H.P. Lovecraft touted it as one of his favourite stories... An early example of murder, occultism, madness, and the vertigo of the infinite in a scant few pages that has remained the best-known tale by one of America's early pioneers in Scientific Romance. Fitz James O'Brien's 1858 short story The Diamond Lens would, in many ways, act as a precursor to Lovecraft's own terrifying tales of cosmic nihilism.
Born in Cork, Ireland, in 1826, Michael O'Brien served a spell in the British military and attended the University of Dublin before moving to London and squandering his inheritance of £8,000 (just short of £1,000,000 in today's money). His love was the written word, and in 1852 he emigrated to the United States, changed his name to Fitz James, and devoted himself wholly to literature.
His risk paid out handsomely, and O'Brien eventually found himself penning poem and prose for Harper's, New York Times, Home Journal, New York Saturday Press, Putnam's Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Atlantic Monthly. His articles were on various subjects, and O'Brien found himself at the centre of New York's 1850's Bohemian culture. It was in the course of these various and sundry topics that he experimented with his own Scientific Romances.
His works held out many firsts in American literature. What Was It? A Mystery, published in 1859, was a first in the subject of invisibility (predating H.G.Wells' more famous take by half a century). The Wonder Smith from the same year was a first in exploring the idea of a rebellion of automata. The previous year, he published The Diamond Lens, frightening readers with the possibilities of the still-primitive science of microscopic analysis and scientific obsession gone awry.
Microscopes were first developed in the 1600's, but held limited application prior to the late-1800's. The exact inventor of the compound microscope is lost to history, though it is known that Galileo improvised such a device after discovering that he could use his telescope to see small objects as well as distant ones. Giovanni Faber coined the term "microscope" to describe Galileo's device in 1625. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek developed a microscope capable of 300x magnification, with which he discovered microorganisms in 1676.
Limitations on technology stalled the useful application of the microscope for another two centuries. The capacity of lenses of the time to focus and capture light, and the want of electric lamps, reduced the microscope to little more than a novelty item. It was this fact that drove the protagonist of The Diamond Lens who, from the outset at least, demonstrated an admirable fascination with the invisible world.
From a very early period of my life the entire bent of my inclinations had been toward microscopic investigations. When I was not more than ten years old, a distant relative of our family, hoping to astonish my inexperience, constructed a simple microscope for me by drilling in a disk of copper a small hole in which a drop of pure water was sustained by capillary attraction. This very primitive apparatus, magnifying some fifty diameters, presented, it is true, only indistinct and imperfect forms, but still sufficiently wonderful to work up my imagination to a preternatural state of excitement.
Seeing me so interested in this rude instrument, my cousin explained to me all that he knew about the principles of the microscope, related to me a few of the wonders which had been accomplished through its agency, and ended by promising to send me one regularly constructed, immediately on his return to the city. I counted the days, the hours, the minutes that intervened between that promise and his departure.
Meantime, I was not idle. Every transparent substance that bore the remotest resemblance to a lens I eagerly seized upon, and employed in vain attempts to realize that instrument the theory of whose construction I as yet only vaguely comprehended. All panes of glass containing those oblate spheroidal knots familiarly known as "bull's-eyes" were ruthlessly destroyed in the hope of obtaining lenses of marvelous power. I even went so far as to extract the crystalline humor from the eyes of fishes and animals, and endeavored to press it into the microscopic service. I plead guilty to having stolen the glasses from my Aunt Agatha's spectacles, with a dim idea of grinding them into lenses of wondrous magnifying properties—in which attempt it is scarcely necessary to say that I totally failed.
At last the promised instrument came. It was of that order known as Field's simple microscope, and had cost perhaps about fifteen dollars. As far as educational purposes went, a better apparatus could not have been selected. Accompanying it was a small treatise on the microscope—its history, uses, and discoveries. I comprehended then for the first time the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments." The dull veil of ordinary existence that hung across the world seemed suddenly to roll away, and to lay bare a land of enchantments. I felt toward my companions as the seer might feel toward the ordinary masses of men. I held conversations with nature in a tongue which they could not understand. I was in daily communication with living wonders such as they never imagined in their wildest visions, I penetrated beyond the external portal of things, and roamed through the sanctuaries. Where they beheld only a drop of rain slowly rolling down the window-glass, I saw a universe of beings animated with all the passions common to physical life, and convulsing their minute sphere with struggles as fierce and protracted as those of men. In the common spots of mould, which my mother, good housekeeper that she was, fiercely scooped away from her jam-pots, there abode for me, under the name of mildew, enchanted gardens, filled with dells and avenues of the densest foliage and most astonishing verdure, while from the fantastic boughs of these microscopic forests hung strange fruits glittering with green and silver and gold.
It was no scientific thirst that at this time filled my mind. It was the pure enjoyment of a poet to whom a world of wonders has been disclosed. I talked of my solitary pleasures to none. Alone with my microscope, I dimmed my sight, day after day and night after night, poring over the marvels which it unfolded to me. I was like one who, having discovered the ancient Eden still existing in all its primitive glory, should resolve to enjoy it in solitude, and never betray to mortal the secret of its locality. The rod of my life was bent at this moment. I destined myself to be a microscopist.
O'Brien captures the right air of the Scientific Romance, admitting a trans-scientific, poetic interest in the sheer beauty and fascination of the microscopic world. Yet we already see, in this first few paragraphs of the short story, the spectre of obsession that would loom unhealthily over his protagonist's mind.
His parents, not seeing the use in such primitive science, insist that he procure a proper discipline. He opts for medical school, but only as a ruse. Rather than see the healthy opportunity to develop and apply his interest through the mediation of medical research, he never bothers to attend a single class or write a single exam. His needs were provided for by a deceased aunt, and he proceeds to spend the allotment on outfitting a private laboratory (this squandering of an inheritance making The Diamond Lens, in part, semi-autobiographical).
Tormented by the limitations of the science, he strives towards the creation of ever more powerful lenses. "At every step I found myself stopped by the imperfections of my instruments," he writes.
Like all active microscopists, I gave my imagination full play. Indeed, it is a common complaint against many such that they supply the defects of their instruments with the creations of their brains. I imagined depths beyond depths in nature which the limited power of my lenses prohibited me from exploring. I lay awake at night constructing imaginary micro-scopes of immeasurable power, with which I seemed to pierce through all the envelopes of matter down to its original atom. How I cursed those imperfect mediums which necessity through ignorance compelled me to use! How I longed to discover the secret of some perfect lens, whose magnifying power should be limited only by the resolvability of the object, and which at the same time should be free from spherical and chromatic aberrations—in short, from all the obstacles over which the poor microscopist finds himself continually stumbling! I felt convinced that the simple microscope, composed of a single lens of such vast yet perfect power, was possible of construction. To attempt to bring the compound microscope up to such a pitch would have been commencing at the wrong end; this latter being simply a partially successful endeavor to remedy those very defects of the simplest instrument which, if conquered, would leave nothing to be desired.
It was in this mood of mind that I became a constructive microscopist. After another year passed in this new pursuit, experimenting on every imaginable substance—glass, gems, flints, crystals, artificial crystals formed of the alloy of various vitreous materials—in short, having constructed as many varieties of lenses as Argus had eyes—I found myself precisely where I started, with nothing gained save an extensive knowledge of glass-making.
A neighbour, another young man of apparent leisure who specializes in the sale of odds and ends of indefinite provenance, suggests to him that a visit to a spiritualistic medium might aid his quest. The medium, Madame Vulpes, is an allusion to the Fox sisters, a trio of Spiritualist hoaxsters who were still the toast of New York during the 1850's. Making an appointment, he finds himself in a supernatural audience with no less than van Leeuwenhoek himself. The long-dead scientist provides very clear and definite instructions on how to construct the lens of ultimate magnification from an electrically purified diamond of exactly 140 carats. Where to obtain such a diamond though? It is not as though he knows anyone who specializes in odds and ends of indefinite provenance who might happen to have one in his possession.
With cold calculation, and written with almost shocking abruptness, O'Brien's protagonist acquires his diamond and engages the process. Soon he is gazing to microscopic realms that, today, we might recognize as the sub-atomic or quantum levels of existence. In fact, O'Brien's descriptions have a certain rapport with visualizations of the same realms in the recent film Ant-Man (2015). What, or who, he finds beyond the extremes of human perception engage his obsession-prone mind until its inevitable end, souring him to life at the human scale and ultimately leading to inexorable psychological punishment.
The short format of The Diamond Lens forces O'Brien to miss some good opportunities that he may not even have been aware of. The introduction of mediumistic clairvoyance midway through the story as a real and authentic force capable of communication beyond ordinary means is a Chekhov's Gun that he fails to make full use of. Scientific study of clairvoyant claims did not begin in earnest until the late 19th century, but in the story it reinforces the idea that the protagonist is transgressing the limitations of current science, operating on the fringes of the known and unknown (besides acting narratively as a Deus ex machina providing him with the necessary information to make his lens). Electricity is employed in much the same manner. By 1858, Ørsted, Ampère, Faraday, and Ohm had done their work, but effective harnessing and use of electricity would have to wait until late 19th century electrical engineering by the likes of Edison, Tesla, Bell, and Westinghouse. In most fiction of the period, electricity was virtually interchangeable with magic in its effects.
One might say that the conclusion of the story is karmically ambiguous as well. O'Brien draws no clear line of thought between the protagonist's obsessiveness and his eventual madness, and no line whatsoever between the immoral deeds he does and whether his fate is a punishment. It is there latently, and some critics argue that The Diamond Lens is a highly moralistic story, but that is just as easily an inference by the reader. Perception of the protagonist shifts through the story, from quaint but admirable passion to homicidal psychological pathology. The identity of his neighbour as a French Jew may have been a literary device to provide him with self-rationalizations or it may have actually been used to curry the reader's sympathies. An equally credible interpretation could be drawn from H.P. Lovecraft's thematic statement in The Call of Cthulhu (1928): "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." His madness may just as easily be a consequence of peering too deeply into the abyss.
For O'Brien, his peerings did not last long. In 1861 he enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War. The following year, he was locked in close combat in which he was shot through the shoulder, shattering his scapula. He still successfully killed his foe, but was laid up until for months until finally dying of tetanus on April 6th, 1862 at the age of 33.