Form and Substance

Form and Substance

I was reading an essay by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. called “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” (1859) and started to think about its conclusion, in the light of the latest 24 hour live war:

The next European war will send us stereographs of battles. It is asserted that a bursting shell can be photographed. The time is perhaps at hand when a brief flash of light, as sudden and brief as that of lightning which shows a whirling wheel standing stock still, shall preserve the very instant of the shock of contact of mighty armies that are even now gathering. The lightning from heaven does actually photograph natural objects it has just blasted,—so we are told by many witnesses. The lightning of clashing sabres and bayonets may be forced to stereotype itself in a stillness as complete as that of the tumbling tide of Niagara as we see it self-pictured.

We should be led on too far, if we develop our belief as to the transformations to be wrought by this greatest of human triumphs over earthly conditions, the divorce of form and substance. Let our readers fill out a blank check on the future as they like,—we give our indorsement[sic] to their imaginations beforehand. We look into stereoscopes as pretty toys, and wondering over the photograph as a charming novelty; but before another generation has passed away, it will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He who

“Never but in uncreated light
Dwelt from eternity”

took a pencil of fire from the “angel standing in the sun,” and placed it in the hands of a mortal.

This passage is amazing not just because it shows remarkable foresight regarding the role of images in history, but also because it makes clear the fallacy involved in separating the image from the substance that it portrays. The distance between the green flashes on TV and the reality of burned and charcoaled bodies has become routine. We’ve cashed that check—the license to substitute the image for the real.

Worse still, as I read of the efforts of journalists to get to the front, it seems as if war has become a tourist attraction. We crave that flash of light in a canned metaphor, the reduction of the saber clash to a frozen moment—because the substance of slow agonizing death by fire or bleeding is just too horrible to bear.