O’Brien has not been called the “Celtic Poe” without cause. Among the most famous of his works (after “What Was It?”), “The Diamond Lens” is rich in Poesque imagery and motifs, and yet it maintains a unique originality that secures its reputation as a science fiction masterwork. The genre’s chief theme in the three centuries following Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis was the discovery of new, often Edenic civilizations through the use of technology or happenstance. Hollow earths, mysterious islands, lost worlds, cosmic voyages, and time travel yielded bizarre and highly cultivated societies to their enchanted readership.
While some of these fictions were caustic or satirical (Gulliver’s Travels, The Balloon Hoax), they often presented pristine Utopias or fantastical paradises (though not without well-placed monsters). O’Brien’s foray into the “found world” genre is concise and philosophical. A man does not need to burrow into the earth or project himself into the sky to locate perfection: he need only look closer at the very drops of rain that hit his windowpane. But there is a caution for the selfish monomaniac – failure to tend to the needs of our desired objects may result in their devastation … and ours.
This Poe-esque story is told by a Poe-esque narrator in an utterly Poe-esque style. When he was very young he was gifted a microscope which completely transformed the way he viewed the world. He found hidden meaning in everything: silver forests in fungus, golden fields in mold, Gardens of Eden in every patch of moss. He became obsessed with microscopic studies, but his parents insisted on a more profitable career and shipped him to New York to become a medical doctor. But the city was far from home, and as long as he paid his school fees, his parents couldn’t stop him from drowning himself in his study of the unseen landscapes that so thrilled him.
He rents a cheap apartment which – like Frankenstein or the Invisible Man – he rapidly transforms into a bohemian laboratory of forbidden knowledge. Within a year (so he claims) he has become an expert in microscopy, yet he has sunk into a deepening depression as he finds his thirst for knowledge limited by the simplicity of 19th century technology. He can watch amoebas duel and count the barbs on a strand of hair, but he senses something even greater – more profound – lurking just out of sight.
He dreams of buying a powerful lens unparalleled in its ability to pierce the veil between him and atomic life, and experiments with a variety of materials – crystal, gems, fine glassware – only to find disappointment. His parents soon learn that he has never attended a single class and that he is miring in debt from his experiments, and it seems that his journey is rapidly ending.
Then one day his upstairs neighbor, a bohemian Frenchman named Jules Simon whose expensive clothes and tastes and mysterious habits arouse the narrator’s jealousy, visits him with news that he has just been to a genuine medium and was astonished by her insight. Madame Vulpes was ugly and sinister, but correctly answered all of his questions. Eager to try out her skills, the narrator visits Vulpes two days later and asks to speak with a long-dead spirit, but does not say that it is the inventor of the microscope, Leeuwenhoek. When the uneducated medium successfully guesses the name of the 17th century Dutch scientist, he eagerly agrees to pay for her services. Channeling Leeuwenhoek’s ghost, he is told that he needs to find an exquisite diamond of 140 carats and transfix it with an electric charge.
The narrator is thrilled but depressed: he has a solution, but could never afford such a stone – especially with his family’s current disapproval. Coming home, he sees a light on in Jules’ window, and visits him. On entering the room, however, he catches the Frenchman stuffing something small in his pocket and looking surprised and afraid. When the narrator shares Leeuwenhoek’s message, Jules angrily flourishes a knife and shouts “No! You won’t get my treasure! I’ll die before I give it to you!” The narrator suddenly realizes that he may have stumbled into an opportunity and laughs off the comment, claiming that Jules is being silly since he could never afford such a gem. Jules, realizing that he has nearly given the game away, laughs nervously and agrees.
In classic Montresor fashion, the narrator suggests splitting a bottle of wine. His unsuspecting victim agrees, and greedily drinks his way into a deep sleep – not realizing that the wine has been drugged. Foreshadowing modern forensics, the narrator takes up Jules’ knife and experiments with it to see how it would enter the body if it were self-inflicted. He carefully forces the blade into his heart in such a way to manufacture the look of a suicide, washes the wine glasses, leaves the lights on, snatches the diamond he knew Jules to be hiding, and lets the police discover the scene. When the coroner reports it to a be a suicide, the narrator delights in having committed “the perfect crime.”
For three months he slaves away at the lens, transfixing it with electricity and inserting it into a microscope in order to finally peel away the wonders of the hidden universe. With shaking hands he collects a drop of water and slides it under the glass. Turning on a bright lamp beneath it, he peers into the lens. At first nothing but brilliant light can be seen, but as the image clears up, he is stunned by a landscape of unparalleled beauty and color: fiery clouds, fields of rainbow-hued trees swaying in motion, and undulating expanses of psychedelic color.
He is at first surprised that such a rich landscape is uninhabited by animals, but is suddenly alerted to movement when a woman of incomparable beauty emerges from the purple-and-silver microscopic grasses. The sight of her liquid motions reminds him of listening to silver bells tinkling in the breeze, and as he watches her telepathically move a branch loaded with fruit to her waiting hand, he is struck by a powerful longing to shrink and enter her inaccessible world.
Hopelessly in love with the golden-hair micro-woman – whom he christens Animula – he cries himself to sleep at the thought that he can never reach her in her atomic world. But each day he watches her with awestruck delight. Sometime later, however, he notices a shocking change in his microscopic ant-farm: Animula is pale and haggard, her movements seem painful, and her body is sucked of energy. Even the rainbow-hued forest and golden skies were slowly turning dusky and dim. For hours he watches her in horror – aghast at this new development. What could be causing it?
Suddenly, in a moment of horror, the truth dawns on him. During his fits of self-indulgent depression, the narrator forgot to add oil to the water allowing the droplet to dry out: “I remembered that I had not looked at the water drop for several days. In fact I hated to see it; for it reminded me of the natural barrier between Animula and myself…” Deluded by his aversion to facing reality, he has slowly allowed her to burn up, and as he rushes to the microscope he watches – to his dismay – as Animula struggles for breath in the very last molecule of water left: her limbs shrivel, her face blackens, and her exhausted body rots away…
His mind broken by the experience, the narrator – who like the protagonists of “The Oval Portrait,” “The Raven,” “Ligeia,” and “Morella” – was forced to watch his love fade into death, is now restricted to an asylum where he is known as “the mad microscopist.” Shouting his scientific lectures to an empty cell, he is haunted by visions of decay, but even moreso by the radiant memory of the lost Animula…
Poe’s influence is wonderfully felt in “The Diamond Lens” without overpowering the unique narrative: the monomaniacal scholar who eschews society and convention; the obsession of his passions – a seemingly perfect woman whose beauty melts away into decay when he fails to take her mortal needs into consideration; the charges of madness and suspicions of unreliable narratorship; and the methodical, sickeningly logical description of murder all direct the reader to Poe’s legacy. The plot combines elements of his murder tales and fantasias (specifically “The Island of the Fay,” wherein a man witnesses the death of a fairy) Tones of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and her antisocial antihero also call our attention, cementing O’Brien’s “Lens” securely in the tradition of Gothic science fiction.
For a society which felt, at times, heavily isolating, narcissistic, and self-centered, “The Diamond Lens” would have struck a nerve. Technology had already claimed a tremendous number of victims during the industrial revolution, which was chugging into its seventh decade at the time O’Brien penned this parable. Earlier in the century the English Romantics had rallied against the selfish effects of a society which valued business, industry, and discovery over human relationships (Blake’s ”London” , Wordsworth’s “Michael” , and – of course – Frankenstein), and while O’Brien’s target is not the world of capital and industry, he does join the chorus of Romantics railing against the ethos of an age which sees fit to sacrifice children to the workhouses, women to the textile mills, and men to the iron fields in order to satiate the desire for technological and commercial progress.
Caught up in his own wonder and thirst for idealism and beauty, Linley forgets to tend to his treasure’s mortal needs (cf. “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “The Oval Portrait”), viewing her more as an object of possession and desire than an independent creature. Whether or not O’Brien wrote “Lens” to critique his society (at that time, New York City with its dank slums, bustling shipyards, and profound social disparity) is perhaps immaterial, but regardless of his philosophical motives, the result is a phenomenal addition to the tradition of Gothic science fiction, ripe with fantasy, supernaturalism, scientific detail, and bitter human pathos. Animula herself is more of a philosophical icon than a scientific curiosity. Linley himself is a metaphorical psychologist – a man who fixates on what is real but unseen, felt but not perceived – and his fascination with discovering the hidden civilizations of microscopic worlds is an analog for man’s deep desire to break free from his physical confines by reaching the impossible dwelling place of the soul and imagination.
Like Poe’s protagonists who hope vainly to separate the physical from the spiritual, Linley’s mission is less a genuine scientific exploration than it is an analog for the Romantic quest to viscerally grasp the ephemeral nature of humanity, and this ephemeral nature is represented by the amorphous sprite, Animula. Animula represents the hoped-for discovery of this metaphorical self-psychologist: verification of an Edenic, unspoiled innocence dwelling within him – the locus of the soul, of purity and authentic virtue. This of course is not a simple moral analogy, for Linley’s worldview is hardly moral, but Animula symbolizes more of an aesthetic, Romantic innocence left unsullied by vanity, fear, or ambition – a pure Ego unhaunted by the repressive Super-Ego and uncorrupted by the predatory Id.
Linley has metaphorically peered through the dense pollution of adult life and caught a glimpse of his child-Self, and to his amazement its heart is still beating. This little Eve represents what Jung called the anima – the feminine spirit within men and women alike that is repressed by culture and self-discipline. Rediscovering one’s anima – as a man – can lead to a more actualized Self tempered by compassion, generosity, maternal love, and tolerance, and Linley, we may suppose, is in hopes that this reunion between the lost anima of his violent, selfish Ego might redeem him from a life of laziness, self-indulgence, antisocial behavior, and murder. The armchair microscopist (read: psychologist) has made the discovery he hoped for: life exists in abundance beyond the ken of our eyes (read: humans are not limited to their apparent character, but have the ability to tap rich stores of imagination, compassion, and actualization that teem beneath the surface of bourgeois complacency).
But the wonder has a cost, and when the uncovered Ideal is exposed to the harsh conditions of reality, it is not long before it withers in the noxious atmosphere of selfishness, greed, and vanity. Symbolically, Linley has been given the option to internalize Animula – to reconnect with this lost or neglected part of his bitter soul – by seeking a connection with human beings (viz., the beautiful Signorina), but he rejects this and rushes back home where he refuses to seek Animula (or more accurately, what she represents) outside of his coveted water drop. As a result, he loses the ability to revive his inner anima, and both the spiritual and the physical Animula are doomed to their suffocating demise – just as Linley’s capacity for social growth and external love are smothered by his need to horde his newly discovered soul.