My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (2014) by the polymath Philip Ball is a collection of essays that explores and seeks to illuminate the desires to understand and ultimately control the invisible forces all around us. From Tolkien’s and Gyge’s magic rings, morals of Glaucon, cloaks of invisibility, invisible children, occult forces and sacred magic, theological thermodynamics, the invisible men of science fiction, natural camouflage, time bandits, the Holy Spirit, X-rays, and to the mythic and magical connotations of invisibility, Ball does wonders as he crosses time and space to bring readers a semi-full spectrum encompassing the historical and contemporary implications involving the “unseen” in our everyday lives.
“For Plato, then,” writes Ball, “invisibility was not a wondrous power but a moral challenge—to which none of us is likely to prove equal. Invisibility corrupts; nothing good could come of it. In particular, invisibility will tempt us towards three things: power, sex and murder. This is the promise that lured people to seek invisibility throughout time, whether by magical spells or esoteric arts or devices and garments that confer the ability to vanish” (p 4).
Any reader who has crossed the pages and vanished into H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (1897) or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), one can attest to the fact of how invisibility, either an absence bearing no physical presence to the naked eye or a social mindset making a minority “unseen” as it were, power corrupts the individual’s morals which leads to shameless acts of sexual degradation and then to murder.
Either writers regarding invisibility as a choice topic are not very original, or Plato, as Ball asserts, has a keen understanding of how invisibility in any form challenges a person’s morals. One could even apply this principle to the unseen bankers and corporate heads of conglomerates across the world today.
“Invisibility, then,” explains Ball, “provides access to liminal places tinged with desire, allure and possibility. Such allegorical content means that magical invisibility in fiction should never function simply as a convenient power that advances the narrative. It should not be bought cheaply, nor used idly. That is why the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings supplies a more satisfying, more mythically valid emblem than the cloaks of invisibility in the Harry Potter series. The latter, made from the hair of a creature from the Far East that can make itself invisible, are trinkets, a piece of incidental, even mundane magic. But magic must not be incidental or mundane, for it pulls on a subtle web of forces and must therefore have consequences. Frodo Baggins’ ring will, in the end, steal souls and reduce the bearer to a pitiful, malevolent wraith. That is what invisibility, when depicted in its truthful symbolic guises, does to us: it transforms us and pulls us into another realm” (p 6).
What Ball is claiming is that if fiction, or even science in the real world, deals with forces of nature which far exceed our own human powers, there must be substantial consequences affecting the human condition. Now this can be a physical and spiritual change, as in Frodo and the One Ring, or the malevolent power behind the unseen forces can cause corruption in a far more comical sense. As in the following case of one Spaniard in 1582:
“Since [the Spaniard’s] spells could not make clothes invisible,” writes Ball, “he had to strip naked, in which state he arrived at the palace and strolled casually through the gates, unaware that he was perfectly visible to the guards. They followed the outlandish intruder until the purpose of his mission became plain, whereupon they seized him and flogged him” (p 14).
Of course there are various kinds and degrees of invisible forces out there in the universe and world around us, and these forces often remain constant and unseen. Magnetism is one such force. And so is love. Ball, coincidentally, sheds some light on these two magical powers:
“The word magnet derives from the region of Magnesia on the Aegean Sea, where lodestone can be found, but it might also share an etymological root with magic itself. In the Middle Ages the Latin word for diamond, adamas, came to also be used for magnets, and is said to be linked to the French aimant, love—for the attraction of iron and magnet was commonly viewed as a kind of love, or as natural magicians, would put it, sympathy” (p 19).
And unseen love being one of the most powerful forces of attraction in the human condition continues to mystify even the greatest of minds to date. How can anyone explain two lonely hearts living decades in longing to one day collide and forever be shaped and reshaped and united in an invisible poetry of emotions, magnetized and inseparable.
“There was nothing particularly heterodox in this vision of God acting through a beneficent, invisible force,” Ball explains about Isaac Newton’s attempt to fully conceptualize gravity as a power or ether in the cosmos presented “in a frame of nature by the will of God” which could reveal “divine action in the world” (p 29).
Ball continues, “It was a commonplace of seventeenth-century theology that God exercised providential and active control over events on earth. That was the true provenance of Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand that purportedly maintains economic stability: as historian Peter Harrison has said, ‘almost certainly, when readers encountered the phrase in Smith, they would have understood it as referring to God’s unseen agency in political economy’—whether Smith intended it or not. Humans, like planets, were deemed to be led by God’s invisible hand to accomplish His ends” (p 29).
“It seems appropriate,” argues Ball, “that the neoliberal conviction in the ability of the unchecked market to bring about economic stability turns out to have its roots in an expression of religious faith” (p 29).
Ball writes, “We can see, then, that Barth was wrong. It is not the idea of a Holy Ghost that has suffered in recent times, but that of God the Father—too embodied an entity to appeal to any but the most literalist of believers. God has now Himself become the Spirit: disembodied, omnipresent, a life force and a process congruent with a contemporary view of the ‘sacredness of the earth’. Those Baroque images of a radiant greybeard among the clouds now seem quaint if not absurd. God is not dead, he has just become invisible” (p 64).
An invisible God; what do you think about that?
But this is as religious as Ball gets in his collection of essays totaling 282 pages, but his writing at times soars off the page and leaves one breathless with the depth of scientific research and the lyrical resonance which leaves the reader haunted by ghostly images of its own. As in the following passage I shall end with:
“As we will see,” writes Ball, “work on cathode rays soon led to the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity. Because he used phosphors to reveal them, [Sir William] Crookes [1832-1919] befriended the French expert on phosphorescence Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, whose son Henri discovered the ‘uranic rays’ emanating from uranium that the Curies christened radioactivity. These rays heralded a century of new extremes of light and dark, brighter than a thousand suns and stygian as the world’s end.
“Half a century later and on the other side of the world,” Ball explains, “they were destined to cast shadows burnt onto municipal stonework like the imprints on photographic plates, while the people whose shapes they recorded had, like their city, vanished” (p 115).
Invisible (2014) will make the reader question the attempts science makes to harness and manipulate invisible forces, which as Plato warned in the beginning, leads to far more devastating moral defects; but at the same time Ball remains objective and provides a glimpse of hope in how humanity can evolve and better equip itself with the patient control and harmony to become unified with these unseen forces—whether magical, spiritual, or scientific—and to use such knowledge wisely, rather than like magic books of old that “acquired the same talismanic function as a great deal of the academic literature today: to be read, learnt, cited, but never used” (p 27).
I wish, I pray, I hypothesize that readers will not dive into Philip Ball’s invisible world as if it were a part of the black hole of academic writing, but rather consider the knowledge within as a chance to see the unseen in a new way.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON among friends: from left to right,
Dan, Sylvia, Axton, Kelvin, & CG FEWSTON (far right)
in Tai O Fishing Village near Hong Kong – Jan. 4, 2015