Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The young female laboratory assistant in Friedrich Sieburg's Reshaping the Invisibile

At the beginning and again at the end of the essay which goes by the same title as the book, Reshaping the Invisible, Sieburg invokes the idealised figure of a female laboratory assistant. I think I might have found her likeness in two seemingly unconnected pictures in the book. Tell me if you don’t notice a resemblance:

I am going to let the two passages speak more or less for themselves, except to note that what I would like to attract your attention to is not the crude sexism at play here (reinforced by the use of the masculine to describe the scientists proper and the ‘men of action’ throughout the text), but rather her angelic, salvific connotations. She’s either the Virgin Mary or a muse of forgetfulness, I cannot decide which - you might have quite different ideas.

This would not be a proper story if it did not begin with describing a human face. It is that of a young woman working in a laboratory. She has a beautiful, clearly cut face; her hair is brushed forward on to her forehead; her expression is serious, unaffected, but not set. Tout au contraire: her mouth is beautifully curved and ready to break into a smile at the proper moment. Right now she is absorbed in quite another moment. She is preoccupied with her chemical work. Her face reveals watchful intentness, an absorption that appears almost like reverent meditation. She may be counting drops from a pipette: "... fourteen ... fifteen ... sixteen."

Or she may be reading figures from a dial or scale, or measuring the discoloration of a liquid, or the deflection of a pointer. The world of chemistry is engaging her attention, the world around her has contracted to a narrow focal zone and yet encircles the universe. Her face shows a concentration almost bordering on a trance. These beautiful features, whose regularity is overshadowed by a certain severity - because it is important to be accurate, not to make a mistake in counting, not to allow even the slightest distraction-these features are dominated by eyes that reflect the visible and yet may daydream into the invisible at some other time. The job she is doing may not be important, but she applies herself to it with every fibre of her young self, ennobled, illuminated and more beautiful by her devotion, as though she were the personified genius of research who floats unrecognized from laboratory to laboratory and is suddenly inspired by the magnitude of his tasks as he proceeds to help humans in their work, to test them, to warn them and to comfort them when they go wrong.


At the conclusion of this story which tells of the liberation of man through chemistry, through the Reshaping of the Invisible, we see before us once again the face of the young woman who appeared to us both as a hard-working and highly concentrated assistant and as the personified genius of research, floating from laboratory to laboratory. She followed us invisibly while we reviewed the highs and lows of human striving after happiness. Pride, uneasiness and concern are equal components of our review. While we admired the genius of research workers and manufacturers, we felt anxiety at the thoughtwhetherwe mortals are really capable of utilizing the unbelievable expansion of our possibilities of living which chemistry offers us, for our own benefit, or whether we are about to plunge into new serfdom, having just cast off our bonds. The face of the young woman, composed, calm and confident, seems to reassure us: "Man is never lost!" "It is all very well for you to talk like that," we think, "you descended straight from heaven, but what about us?" She smiled without looking up from her work. "Nothing of the sort," she said. "I am only an ordinary laboratory assistant doing her daily work, like all the others in this great concern."

1 comment:

stephen said...

I think we need to bear in mind Sieburg's career and reputation as a writer of Feuilleton, a peculiarity of the German newspaper world which still survives today -- akin to our commentary columns, but generally more discursive, more consciously literary, and to my mind almost always excruciatingly anodyne. This is exactly the writing I expect of the Feuillitonist, and I would guess his patrons were well-pleased.