Traveling and Explanation

Traveling and Explanation

One recurrent theme in arguments for the utility of photography in the early nineteenth century is that it might provide a substitute for travel. Traveling abroad, taking “the grand tour,” was considered a major part of a person’s education. Marcus Aurelius Root’s The Heliographic Art from 1864 asserts that the photograph might bring such travel within the reach of even the poorest of citizens. However, the poignancy of Oliver Wendell Holmes appreciation in The Stereoscope and the Sterograph makes more sense now that I find out from Louis Menad’s The Metaphysical Club that he was an asthma sufferer who found travel painful.

Oh, infinite volumes of poems that I treasure in this small library of glass and pasteboard! I creep over the vast features of Rameses, on the face of his rockhewn Nubian temple; I scale the huge mountain-crystal that calls itself the Pyramid of Cheops. I pace the length of the three Titanic stones of the wall of Baalbec,–mightiest masses of quarried rock that man has lifted into the air; and then I dive into some mass of foliage with my microscope, and trace the veinings of a leaf so delicately wrought in the painting not made with hands, that I can almost see its down and the green aphis that sucks its juices. I look into the eyes of the caged tiger, and on the scaly train of the crocodile, stretched on the sands of the river that has mirrored a hundred dynasties. I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once buried cities, I look into the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts. I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

“Give me the full tide of life at Charing Cross,” said Dr. Johnson. Here is Charing Cross, but without the full tide of life. A perpetual stream of figures leaves no definite shapes upon the picture. But on one side of this stereoscopic doublet a little London “gent” is leaning pensively against a post; on the other side he is seen sitting at the foot of the next post;–what is the matter with the little “gent ?”

For some reason, I keep getting drawn back to this essay. I’ve written about it before. This time around though, I keep thinking about the juxtaposition of Holme’s desire to know the story behind the picture, and his early assertion that technology needs no “rhetorical flourish”:

It is therefore hardly necessary to waste any considerable amount of rhetoric upon wonders that are so thoroughly appreciated. When human art says to each one of us, I will give you ears that can hear a whisper in New Orleans, and legs that can walk six hundred miles in a day, and if, in consequence of any defect of rail or carriage, you should be so injured that your own very insignificant walking members must be taken off, I can make the surgeon’s visit a pleasant dream for you, on awakening from which you will ask when he is coming to do that which he has done already,–what is the use of poetical or rhetorical amplification? But this other invention of the mirror with a memory and especially that application of it which has given us the wonders of the stereoscope, is not so easily, completely, universally recognized in all the immensity of its applications and suggestions.

Apparently, photography is an exception to the rule that instruments require no explanation. Photography’s significance, and photographs themselves, always seem to beg for explanations.

Thin Film (2)

Thin Film (2)

from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” Atlantic Monthly (1859)

Democritus of Abdera, commonly known as the Laughing Philosopher, probably because he did not consider the study of truth inconsistent with a cheerful countenance, believed and taught that all bodies were continually throwing off certain images like themselves, which subtile emanations, striking on our bodily organs, gave rise to our sensations. Epicurus borrowed the idea from him, and incorporated it into the famous system, of which Lucretius has given us the most popular version. Those who are curious on the matter will find the poet’s description at the beginning of his fourth book. Forms, effigies, membranes, or films, are the nearest representatives of the terms applied these effluences. They are perpetually shed from the surfaces of solids, as bark as shed by trees. Cortex is, indeed, one of the names applied to them by Lucretius.

These evanescent films may be seen in one of the aspects of any clear, calm sheet of water, in a mirror, in the eye of an animal by one who looks at it from the front, but better still by the consciousness behind the eye in the ordinary act of vision. They must be packed like leaves of a closed book; for suppose a mirror to give an image of an object a mile off, it will give one at every point less than a mile, though this were subdivided into a million parts. Yet the images will not be the same; for the one taken a mile off will be very small, at half a mile as large again, at a hundred feet, fifty times as large, and so on, as long as the mirror can contain the image.

Under the action of light, then, a body makes its superficial aspect present at a distance, becoming appreciable as a shadow or as a picture. But remove the cause,—the body itself,—and the effect is removed. The man beholdeth himself in the glass and goeth his way, and straightaway both the mirror and the mirrored forget what manner of man he was. These visible films or membranous exuviæ of objects, which the old philosophers talked about, have no real existence, separable from their illuminated source, and perish instantly when it is withdrawn.

If a man had handed a metallic speculum to Democritus of Abdera, and told him to look at his face in it while his heart was beating thirty or forty times, promising that one of the films should stick there, so that neither he, nor it, nor anybody should forget what manner of man he was, the Laughing Philosopher would probably have vindicated his claim to his title by an explosion that would have astonished the speaker.

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.