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Extremities of perception in an age of lenses.

By Alan Wall.


A creature of optics.LUKA ROCCO MAGNOTTA killed and dismembered Jun Lin. He videotaped the process, and posted it online. He then left Montreal and was spotted at the Helin internet café in Berlin, where he was surfing the internet. The police raided his hotel room, where they found a stash of pornographic magazines. Everything here was done with the aid of lenses, perhaps for the benefit of lenses. Life was seen through lenses, as was death. Magnotta was a man living through lenses.

The Jerry Springer Show was performed before lenses, of course, in the form of ranks of television cameras, and because of those shiny Cyclops eyes, whole families turned themselves inside out, humiliated one another, even hit one another in the face, all for the sake of those who would see on their television sets what lenses might now provide in the way of entertainment. The cisatlantic version of this ritual of lensed humiliation was the emotional pornography of Big Brother, whose sole purpose was to show how wretched, mean-spirited, foul-mouthed and vacuous human beings can be, when they are confined in a space with one another. All while being stared at unrelentingly by cameras.

Truly we live in an age of lenses. Photography has now been with us for nearly two hundred years, and cinema for well over a century. We do not have separate compartments in our minds into which we can insert photographic images, as opposed to those we first encountered with the lenses of our own eyes. So, many of us are unable to sift and separate what only ever entered our mind through photography or film. I never saw Elvis Presley in the flesh, and yet the image of him in my mind is more vividly present than the physiognomies of people I went to school with. I am unable to recall the features of my first girlfriend, and yet the Kennedy assassination sometimes plays and replays in my mind, not that I was in Dallas on that day, or any other. Muhammed Ali is in my mind; I can still see the sweat glistening on his torso, though I doubt I have ever come within two hundred miles of his actual person.

Does this constitute a separation from reality as fissiparous as that which once came from reading romances, and then subsequently interpreting reality through them? Is this the lensed equivalent of mad old Don Quixote, intellectually ruined by his addiction to the romance narratives, or Madame Bovary, training herself for a life of emotional mendacity by mentally devouring the cheap fiction of her time?

We smile before lenses; we point them; we post the images around. We switch on Skype to see our nephew on the screen in New Zealand. We watch men dancing around in moondust, and we often view these images in the corner of our living rooms, more clearly than we see the neighbour outside mowing his lawn. Our memories have been converted into photographic museums, and we have never even asked who is responsible for the curation. How can we really distinguish between primary and secondary experience, between what is known and what imagined, even though that distinction still lies at the root of our notion of what segregates the psychotic from the functional (if melancholy) ordinary soul?


Galileo's lens. (Image: Istituto e Museo Nazionale di Storia della Scienza.) SO WHEN DID all this start? When did our reality begin to depend so much on lenses? This is one of those rare occasions when we can be utterly specific. The process began on 7 January 1610 when Galileo Galilei, having fashioned himself a telescope more powerful than any used on earth before, stared out into the skies. With this new instrument, he could see things in the heavens no one had ever seen before. He published Sidereus Nuncius that year. His book first explained how lenses had changed for ever our perception of reality, and our understanding of our place in space.

Clicking an image will launch a captioned slideshow.

When in 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia, together with its remarkable microscopic illustrations, the extremities of human perception had been enlarged to an unprecedented degree. In forty-five years we had left one scheme of reality, and been lensed into another one entirely. We could now begin to see the vastness of space out there, and observe the tiny creatures we are obliged to live amongst down here. The age of lenses had now truly begun; we have been situated inside it ever since.

A shift in perpective: The king of Brobdingnag eyeing Gulliver by Jas Gilray, 1803. Image: LOC.In 1656, a decade before the publication of Micrographia in London, Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. He was to spend the rest of his days philosophizing, and making lenses for telescopes and microscopes. He could only do this because he was living in the middle of the new century of optical instruments. Human perception had now been extended in a manner previously unknown, and it was those humble lenses of his that were making it all possible. Stars became nearer, moons became bigger, reality was changing decade by decade as it was viewed through these lenses. Gulliver’s Travels is an acknowledgment of that change. It is a meditation upon the shifts in reality that lenses had now brought about. Seven years after the publication of that book, Jonathan Swift was still pondering the vertiginous effects of scalar perspectivism:

So nat’ralists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller fleas that bite ‘em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

In the seventeenth century the development of the telescope and the microscope expanded the human imagination at both the macro and the micro level. The great vision of falling bodies which opens Paradise Lost would not have been possible without Galileo’s development of the telescope, and Milton himself pays tribute to Galileo in various places. He was aware of the vast implications of the telescope and the ‘optic glass’, as he called it, appears in the first book of Paradise Lost:

He scarce had ceased when the superior fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large, and round,
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers or mountains in her spotty globe.

Here we seem to be peering back to the beginning of time through a telescope. This of course is precisely what the Hubble Telescope now does. Einstein’s physics has taught us that there is no space that is separate from time, and no time separate from space. When we look at the sun we are seeing it as it was eight and a half minutes previously, since that is the time it takes for its light to reach us. When we stare at other galaxies we are seeing them sometimes as they were millions of years ago.  Having introduced the telescope at the beginning of his poem, Milton contrived to bring in the microscope in the last book of Paradise Regained, but he didn’t appear to understand what it was for. He does not in fact appear to have looked through one, and he was of course blind by then; he seems to have assumed that this particular optical device was designed for peering into houses from the outside.

As Marjorie Hope Nicholson points out in Science and Imagination, we don’t actually know how far back in history the invention of the telescope goes. We’re not sure what the merkhet of the Egyptians was; or the ‘queynte mirours’ and ‘perspectives’ mentioned in Chaucer. Roger Bacon’s ‘glasses or diaphanous bodies’ were evidently optical devices, and in the sixteenth century Thomas Digges and John Dee both appear to have made use of ‘optic tubes’ of some sort, but as far as we know they employed them solely for the magnification of terrestrial objects, to bring  faraway visions closer to the eye.

The truly momentous occasion in the history of this device, the one which made its use obligatory and shifted the perceptions of humankind irrevocably, redefining in the process the extremities of perception, occurred on that night in January in 1610, when Galileo stared through the latest telescope he had made for himself. In a matter of hours he saw that the Milky Way was more crammed with stars than anyone had previously imagined, and that Jupiter had planets. He could see a covering of earthshine on the moon’s surface, our own sunny reflection handed back into the darkness of space, but he noted also our moon’s asperities, its ragged, pockmarked surface, its irregularities and protruberances. Aristotelianism, except as a form of superannuated antiquarianism, and a pretext for Vatican torture, died that night, for there was not, as the Greek philosopher had asserted and the European intellectual tradition had maintained for nearly two thousand years, perfection in the celestial sphere. It would still take some time to fully realise that the same laws applied up there as apply down here. What could be observed fitted in nicely with Galileo’s previous discoveries: he had noticed that bodies in the sublunar sphere fall, all bodies fall, unless a force acts upon them with sufficient potency to prevent them from so doing. This would be encoded by Newton in three laws before the end of the century. Soon enough everyone would have to accept that the planets didn’t move in the celestial perfection of circles either, but described instead a circuit of imperfection, the gravitationally-distorted ellipse. But all this was still to come.

Soon everyone in Europe who could afford it wanted to have one of these telescopes. Galileo tried to make sure he had a few spares with him whenever he performed his demonstrations before princes, since even scientific geniuses need to make a living. And later that year when Galileo’s book Sidereus Nuncius was printed, every fellow of means had to get hold of a copy. Sir Henry Wotton wrote a letter to the Earl of Salisbury on March 13th 1610, in which he said the work ‘is come abroad this very day’. Pirated editions were soon far more numerous than the authorised imprints. The heavens were at last yielding their secrets, though some of the defenders of heaven itself weren’t best pleased at this turn of events. After all, Dante had represented the regions of hell as circles, not ellipses; and everyone knew that the trinity was a perfect equilateral triangle. Eternity was an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. And, whatever Giordano Bruno might have preached, there could be no plurality of worlds: Jesus had come here directly from heaven, and then gone straight back there, after a brief detour in hell. He had not called in on any other spatial colonies.

So it was that the vast space of the Baroque entered Milton’s mind through a telescope, though by the time he came to portray that vastness, he was himself already blind. He had looked through one though, and he describes a visit to Galileo in Areopagitica. Though the words of Paradise Lost were written by a man without physical vision, they seem to see the vast spaces more vividly than even the most apocalyptic of its nineteenth-century illustrators, John Martin. And what they see is the demolition of boundaries; hence the negatives in so many of the descriptions:

Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary Deep – a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension; where length, breadth, and highth,
And time, and place, are lost.

Thus did the telescope start to habituate the mind to a vastness previously unconceived. And not long after, the microscope was busily extending perception in the other directions, prompting Pope’s plaintive request to remain, perceptually, where we had been first and properly planted:

Why has not man a miscroscopic eye?
For this plain reason: man is not a fly.

Thus did Pope, in the Essay on Man, look askance at the newly magnified world, though he used it to delightful effect in The Rape of the Lock. It is not possible to ask why man does not have a microscopic eye, unless you live in a world filled with microscopes, any more than it is possible to identify a plough in the night skies before you have undergone a Neolithic Revolution here on earth. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia had become a famous book after its publication in 1665, and soon after it was to feed directly into the literary imagination.

Here, for example, is Gulliver in Brobdingnag:

The Kingdom is much pestered with Flies in Summer; and these odious
Insects, each of them as big as a Dunstable Lark, hardly gave me any
Rest while I sat at Dinner, with their continual Humming and Buzzing
about mine Ears. They would sometimes alight upon my Victuals, and
leave their loathsome Excrement or Spawn behind, which to me was
very visible, although not to the Natives of that Country, whose large
Opticks were not so acute as mine in viewing smaller Objects.

This passage simply could not have been written without the publication of Micrographia, with its superb illustrations of the large grey drone-fly and the flea. When Pepys collected his copy of this book soon after its publication in 1665, he sat up until two in the morning reading it, and described it as ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.’ As with Sidereus Nuncius, this was one of the rare occasions where one can point to a publication and announce that this one book has extended the extremities of perception overnight. It furnished for the first time unseen realms, and alternative dimensions. It is his awareness of telescopic vision and microscopic vision which enables Swift to meditate on larger and smaller ‘Opticks’ and their appropriateness for the worlds they view.

Now what Pope’s lines indicate is that our optics are appropriate to our functions, and in a sense both the telescope and the microscope had confused the issue, to the mildly theatrical distress of Pope. The fact is that Gulliver’s eye in Brobdingnag is a microscope, and much pain it causes him as he gazes on human lice making their way over the human body. The most famous of the illustrations in Micrographia had been a sixteen-inch fold-out of a louse. The genius of Gulliver’s Travels was to understand that perception had been altered for ever by the introduction of the telescope and the microscope. The discovery, however, is not an altogether happy one. The engravings of lice and fleas which Robert Hooke had engaged in had been of non-human creatures. So what happened when one transferred such perceptions to our own realm, the realm of humanity? This is what happened. Here is Gulliver in Brobdingnag:

There was a fellow with a wen in his neck, larger than five woolpacks,
and another with a couple of wooden legs, each about twenty foot high.
But, the most hateful sight of all was the lice crawling on their clothes. I
could see distinctly the limbs of these vermin with my naked eye, much
better than those of an European louse through a microscope, and their
snouts with which they rooted like swine. They were the first I had ever
beheld, and I should have been curious enough to dissect one of them,
if I had proper instruments (which I unluckily left behind me in the ship)
although indeed the sight was so nauseous, that it perfectly turned my

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas (died 1739). Source: WikiDespite his sensation of nausea, Gulliver cannot resist his scientific impulse: he thinks of dissecting a louse. He knows he is in a great age of dissection. The famous painting by Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, shows a cadaver being dissected in a theatre. The avid spectators look on as a dead human being is turned inside out, to demonstrate the organs, intestines etc., that reside within. The corpse is that of an executed criminal. This was an arrangement made to the benefit of medicine: those who had passed beyond the stage of shame, whose criminality had already disgraced them in the public eye, underwent a further humiliation posthumously by being dissected. Wordsworth was to complain two centuries later: ‘We murder to dissect’. Already there was a new fad: the écorché painting or sculpture, in which the human being is presented flayed. These images had moved out of the anatomy theatre and into the gallery. Swift might have thought that the flaying of a woman altered her person for the worse, but many stately spectators seemed to differ. Quite a lot of the écorché figures of the time were of pregnant women. Our fondness for turning ourselves inside out in public is not new, though registering the progress from Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas to the Jerry Springer Show does make one ponder the significance of that word ‘progress’.

Gulliver is very much a man in a scientific world. He is extremely practical about such matters as navigation, warfare, architecture and engineering. We might remember that, when that other great novelistic victim of shipwreck, Robinson Crusoe, finds himself on his island, the first thing he does at night is to find a tree to sleep in, from which he also cuts himself a branch as a weapon to ward off attackers. The function of nature is to provide resources for resourceful men. It is not there to be worshipped, or to provide a gateway to heaven; it is there to be exploited. It provides a home and a weapon; this is nature as the zone of resourcefulness and exploitation. This is nature as the object of reason. Robinson Crusoe was published only seven years before Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver is of a most practical cast of mind, however bizarre and unaccountable his voyages. Here is his account of how he came to enter into the holy estate of matrimony: ‘I took part of a small house in the Old Jury; and being advised to alter my condition, I married Mrs Mary Burton, second daughter to Mr Edmond Burton hosier in Newgate Street, with whom I received four hundred pounds for a portion.’ He does not remark upon her beauty, her accomplishments, her conversation, or her skill at playing the virginals; no, he tells us that she provided him with four hundred pounds for a dowry upon their union. Even Jane Austen was never less sentimental than this. But it is precisely such a lack of sentimentality which facilitates the achievement of the book. Gulliver’s practical eye, his attention to detail, his forensic calculation, are the attributes that permit him to convey to us the extraordinary, which he describes in the practical prose of a builder’s manual. The unflustered descriptiveness of his prose is what makes his account of marvels so compelling.


SWIFT WAS FASCINATED by the goings-on in the scientific world. The Royal Society had been founded in 1660, and its Transactions were to be avidly read by Swift. To some degree, Gulliver’s Travels is a parody of those pages of the Transactions which were often filled with wondrous journeys affording new discoveries about the flora and fauna of newly discovered parts of the world. And here we need to situate Swift in regard to this new scientific temper, one which he regarded with the gravest suspicion.

Sir William Temple. (Netscher) Image: NPG.In the 1690s Swift’s patron at Moor Park in Surrey was Sir William Temple. Temple was handsome, powerful and opinionated. He believed, as did many others at the time, that all true learning came from the classics; that insofar as modern learning presumed to surpass the classics, it was being impertinent. In 1692 he wrote ‘Upon the Ancient and the Modern Learning’, the gist of which can be conveyed thus: all wisdom lies with the ancients. Nothing new in the way of discovery or science has in any way displaced the great philosophical tradition.

Swift went along with this. We can only speculate as to why. Swift was so entirely dependent upon Temple’s good will. He functioned as his secretary, and it was in Temple’s power to make or break this young man upon whom he was lavishing his largesse. We might speculate that, if Sir William had been of a more scientific temper himself, then Swift might have written differently. Whatever the personal motivation, Swift followed his master in his prejudices. Later in the same decade he wrote The Battle of the Books, and in that work the ancients are compared to bees, busily about their honeyed task of sweetness and light, whereas the spiders, which is to say the moderns, think that they can weave all knowledge and learning out of their own guts, as a spider does its web. It is a curiosity worthy of remark that in Bacon’s essays, the imagery had been reversed: the spiders are the ancients, who think all discoveries can come out of the innards of tradition, which is to say, ancient learning. The bees go off in search of fresh nectar, which is to say modern experimental knowledge.

Let us remind ourselves here of the momentous nature of this conflict. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Faustus says:

Having commenc’d, be a divine in show,
Yet level at the end of every art,
And live and die in Aristotle’s work…

‘And live and die in Aristotle’s work…’ We in fact know remarkably little of Aristotle’s work, since almost everything that has come down to us through history with his name attached was in the form of reconstruction by his students. But what came to be called Aristotelianism in the Middle Ages had an enormous authority, an authority to be consolidated by both church and state. And this authority had tremendous implications for the new science. One of its implications was to set the empirical evidence of the new lenses against the body of traditional learning. What was being delivered through the new lenses in the form of information appeared to contradict the great tradition. There were those who simply would not look through Galileo’s telescope, as there are those now who will not read The Origin of Species.

Aristotle asserts that the sublunar realm, our realm, is the region of imperfection. Here we find change and mutability. The celestial realm, being the realm of perfection, is unchanging. So when Galileo looked through his uniquely powerful telescope on that night in January 1610 and saw the pockmarked surface of the moon, he was observing the flat contradiction of the Aristotelian world. This was evidently not the realm of perfection, and some said that, because of this, the evidence being thereby gleaned could not possibly be true. Here we are seeing in conflict the contrast between the new experimental method, the inductive method, based on observation and measurement, and a mode of thought based upon the appeal to tradition and textual authority. When Galileo was condemned for his insistence that the earth moved around the sun, the condemnation was based on the fact that this contradicted the tenets of both scripture and tradition, and the tradition in this instance had been derived from Aristotle, as well as certain references in the Bible. This was why Francis Bacon portrayed the traditionalists as spiders, imagining that the gut of tradition can provide an endless amount of gossamer for our intricate invention, without the input of any new science. And this, he asserted vehemently in The Advancement of Learning, is surely an absurdity.

Temple was already seriously outdated in his defence of the classics against the new learning, and Swift in following him did himself no favours in terms of the history of thought, though he might have sharpened his own skills as a satirist. That artistocratic disdain for the learning of merchants and seamen, that dyspeptic attitude to all that made the modern world possible, might well have given Swift an advantage as a writer of satire. Satire functions best when it stares through the lens and notices something the age appears to have missed. Look, it says: there it was before your eyes all the time.

Irony in Swift can be looked at as the adoption of an optic, one that always reveals the extremities of perception. We have already seen this at work in Gulliver’s Travels. And another classic example is A Modest Proposal. Here the irony begins with the title itself, for what the writer of this document is recommending is a solution to the problems of poverty and starvation in the Ireland of Swift’s time, which is in fact far from modest: the solution is the cooking and eating of the children of the Irish poor. This legendary piece of writing is ironic from beginning to end, and the irony permits a silent cry of pain at the wickedness humans can inflict on one another. One of the advantages of his recommended scheme, our proposer writes, is as follows:

Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as
they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are
ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for
fear of a miscarriage.


CURIOUS HOW THE effect here is like watching an ancient silent film. And the distancing effect such irony generates can also induce a kind of vertigo. We find ourselves staring down at the gap opening between surface meaning and its tonal contradiction, and wondering if we might be about to fall in. What size of flea are we exactly, and are we being preyed upon, or preying, or both? Can this really go on ad infinitum?

Back to Gulliver’s Travels. In Section Three, Gulliver travels to the Academy at Lagado. Here he discovers many extraordinary things going on. The people dreaming up their schemes are known as projectors. One of them has spent eight years attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, which he then intends to put into hermetically sealed vials, which can be released to provide sunshine at a later date. Another projector wishes to find the original elements of human food in excrement, so as to arrive once more at the rudiments of nourishing material. Feculent this may be, but it is certainly holistic. Such projects undoubtedly parody the wilder schemes of the Royal Society, but in Chapter Six of Section Three we have this piece of sustained irony:

In the school of political projectors I was but ill entertained, the
professors appearing in my judgement wholly out of their senses,
which is a scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These
unhappy people were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to
choose upon the score of their wisdom, capacity and virtue; of
teaching ministers to consult the public good; of rewarding merit,
great abilities and eminent services; of instructing princes to know
their true interest by placing it on the same foundation with that
of their people: of choosing for employments persons qualified to
exercise them; with many other wild impossible chimeras, that never
entered before into the heart of man to conceive, and confirmed in
me the old observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and
irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth.

Here the irony is deliberated and extensive. Every sensible and prudent scheme – ‘of choosing for employments persons qualified to exercise them’ for example – is described as extravagant and irrational. The camera angle is like those floor-shots in Citizen Kane, when normality suddenly looms so large and weirdly above us. The point being, of course, to make us think of how decisions actually are made in institutions and political life, how favourites are put forward not because of ability but because of their fawning upon power, how those who grease their inside leg so that they might the more fluently slide up the pole of preferment, have a hideous tendency to be promoted.


Looking up. Image: J.J. Grandville (Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard) Voyages de Gulliver, Fournier, 1838. Via skladba.blogspot. SO WE HAVE in Gulliver’s Travels a parody of the modern travelogue, a satire upon the Transactions of the Royal Society, an ironic meditation on the organisation of human society in comparison with some other invented ones, and an employment in fiction of the latest optical devices, both telescopic and microscopic, to see how differently we might look to ourselves, if we could turn the lenses around and stare, not out into space, but back into ourselves; not at the magnified louse, but at a magnified version of ourselves. We would see, as the Gospels put it, not the mote in our neighbour’s eye, but the beam in our own.  Gulliver normally reports with a tone of mild incredulity whatever he discovers of indisputable wisdom in other lands. He says of the King of Brobdingnag:

He confined the knowledge of governing within very narrow bounds;
to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy
determination of civil and criminal causes; with some other obvious
topics which are not worth considering. And, he gave it for his
opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades
of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew
before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential
service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put

Gullivar's farewell to the houyhnhnms. Image: Sawrey Gilpin - Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms (1769) , Yale Center for British Art, via wiki.Irony expresses amazement at that which is blatantly true; by this means it alerts us to how frequently the blatantly true is flatly contradicted by the monochrome falsehood we see all around us. This becomes pronounced in the final section where the Houyhnhnms are contrasted with the Yahoos; the Yahoos are sadly nearer to humanity than the horse-like creatures they confront. Indeed the horses are so rational that their reasonableness can seem forbidding. F. R. Leavis complained in a famous essay that if the Houyhnhnms had all the intelligence, the Yahoos appeared to have all the life. In their statuary ethical stillness, the Houyhnhnms can seem to present us with a species of intellectual dressage. And like the dwarfs in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, they are not very good at metaphors. Doubleness in language (and its brother mendacity) seems to them to be an altogether too-Yahoo-like linguistic gift. It is significant nonetheless that the word Yahoo has entered our lexicon along with hooligan as representing a form of human behaviour we recognise as characteristic and frequent.

It is the optical dimension of Swift’s book which has made it the centre of a certain sort of modern criticism: its employment of defamiliarization. This is not a term which would have been known to Swift, since it was only invented in the twentieth century by the Russian Formalists; it is in fact a translation of their word ostranenie. It means seeing something anew; seeing it not with the eyes but through them; abandoning a conventional view and seeing instead from an unanticipated one. It involves, in other words, a change of optic.

A great deal of defamiliarization in fiction comes from displacement; this is often a displacement in location or time, but there are other types too, and these usually take the form of a reconfiguring of our five senses. Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies both have this much in common with Gulliver’s Travels. In all three books our protagonists are taken away from the normal rules and expectations of society, to islands where they must survive as best they can. When Thomas More wrote Utopia, providing us with the name we have used ever since, he employed a similar device. If you shift your characters in this manner, then all of their normal preconceptions might be challenged. They might, for example, start to wonder why we think so highly of gold – not a useful element on an island if you are trying to work out how to survive. Why then would people kill one another to acquire it? Ruskin was to ask the same question in his lecture ‘In Praise of Rust’. Displacement, as one of the devices of defamiliarization, allows for the re-assessment of prejudices and preconceptions.

In the instances we’ve mentioned the displacement is a literal one – there is a place at the heart of the word displacement, and we have been removed from it, to somewhere strange and unpredictable, where our perceptions might suffer a sea-change. The foundations of our life are thereby put into question. This is still a much-used device of adventure fiction and cinema. The plane-crash or the shipwreck deliver our fates to a new place, stripped of our normal expectations.

Now think of what goes on in SF writing. Here we often have a more complex, even more elusive, form of displacement. Gulliver’s Travels can be regarded as one of the founding texts of SF. In Robinson Crusoe we are transported elsewhere, but the normal rules of perception continue to apply; reality has grown lonelier, but it hasn’t re-arranged itself entirely. Our central optic remains domesticated. But think of Gulliver in Lilliput or Brobdingnag. Here reality has re-arranged itself. In one place Gulliver becomes a giant surrounded by tiny people; this gives him a different vantage-point on reality. Perception has been radically re-routed. Gulliver is looking through a telescope at reality. Then in Brobdingnag it is he who is the midget, gazing up at the monsters all about him. His vision has become a microscope. He sees with vivid detail the coarse details of the life presented to him, and he finds it grotesque.

Good SF writers keep their eye on what is going on in the world of science and technology; often they have some training in science, like Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. The fact is, as we have already remarked, that some of the passages above simply could not have been written without the publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, with its illustrations of the large grey drone-fly and the flea.

Defamiliarization shows us things as we had not previously thought to consider them. In Lilliput the Lilliputians examine all the goods which Gulliver keeps about his person, and make an inventory of them. Here is their description of his pocket watch:

We directed him to draw out whatever was at the end of that chain; which
appeared to be a globe, half silver, and half of some transparent metal: for
on the transparent side we saw certain strange figures circularly drawn,
and thought we could touch them, till we found our fingers stopped with
that lucid substance. He put this engine to our ears, which made an
incessant noise like that of a watermill. And we conjecture it is either
some unknown animal, or the god that he worships: but we are more
inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us (if we understood
him right, for he expressed himself very imperfectly), that he seldom
did anything without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said it
pointed out the time for every action in his life.

They are tiny, of course, but they have noticed the vast importance of mechanical time in the life of the west. Gulliver himself had never noticed. He had been more than ready to discount the significance of the endless ticking that controlled his existence.


THE PHILOSOPHER NIETZSCHE often spoke of resentment. He thought it typical of the slave mentality. Those who accept a life of passivity and obedience are filled with resentment for those who are more powerful than they. But there is at work in Swift a kind of reverse resentment. It would appear from the biographical data we have that his Tale of A Tub might have satirised a little too effectively the idiocies not merely of the Church of Rome and the world of the conventicles, but seemingly of the Established Church itself, in the favoured form current in England during his lifetime. Swift’s great gift was to be able to mock the pretensions, vacuity and mendacity of our species, by employing the same precise vocabularies under which we so often bury our customary contortions in pious prattle. He was never to be forgiven for such satirical exactitude. The curious scene in Part Two of Gulliver’s Travels where he puts out the fire in the Queen’s Palace by urination, thereby provoking her unyielding wrath, is often thought to refer to Queen Anne’s dislike of the vulgarity of much of the goings-on in A Tale of A Tub. Swift probably came to feel that he had not received the attention he had hoped for because of this dislike. Then, with her death in 1714, he was to be politically out of favour for the rest of his life.

Yahoo, right. Image via bookish-relish.blogspot.And so we witness his distinctive form of resentment. This is not the resentment of the mean towards the mighty, but the resentment of the gifted and articulate writer towards the toadying journeyman who creeps ever onwards towards the enhancements of his pension. It is the same sort of contempt Thomas More felt towards Richard Rich, one of his more loathsome betrayers. Swift takes his fictional revenge on all those he had seen promoted beyond his sphere in the final part of Gulliver’s Travels. The loathed creature of privilege is, of course, a Yahoo: ‘That this leader had usually a favourite as like himself as he could get, whose employment was to lick his master’s feet and posteriors, and drive the female Yahoos to his kennel; for which he was now and then rewarded with a piece of ass’s flesh. This favourite is hated by the whole herd, and therefore to protect himself, keeps always near the person of his leader. He usually continues in office till a worse can be found; but the very moment he is discarded, his successor, at the head of all the Yahoos in that district, young and old, male and female, come in a body, and discharge their excrements upon him from head to foot.’ The images succeed one another, as in an anthropologist’s film of a distant land and its inhabitants. We are being presented, seemingly, with an early documentary, which was precisely what some of its first readers took it to be. We seem to be looking backwards in time through a mighty telescope.

‘Satire,’ Swift wrote, ‘is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.’ We are back once more with optics. Hamlet urged the players to hold the mirror up to nature. As Roland Mushat Frye points out in The Renaissance Hamlet, the only mirrors the Globe audience knew were small, probably not more than a few inches across, convex and imperfect. Such a mirror would be held up to the face at an angle, so as to find blemishes. We need to understand something of the optics of the time to understand what the line actually means. Just as we need to beware when we gaze upon the technicolor splendours of the Hubble images, presenting us with the latest extremities of perception. At least Galileo actually saw through his telescope what he subsequently drew and published in Sidereus Nuncius. No one has ever ‘seen’ the Hubble images, which are in fact constructed out of data no human eye in situ ever could perceive. And in a final interaction between art and science, we might note that Galileo could only make such immediate sense of the images of the moon he saw through his ochiale because of his previous studies of chiaroscuro. He realised that the lunar shadows could only be cast by protruberances occluding the light source. Thomas Hariot in England had been staring at the moon through his own (weaker) telescope throughout the whole of 1609, but he had never realised the significance of what he called those ’spottie’ patches of dark. The techniques of art here facilitated the discoveries of science.

We cannot escape the world of lenses we now live inside, but we can at least try to be alert to some of the ways in which it functions. The Project for a New American Century in 2001 announced that the aim of modern American foreign policy had to be ‘full-spectrum dominance’. Is that merely in the visible spectrum then, or are we also heading off into the realms of the gamma ray and the infra-red? No problems seeing in the dark these days. One thing is for sure: our new drones, currently named Predators and Reapers, will be bombing away. No human eyes inside them, of course, but many miles away in Nevada a fellow will be staring at a screen, and believing his own eyes, even as he so swiftly closes the eyes of others, in a faraway land of which he almost certainly knows nothing. Swift would have taken note. Here, he would have said, we have entered the world of a new optic. How exactly does a whole culture present itself to you when you only ever see it through a drone’s sensors? Now at last Achilles can choose to be the greatest warrior on earth, while also staying home to till his father’s fields, and living to a grand old age.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He lives in North Wales. His poem sequence, Raven, has just been published as a chapbook by Shearsman Books and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.


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