Zacharias Janssen
Zacharias Janssen

A New Watershed in Aesthetic History: The Microscope

Por Eduardo Zeind Palafox

I’ve been weening the time-honored distinction between ancient and modern art. Time, I guess, isn’t a keen concept to split art. I’m going to talk a bit about this. Will we be “modern brethren” within ten thousand years? This discussion could endlessly be enlarged. I would like to hie the piebald literary connoisseurs to regard the microscope, or rather the microscopical worldview, which was well imprinted on the curious minds of the Greek pointy-heads (the phrase “οφθαλμος σου απλους” in Matthew 6: 22, and the word “καρδια” in Matthew 6: 21, evoke microscopical images) and on the minds of a Leibniz, of a Newton, as the hallmark of the said artsy rivers.

Over time, as far as I know, this hasn’t been done. The artistic camp is replete with bemoaning and foggy erudition. We, naïf shipwrecks, cannot know things as they’re in themselves. They’re raw appearances, “ungraspable” phantoms of life, as Melville would say. This is the “hard problem” in the spheres of aesthetic criticism. In a nutshell: beside the microscopical worldview, every artist attempts to live in sensorial credulity; then, they cope with contemplation, which requires mental syntheses in order to carve outstanding deeds into the perennial Shakespearean wood.

But these gloom kith and this doom kin almost no longer exist. The microscopical paradigms brought about sensorial incredulity, rejection before objects, a mess of drinky analyses, and the isolated whimsical love for techniques. This brief op-ed is based on this theory of mine; it will deal with poems written by Thomas Gray (1716-1771) and Henry Longfellow (1807-1882).

Prior to the blurbed analysis, some background is necessary. In order to bog down my queries, I did read Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode, Hegel’s Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, and Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellungen in some many ways, and they all seem to me misty measly wreaths. We must keep in mind they were philosophers; they weren't gleemen. Albeit they would rebuff this, art was in their ever-arranging eyes a set of helter-skelter stimuli strown pell-mell throughout the world. Wherefore, I looked for better scaffolds. I found The Harvard Classics, where Edgar Allan Poe says art is “the rhythmical creation of beauty” (1).

Rhythmical? I finished the manifold reading of that book in almost one eventide. Such a definition implies that art boxes “unities”, “forms”, that is, the idea of geometry, which, according to Kant, is the stem of arithmetic. This compelling framework shed a lot of mollifying brightness: geometry can branch out into arithmetic only because we mentally can outline the blurred things that stuff the world (2). This isn’t a hard-to-get beholding. The main art’s concern is about syntax; or to use a classic term, “dispositio”.

The innocence, or rather the naturality of the aforesaid poe-tic “rhythmical creation”, was completely impaired by the microscope. For one business is to imagine that things are made up of points, numbers, monads (Leibniz), alchemical stuff (Newton), atoms, and the like, and another thing is to prove it with our senses. Long before the invention of the microscope, people didn’t straggle upon an earth “without form”, as the King James Bible says (Genesis 1: 2). We were dogmatic folks, and superstitious (3). But, what is a microscope? I’m going to wield a definition worthy of a flibbertigibbet. A microscope is “a device that makes very small objects look larger” (Cambridge Dictionary). Since that optical feat, our dogmatism was superseded by skepticism.

As objects lost their forms; as under the power of a microscope we don’t see chairs and tables, but “hills” and “valleys”, as Bertrand Russell poetically wrote (4), people came to assume, in the form of epistemological doldrums, that knowledge is a simple illusion. Our material jingoism, as it were, was totally transmogrified. What we see, we ween, is not what we get; we see phantoms. The change of mentality that comes out of this, is more important than the change in technology and science, as Alfred North Whitehead has noticed (5). Did such a change affect the mentality of artists? It was so, and in a grisly wise. Hereof, we’ll have only painters, for instance, looking for “very small objects” (6).

Let's apply the theory to the said poems. In accordance with Conrad Hjalmar Norby, the skald Thomas Gray arguably was one of the main badges of the plain Old Norse literature. Hjalmar, in his wise book called The Influence of Old Norse Literature Upon English Literature (7), which came to me out of the blue, affirms Gray’s knowledge of Old Norse was quite weird. Some verses of Gray’s The Fatal Sisters run thus:

Horror covers all the heath,

clouds of carnage blot the sun.

Sisters, weave the web of death;

sisters, cease, the work is done.

They alone allow to shine forth Gray’s craftsmanship. My coy literary contention leads me to say that beneath these lines there is a credulous contemplative knitter of physical and metaphysical things. In brief, Gray is a dogmatic, an ancient poet. The pashing verses stand for the concepts of “credulity”, “contemplation”, “synthesis”, and “history”.

He is credulous because he brazenly joins the word “horror”, which is an abstract term, and “heath”, which is a concrete one. Both are deemed as equals. Horror, wherefore, has the trappings of a red turf. Contemplation is to perceive beneath the sway of an idea. The tragic idea of “death” bosses every verse. Gray outlines an efficient synthesis by wreathing far objects, such as the “heath”, the “sun”, the “sisters”, etc. His work represents an epoch; he is historicizing, or at least giving frills of history, by ending the stanza with the magical phrase “the work is done”. “The strophe is perfect in every detail” owing to their “form” (credulity), “sense” (contemplation), “picture” (synthesis), and “atmosphere” (history), as Hjalmar wrote. This shannack-like work lifts Gray into unquenchable poetry.

Came the minute of perusing Longfellow’s The Arrow and the Song, which shows “incredulity”, “rejection of objects”, “fleetingness”, and “a subtle technique”. The poem says:

I shot an arrow into the air,

it fell to earth, I knew not where;

for, so swiftly it flew, the sight

could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,

it fell to earth, I knew not where;

for who has sight so keen and strong,

that it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak,

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

and the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

Longfellows is incredulous, and by reason of this he repeats twice “I knew not where”. The earth, in his view, is “without form”. He doesn’t believe in his eyes, and due to this he affirms nobody has “sight so keen and strong” to “follow” the flight of his arrow and his song. He is glad those “unbroken” things weren’t analysed, or rather crumbled, by time. Two similar verses juxtaposed could seem a hollow religious tittle-tattle, I think (8). Subtly Longfellow twice says: “It fell to earth, I knew not where”. The earth, firstly, is something spatial; secondly, it is something social. I won’t be a bossy interpreter, but I guess, I’m well-nigh sure, he is portraying our modern microscopical worldview. Does Longfellow fill the gaps of history? He doesn’t. The song, the arrow, the air, and company, don’t depict an epoch; they are rough pretexts to boast his sleight, which was nourished by a scientific mentality.-


  • Volume 28, The Poetic Principle.
  • Kant taught us this, and today’s scientists think so. “When we look at a solid lump of iron or rock, we are looking at what is almost entirely empty space. It looks and feels solid and opaque because our sensory system and brains find it convenient to treat it as solid and opaque” (Dawkins, Richard, The Greatest Show on Earth. New York, U. S.: Free Press, 2010. Page 92).
  • The human mind, in this century, goes from concreteness to abstractness. But there was a time when this was otherwise. Matthew Hopkins, the well-known witch-hunter, wrote this on the Devil (The Discovery of Witches, Quer. 7): “(...) he is a Spirit and Prince of the ayre, he appeares to them in any shape whatsoever, which shape is occasioned by him through joyning of condensed thickned aire together, and many times doth assume shapes of many creatures (...)”.
  • The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter I. Appearance and Reality.
  • Science and The Modern World. Chapter I. The Origins of Modern Science.
  • We need microscopical sight, or taste (physics has its own psychologist: the microscope), to unravel the literary plot called “άµαρτία” (“tragic flaw”). See J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.
  • Chapter II, Through the Medium of Latin.
  • Robert Frost, as Borges pointed out, has made use of this resort; the former wrote (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening): “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,/ but I have promises to keep,/ I miles to go before I sleep,/ and miles to go before I sleep”. Firstly, the miles are something spatial; secondly, they are humane deeds.
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