I have come across some articles on the mental derangement of a paleontologist. The man, one Dr. Chonosuke Okamura, spent much of his life gazing at shards of ancient mountains through a microscope to find traces of the planet’s earliest remains of life. Late in his career, he discovered an incredibly minute human being, holding what must be an infant, barely outlined in the chaos of markings on the stone surface. Further stones revealed further species: dogs the size of dust specks, a giraffe whose neck couldn’t stretch over an acorn, a pod of whales that could live in a teardrop. The scientist carefully photographed, outlined and named each find; he constructed elaborate charts and diagrams. Having discovered our earliest roots (we were miniature versions of ourselves) and, I am assuming, extrapolating our future (expansion to gargantuan dimensions), he fought and failed to get his studies recognized.
The story would not be so unbelievable if Okamura had not spent a good part of his life with his eye on the microscope finding the algae remains that are truly the only remains of life that are left on those stones. He’s like a meteorologist gathering data about clouds, only to announce that, in the end, he discovered a herd of sheep in the sky. Or an electrician who can’t bear to plug it in—as a face had appeared in the outlet. When you remark to someone that you see the form of a castle in the melting snowbank and they reply that they see it too, down to the fibres in the waving flags atop its walls and the pimples of the guards peeking over the bastions, they are either playing the joking pataphysicist or have begun to stretch your momentary misimpression into their long madness.
Unless confined to poetic conceits or illusionary paintings pareidolia is acceptable in short, dying flashes. Da Vinci recommended self-inducing this state to see great paintings in blotches on the walls.
In the 18th century, Johann Gottfried Herder, the German Romantic-philosopher, wrote against a certain form of mistaken scrutiny in his essay On The Origin of Language. When commenting on the foolishness of extrapolating from the meaning of a word by examining the shape of its letters, instead of referring to its function in a word or sentence, he uses the image of a tear under a microscope: “The tear which moistens this lusterless and extinguished, this solace-starved eye—how moving it is not in the total picture of a face of sorrow. Taken by itself it is merely a drop of cold water. Place it under a microscope—I do not care what I see there.”
But here today we have a photographer, Rose-Lynn Fisher, artist of the microscope, printing a book of such images: Topography of Tears. She reveals the world Herder was so apathetic about. The pictures resemble, to me, aerial images of rural waterways, cut up with highways, dead-end roads and the chaotic waterways characterizing the remains of glaciers. Fisher sees in each image an “ephemeral atlas.”
I’m inclined to believe Herder, transported to a bookstore of the 21st-century, would scoff, pass the laminated picture-book and root around for something in the Used Philosophy section. It is difficult to imagine the man reconsidering, finding some hidden clarity about grief in the images. One who sees maps of misery in evaporated salt crystals is approaching the confused condition of the paleontologist and his zoology-in-miniature.
For others, there is no meaningless mote or picayune speck in the world. I am reading both the journals and a biography of Jesuit monk and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who believed every object, under scrutiny, would reveal an intensely particular inscape, an inner geography unique to itself. A gardener quoted in The Playfulness of Hopkins demonstrates some of the peculiar behavior the man demonstrated in his search of inscape: “I saw him the other day in the garden turning round and round and looking at a piece of glass in the path. I took him for a natural [a child, an idiot].”
Hopkin’s, I think, if he were to come across The Topography of Tears would not immediately scoff at Fisher’s magnified images. If the innards of a tear were not worthy of examination it would surely be the photographer’s fault, or else it would be Gods’, which is impossible.
His artistic sensibility went hand-in-hand with his cosmology.There is an anecdote in Hopkin’s notebook that he performed a trick on a duck—he hypnotizes the thing by drawing a white chalk line extending from its beak. The act will freeze certain birds. (This phenomenon can be observed in the arguably elevated world of Herzog films to the arguably lowly world of youtube shorts.) Hopkins believed the duck became so riveted by the inscape of the white chalk line that it entered a sort of holy paralysis, forgetting its whereabouts and staring endlessly at some hidden miracle. This is at odds with the usual explanation: that the bird is entrapped in some dreadfully extended misapprehension about the nature of the chalk-line, a sort of avian pareidolia.
Herzog, the other bird-hypnotizer, was afraid of the stupidity in the eyes of the chicken, the frantic pace with which they twist their heads and turn their eyes. They are a symbol of frantic attention spans, unable to focus on anything of worth for very long, their picture of the world a glut of cursory glances.
That mad paleontologist, perhaps unable to focus on ancient algae remains any longer, perhaps reviving a youthful and hopeless dream to revolutionize the world, allowed his momentary misapprehension become a life-long delusion. Fisher, unlike Herder, obviously believed that seeing a comment on grief in a tear is a worthy experience, if only for a while.These bouts are certainly better than seeing the world in an endless glimpse, but where to draw the line?