The Artifice in Artificial

Sometimes, I look at a familiar word and see it as completely alien.  The normal connotations and denotations and contexts have fallen away or been stashed, temporarily, in some dark corner of my mind, and in their stead is left a foundling; a chimera built of recognizable components.

President (n.); one who presides.

Another instance is when I stared at a packet of Trident chewing gum and the brand name appeared to be nothing more than a nonsense word, created by the corporation in order to allude to the three beneficial effects it was meant to have on teeth.  Posiden’s pitchfork was so far from my mind as to be nonexistent.

Most recently, this happened to the word artificial.  The word is eminently familiar to all of us.  Artificial flavoring, artificial organs, artificial intelligence, artificial insemination.  It is the opposite of natural and, as such, inferior. It is slightly threatening, a bit antiseptic, and quite unsexy; a miasma of falseness permeates the air around it.  Artificial is Plan B, the one which is left when Plan A fails.

It is very much a 21st century word.

And then, in a burst of alienation, I saw that artifice in artificial.

Artifice feels so removed from artificial that it is impossible to comprehend how they could only be separated by suffixes.  Artifice speaks of alchemy and steampunk and crafters’ guilds.  It embodies the human ingenuity which inhabits the very fringes of cutting-edge Science (yes, with a capital “S”).  It brings to mind inventiveness for inventiveness’ sake; the pushing of boundaries and the never-ending search for a smarter machine, a better medicine.  Artifice is not only sexy, it is romantic.

And it lives in the 19th century, forever preserved in the artificial amber of our memories.

And so now I struggle with artificial.  Every glimpse of the word mires my mind in a type of double vision; the irreconcilable dichotomy between the two oh-so-similar words causes gears to snarl and synapses to flicker impotently.  In the end, I am left with a pale sort of wonder, as I contemplate the wondrous human artifice in every instance of the artificial.


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