook De Historia Stirpum (History of Plants.) In his preface, Fuchs writes that “there is no one who does not know that there is nothing in this life pleasanter and more delightful than to wonder over woods, mountains, plains, garlanded and adorned with little flowers and plants of various and elegant sorts, gazing intently upon them.” Presumably, Fuchs thus saw dozens, if not hundreds, of instantiations of the same kind of plant. When he and other botanists of the time hired artists to illustrate their “herbals” or “gardens of health,” however, the artist drew from but a single plant. Any defect of the individual became a misrepresentation of the type. Not until botany opted for the ideal specimen rather than an actual specimen did the guidebooks better aid identification and classification. In short, botany turned to fiction to find a clearer truth.
For a culture that seems obsessed enough with the “fun fact” and truth as “exactly what happened,” we ought to keep in mind Fuchs and his artists. Literature, especially the novel, has been a guidebook to life for so many readers because it renders not the never-to-be-repeated particular but rather the essence of people and experience, a sort of History of Humans to aid analysis and classification. Literature is designed not to call up an individual blue gentian wilting slowly on some table in the autumn of 1541, though it must also do that if it would entertain, but it enables us to name a blue gentian next time we see it and consider what makes it what it is. Fiction can organize experience in a way actual life cannot. Being someone who doesn’t scorn the didactic possibility of art, I add that organized information is easier to understand than disorganized information. Thus we have historians and physicists even if we all experience history and physics every day. We also have Fuchs, luckily for us, because his walks are probably no longer our own.