July 7, 2021

People of All Possible Forms

         Camille Flammarion (France, 1842-1925) was a French astronomer who was an interesting character.  He was a believer in spiritism and the transmigration of souls and was fascinated by life after death and life on other planets, writing a number of books in both non-fiction and science fiction genres, in which he explored his ideas.  I first encountered him when I looked up the famous Flammarion woodcut, which is a very popular illustration.  I made further acquaintance with him when I quoted him as the “ancient writer” describing the infinite diversity of space creatures in my book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.
        Lumen, published in 1872, is sort of sci fi, but instead of a plot it consists of the dialogues in which a disembodied spirit who has travelled throughout time and the universe, describes all that he has seen and learned.  One of his main themes is the vast diversity of life, and specifically “human” life, by which he basically means sentient, intelligent life.  He lists all sorts of possibilities including people whose separate atoms are all able to come apart or rejoin each other at will, people who die immediately after sex, people who do not reproduce sexually at all, people who live for so long without war or disease that they all eventually commit suicide, people who never sleep, people who are various forms of plants or animal-plant hybrids, and more.  Here are a number of excerpts from Lumen, to give you an idea of what Flammarion was thinking.

        … The floating beings belonging to the world of Andromeda, where my antepenultimate existence was passed, are submitted to a still more degrading manner of sustaining life than are the inhabitants of the Earth. …They must work to obtain what may be called their oxygen, and, without ceasing, they are condemned to use their lungs in order to prepare the nutritious air they need, without sleeping, and without ever feeling satisfied, because, despite their incessant toil they cannot absorb more than a small quantity at a time. Thus they pass their entire life, and finally die victims to the struggle for existence.

        … The men of θ Orionis bear some likeness to [the saguaro cactus]. Only they move slowly, and maintain an upright position by means of a process of suction analogous to that of the ampullæ of certain plants. The lower part of the vertical stem, where it rests on the ground, is slightly elongated, like a starfish, with little appendages which fix themselves to the soil by means of suction. These beings often go in troops, and change their latitude according to the seasons.

        … There is an immense variety amongst the worlds. On one of the planets of the system of Aldebaran… the vegetables are all composed of a substance analogous to the lodestone, because silica and magnesia predominate in its constitution. The animals feed on this substance only. Most of the beings inhabiting this world are incombustible.

        … I visited, not long since, two worlds on which human beings have two senses of which we have not any idea on our Earth.  One of these senses may be described as electrical. One of the little nerve-threads of which I have just told you is developed into a multitude of ramifications which form a sort of cornet. These, under the scalpel and the microscope, appear to be tubes placed in juxtaposition, the outer extremity of which receives the electric fluid and transmits it to the brain, much as our optic nerves receive the waves of light, and our auditory nerves receive the undulations of sound.  The beings provided with this sense perceive the electrical condition of bodies, of material things, of plants and flowers, of animals, of the atmosphere, and of clouds. To these beings this electric sense is a source of knowledge which is wholly forbidden to us. Their organic sensations are all different from yours. Their eyes are not constructed like yours; they do not see what you see; they see what you do not see. They are conscious only of the invisible violet rays…
        Another sense with which I was still more struck, and which was of quite a different character, I found on a second world. This was the sense of orientation. Another of the nerve-threads proceeding from the brain produced a species of winged ear, very light, by means of which the living being perceives his direct bearings. He is conscious of the points of the compass, and turns to the north or the south, the east or the west, instinctively.

        … Terrestrial humanity, you understand, is, as regards moral as well as physical life, the result virtually of the forces of the Earth. Human strength, figure, weight, all depend on these forces. The organic functions are determined by the planet. If life is divided with you between work and rest, between activity and sleep, it is because of the rotation of the globe, and day and night. In the luminous globes, and those lighted by many Suns alternately, they do not sleep. If you need to eat and drink, it is in consequence of the insufficiency of the atmosphere. The bodies of the beings who do not eat are not constructed like yours, since they have no need of a stomach and intestines. The terrestrial eye enables you to see the universe in a certain way, the Saturnian eye sees in a different manner.
        There are senses which perceive other things than those which you perceive in nature. Each of the worlds is inhabited by a race essentially different, and sometimes the inhabitants are neither vegetables nor animals. There are men of all possible forms, of all dimensions, of all weights, of all colours, of all sensations, of every variety of characteristics. The universe is infinite. … An inexhaustible diversity enriches this marvellous field of the eternal Sower.

        I’ve been looking to Flammarion recently for a little inspiration, since I am embarking on a project that will involve illustrating a large number of whimsical alien species.  (You’ll be hearing more of this project in due time.)  In the meantime, you can read the entirety of Lumen, or several of Flammarion’s other speculative works on Project Gutenberg.

Quotations from Lumen by Camille Flammarion, translated by A.A.M. and R.M., 1897.

[Pictures: Assorted engravings from Un Autre Monde by J.J. Grandville, 1844 (Images from Carl Guderian on Flickr, and more about Grandville here);

The Cereus Giganteus or Monumental Cactus, wood engraving from The Countries of the World, c 1890 (Image from ebay);

Two woodcuts by Jean Porcher and/or François Desprez from Les Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel, 1565 (Images from Les Bibliothéques Virtuelles Humanistes, and more about these illustrations here).]


JadeLi said...

Truly fascinating to read someone with such an open mind. Funny you should mention the Gutenberg project as I went there earlier to read something after a strange dream I had, where I was directed to go to the "turquoise" fairy book (Andrew Lang) and didn't find that but I did find the blue fairy book. I read a couple of stories from it and one seemed to be what I needed to see. Yes you can cue the twilight zone music anytime now. I think going into dreamland is a lot like traveling to the planets this writer writes about. Who is to say he hasn't really been there?

Sounds like you are working on an amazing project.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Amazing how things tie together, isn't it, Jade? Yes, I think Flammarion was ahead of his time in realizing the infinitude of other planets out there, and how life on other planets shouldn't necessarily be anything like life on earth.