Against Aloneness in the Web of Life: Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin, and the Art of Turning Personal Tragedy into a Portal to Transcendence
An antidote to isolation by way of tiny marine creatures and a broken Romantic heart.
By Maria Popova
In the waning winter of 1864, Charles Darwin opened a package that stopped his breath. “It is one of the most magnificent works which I have ever seen,” he exulted in his response to the sender — a young, still obscure German marine biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the word ecology a century before the great marine biologist Rachel Carson made it a household word in catalyzing the environmental movement. Haeckel would become a naturalist, a philosopher, and the greatest champion of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas; he would name and describe thousands of previously undiscovered animal species; he would coin and crown an entire kingdom, Protista.
Barely thirty, impelled by the peculiar boldness that comes from personal despair so grave that one feels one has nothing left to lose, Haeckel had decided to share with the esteemed and controversial Darwin the work to which he had devoted years: his studies of radiolarians — tiny single-cell marine organisms with mineral skeletons of striking geometries — in two handsome folio volumes, which Haeckel had illustrated with delicate, detailed, hauntingly beautiful copper-etched drawings.
Haeckel had come under the spell of radiolaria during his yearlong scientific studies and travels in Italy at the age of twenty-five — the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — and had since diverted all of his scientific passion and artistic training toward these miniature masterworks of nature. “I had no idea that animals of such low organization could develope such extremely beautiful structures,” Darwin gushed. He ended his rapturous reply to Haeckel with these bittersweet words:
I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances.
The painful remembrance: On the day of Haeckel’s thirtieth birthday the previous month, Anna Sethe — the love of his life, whom he was finally about to marry upon receiving his first gainful academic appointment, after a four-year engagement — died suddenly, of a ruptured appendix. Haeckel — who considered himself “decidedly a ‘Leptoderm,’ that is, ‘thin-skinned,’” and therefore susceptible to “much more suffering and, also, more intense joy than the run of men” — was unpeeled by grief. “Dark melancholy has replaced my former cheerful joy in life,” he confided in Darwin, aware of the elder scientist’s own devastating experience of loss.
The search for transcendence became Haeckel’s survival mechanism for this fathomless personal tragedy — the transcendence he found in nature, in its breathtaking complexity and breathtaking simplicity, in its every microscopic detail magnified to reveal millennia of meticulous craftsmanship and refinement by the forces of evolution.
A century and a half after they so enchanted Darwin, French artist Zöe Almon Job has set Haeckel’s radiolaria drawings in motion and in thought in a lovely animated reflection on the relationship between aloneness and togetherness, on the delicate symbioses of nature and their subtler existential undertones illuminating the totality of being, in which even the most isolated existence is an emissary of our natural interconnectedness.
Complement with the great naturalist John Muir, a contemporary of Haeckel’s, on the transcendent interconnectedness of nature and poet Howard Nemerov’s Haeckel-like geometric-existential poem about the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit these stunning and sensual illustrations of cephalopods from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, by a contemporary and compatriot of Haeckel’s.