Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Proteus

Due to a major (positive) life event I have had in the past couple weeks numerous old friends, old photographs, old possessions, and old ideas all turning up unexpectedly. A few weeks back I cleaned out the garage and dug up several boxes of old records, this week I managed to get the turntable hooked up and listened to some tracks that have been following me around unheard of for two decades or more. Old Rounder Records disks (Vassar Clements' Crossing the Catskills, obscure Robert Fripp projects, Roland Kirk Live in Copenhagen 1963, Siegel-Schwall Band. Sweet stuff. Listening to it after all these years felt odd. Most of it I still liked, but not necessarily for the same reasons I liked it back then. I am not the same person I was back then, though he and I obviously have some things in common.

Some weeks before that I stumbled upon the documentary film Proteus which brings together a bunch of my old interests -- form in nature, Coleridge, reconciling science and religion. It is primarily centered around Ernst Haeckel, known mainly today for his exquisitely trippy illustrations of radiolarians and other natural forms, but who was actually one of the major figures of 19th century biology. Large parts of the film are rapid-fire animations based on his drawings. These interests of mine, like the records, have been effectively sitting around in boxes getting slightly musty and mildewed, and it is with mixed feelings that I unpack them and examine them after so many years.

Oddly the film did not touch on the more controversial issues surrounding Haeckel -- his advocacy of eugenics, anti-semitism, and source of Nazi ideology, and accusations that he falsified some of his famous drawings that were a staple of evolution textbooks for decades. The former set of accusations seems exaggerated, since in fact the Nazis banned Haeckel's works along with others advocating "œthe superficial scientific enlightenment of a primitive Darwinism and monism", but it's still an unsettled issue among historians.

My attraction to this stuff has an ambiguous quality. I am fascinated by form and by the various holistic, romantic, or platonic currents of thought at the margins of science, but feel like I can't quite grasp it or devote myself to it wholeheartedly as some do (I dabbled in computer graphics and generative art but don't really have the artist's sensibility). Such stuff almost always seems to veer off into an unproductive self-righteousness and navel-gazing, or worse, cultishness. My background is in quite the opposite direction, but I am unsatisfied with it as I am with all belief systems.

2 comments:

Jenny said...

Oooh what's the positive life event? Is it a college reunion?

John Redford said...

There's synchronicity - I came across some art books about Haeckel in a Japanese bookstore while visiting Mike in SF, but don't think we ever talked about it. I've seen some of his drawings before but didn't know anything about him. So thanks for the pointer to "Proteus"! I've added it to the Netflix queue.