The Otherworldly Beauty of Jellyfish: How Ernst Haeckel Turned Personal Tragedy into Transcendent Art in the World’s First Encyclopedia of Medusae
A story of transmuting the grief of one life into a celebration of the grandeur of Life.
By Maria Popova
“I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances,” Charles Darwin wrote in the spring of 1864 to a young and obscure German correspondent who had just sent him two folios of his stunningly illustrated studies of tiny single-celled marine organisms — a masterwork that enchanted Darwin as one of the most majestic things he had ever seen.
But Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the term ecology and become a preeminent champion of evolution, could not banish the unbanishable: Months earlier, on his thirtieth birthday, Anna, the love of his life, had been snatched from him by a sudden death medicine failed to explain; the couple were about to be married that summer after a long engagement, having finally scraped together enough to start a family when Ernst received his first academic appointment.
In the wake of his fathomless bereavement, the young marine biologist applied the Joan Didion method of dealing with grief by motion and headed for France. Pacing the beaches of Nice, his mind on an irretrievable elsewhere and his heart a menacing vacuity, he stopped mid-stride — something had clutched his attention with the claim only wonder can lay on the worst-stung soul: afloat near the surface of the tide pool was a jellyfish — a medusa species he had never seen before.
Haeckel had fallen under the spell of medusae ten years earlier, at twenty, while accompanying a mentor on a fishing and research expedition. He had exulted in a letter to his parents:
You cannot believe what new things I see and learn here every day; it exceeds by far my most exaggerated expectations and hopes. Everything that I studied for years in books, I see here suddenly with my own eyes, as if I were cast under a spell, and each hour, which brings me surprises and instruction, prepares wonderful memories for the future.
The jellyfish the boat pulled up staggered Haeckel’s imagination with both their otherworldly beauty and the unsolved scientific mysteries they held: He knew that polyps were thought to develop from jellyfish eggs and wondered whether this might suggest that these complex translucent marvels themselves evolved from such simple organisms. But when he posed “this rather forward question” to his mentor, he was surprised to receive only excited bafflement — the elder scientist admitted that the origin of the species was completely unknown.
Now, a decade and a devastation later, Haeckel surrendered to this early enchantment to steady himself on the parallel bannisters of wonder and discovery, of aesthetic splendor and scientific challenge. In The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought (public library), Robert J. Richards argues that “Haeckel’s science and his legacy for modern evolutionary theory display the features they do because of his tragic sense of life,” and considers how this young man’s deeply human coping mechanism for his personal devastation shaped his scientific outlook and his artistic imagination:
Ernst Haeckel experienced the passion for transcendence through a love that lifted him to ecstasy and then crushed him in despair. This experience invaded his insistently rational attitudes, even transforming his science into a means for escaping the grasping hand of mortality.
With the extinction of love came emptiness, a void that quickly filled with the miasma of great stridency, bitterness, and ineluctable sadness, which not even friends… could clear away. Through this acid mist, Haeckel resolved to devote himself single-mindedly to a cause that might transcend individual fragility. He would incessantly push the Darwinian ideal and oppose it to those who refused to look at life, to look at death, face on.
Haeckel spent the next fifteen years studying and illustrating these strange and beautiful creatures — creatures evocative of trees and mushrooms, of ovaries and spaceships — naming the most beautiful of the species he encountered for his lost beloved: Mitrocoma Annae — “Anna’s headband.”
A generation before his marine biology colleague and compatriot Carl Chun hired an artist to illustrate the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea cephalopods, Haeckel himself illustrated the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea jellyfish — a multi-part catalogue of more than six hundred medusa species. Tucked into his otherwise coolly scientific prose is a deeply personal ember of his grief:
Mitrocoma Annae belongs to the most charming and delicate of all the medusae. It was first observed by me in April 1864, in the Bay of Villafranca near Nice… The movement of this wonderful Eucopide offered a magical view, and I enjoyed several happy hours watching the play of her tentacles, which hang like blond hair-ornaments from the rim of the delicate umbrella-cap and which with the softest movement would roll up into thick short spirals… I name this species, the princess of the Eucopiden, as a memorial to my unforgettable true wife, Anna Sethe. If I have succeeded, during my earthly pilgrimage in accomplishing something for natural science and humanity, I owe the greatest part to the ennobling influence of this gifted wife, who was torn from me through sudden death…
When Haeckel, almost fifty, was able to built a house of his own in Jena, he adorned its walls with frescoes of medusae and called it Villa Medusa.
Anyone who has suffered savaging personal loss knows intimately that moment — a moment that can last months, years, a lifetime — when it seems like the only way to lose one’s suffering is to lose oneself. Perhaps what drew Haeckel to these particular creatures was their particular evolutionary biology, which dissolves the very notion of a self. In their complex life-cycles, the concept of individuality ceases to make sense — the psychological reality of our human existence, in which we spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, is a physiological reality for jellyfish. (The great scientist and poet Lewis Thomas would explore this a century after Haeckel in The Medusa and the Snail — one of the profoundest, most beautiful things ever written about the paradoxes of the self.) Some jellyfish species pulse into existence via a process of alternating generation — the adult animals swim untethered and reproduce sexually, but the larvae that emerge from their fertilized eggs become hydra-like creatures that root to the seafloor, asexually sprouting buds that then restart the cycle by developing into the drifting, mate-seeking grown jellyfish. Some exist as specialized parts of a vast colonial animal, in which individuals become organs — reproductive, digestive, motive — of this collective being.
For Haeckel, much of the medusae’s enchantment and consolation radiated from this very unselfing. Likening them to bouquets of flowers endowed with “an intricate structure indicating a most interesting and rather advanced division of labor,” he wrote:
Think of a delicate slim bouquet of flowers, the leaves and colored buds of which are as transparent as glass, a bouquet that winds through the water in a graceful and lively fashion — then you’ll have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate colonial animals.
In this flowering collectivism Haeckel found not only solace for the aches of the self but affirmation of the central ideas that animated him into becoming one of the most ardent and effective advocates for Darwin’s evolutionary theory against the era’s ferocious tide of dogmatic opposition. Darwin, who had waded through his own fathomless loss when his daughter Annie died despite his every effort to save her, placed at the center of his scientific work the notion of natural selection — the survival and improvement of the species through the demise of the individual. Such an understanding, scientific or personal, renders death not a slight by fate but an ally of nature, part of the impartial laws holding the universe together — mortality unmoored from morality and metaphysics. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin whispered to himself in the closing pages of a book bellowing a new scientific truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of nature.
A century later, picking up where Haeckel left off and wresting ecology from the insular vernacular of science to embed it into the popular lexicon, Rachel Carson — another visionary marine biologist who lived between the tragic and the transcendent — reaffirmed that grandeur in a pioneering masterwork of scientific poetics, writing that “the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
Published March 26, 2020