MY FAVORITE STATEMENT by German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) is not mentioned in this film. A zoologist, scientific illustrator, and advocate of pantheism (“God is everywhere”) he wrote in 1899, in The Riddle of the Universe, that the typical Christian description of God is that of “a gaseous vertebrate.”
This wonderfully interesting, prize-winning film provides an informative overview of Haeckel’s intellectual growth, the social setting in which his ideas matured, and the progress of his writings on evolutionary biology (he popularized the “tree of
descent,” the notion of ecology, and the biogenetic assumption that the development of an individual (ontogeny) is indicative of the stages by which its species evolved (phylogeny)).
Haeckel was among the most widely read writers of the 19th century, and yet he is all but forgotten today. When his name is mentioned, it may not be for his scientific writings, but for the innumerable drawings he made (using a microscope connected to a camera lucida tracing device) from live specimens of astonishing one-celled animals called radiolarians. These tiny sea creatures were called that because their silicon skeletons are examples of radial symmetry; yet (like snowflakes), no two are identical, and their variety is truly amazing.
l've been aware of Haeckel’s work for years because l own a copy of Art Forms in Nature, a book of his drawings and paintings that was first published in 1904, and was more recently reissued (with the plates only, without his scientific text) by Dover Publications in 1974. Those same images are used inventively throughout this film to produce animated sequences of the similarities and differences of radiolarians and other protozoa, a term that purposely alludes to Proteus, the Greek god of the sea, who (like radiolarians) could appear in countless varied forms.
Haeckel’s greatest influence was Charles Darwin, but, as this film postulates, he may have been equally influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s attempts to reconcile art with science; by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the epic poem about the sea and creativity by Samuel Coleridge, who described the ocean as “the reservoir of the soul”; and, most surprisingly, by the inadvertent research of ocean life that came from the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable by Cyrus Fields in 1866.
When this film premiered in 2004, it was deservedly given awards at several film festivals as the "best documentary." In watching it, I learned quite a lot about Ernst Haeckel as a person, Darwinian evolution theory, the beginnings of oceanography, the Victorian era, and society’s age-old equation of the quixotic moods of the ocean with madness and the imagination—so much so that, prior to the formation of asylums, people who were mentally ill were sometimes set adrift on ships, in ill-fated crafts that were commonly known as the “ships of fools."—RB
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Proteus: A Nineteenth Century Vision. A film by David Lebrun. 61 mins. DVD, Color and BxW, 2004. Available from Icarus Films.
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