Like Leather, like Snakes

Julian Bell

  • Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder
    Head of Zeus, 448 pp, £14.99, December 2016, ISBN 978 1 78497 025 3

Frogs could be heard croaking, one hot spring day in 1688, in a ditch beside a meadow where Antoni van Leeuwenhoek liked, as he put it, to wander ‘for my amusement’. Peering down, he glimpsed spawn clinging to the pondweed. A servant must have been at hand, for Leeuwenhoek wrote: ‘I then had some of this green plant to which these Eggs were attached brought to my house.’ Later, in his study, he closed in with his razors and his microscope – an instrument invented some eighty years before, but which he was now deploying with unprecedented finesse. Having prised the eggs from the surrounding jelly, he noted that their outward covering mostly consisted of ‘small black dots’ – knobbly, ‘like shagreen leather’ – below which there lay ‘watery fluid, and an incredible number of globules, each of which globules again consisted of a large number of smaller globules, each of which had in its centre a larger globule, so that each of the former globules looked, as it were, like an Egg with a very tiny yolk.’

Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ (1660)
Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ (1660)

Globulen, or sometimes klootjens or bolletjens (‘little balls’) were the units on which Leeuwenhoek’s sixty years of hard looking would commonly converge. Between the 1660s and his death, aged ninety, in 1723, bodies familiar to the naked eye would unravel beneath his home-made lenses to reveal ever smaller bodies which, like the planet itself, were rounded and compact. While the bodies always occupied some medium – the eggs’ ‘watery fluid’, say, or the bloodstream in which corpuscles swam – and while these media might vary, they couldn’t supply answers to the underlying question, which was why the living world was so various. Why did it swell, pulse and shrivel in so many diverse and interpenetrating ways? How did it come to be so rich in textures and transitions? Globules, it seemed, no matter how subdivided, must have multiple inner principles, many natures. Leeuwenhoek was happy to stop at this, rather than demanding – like Newton or Leibniz – some single building block for phenomena such as a ‘particle’ or a ‘monad’.

Instead, he expected observations to keep pouring forth from his microscope, and this was the reason people took to his work. From the 1670s Leeuwenhoek, the sheriffs’ chamberlain of Delft, became an international celebrity, with savants and princes making detours to his townhouse. It was Leibniz who, having paid such a pilgrimage, remarked that ‘I care more for a Leeuwenhoek, who tells me what he sees, than a Cartesian, who tells me what he thinks.’ It was not reliance on reasoning that enabled Leeuwenhoek to home in for the first time on spermatozoa: round bodies, a thousand or more to a sandgrain’s volume of ejaculate, that were ‘furnished with a thin tail’ and moved forward like ‘a snake or an eel swimming in water’. Leeuwenhoek’s subsequent inference – that these were the agents shaping the foetus and that the female’s ovum was no more than nutriment for their masculine structuring – may have been wayward; but he had provided a firm image against which others could pit their minds, an image enlivened by similes from more familiar scales of experience. His new microbiology captivated because even while it giddied the imagination, pointing towards the infinitely minute, it remained trenchant and concrete: ‘like leather’, ‘like snakes’.

Microbes, along with spermatozoa, proved the most significant of Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of the 1670s. Laura Snyder opens Eye of the Beholder, her engaging study of Leeuwenhoek and his fellow Delft citizen Johannes Vermeer, with a vivid description of the researcher in his study examining water scooped from a lake outside town and gazing, as no one had before, on the teeming protozoa: ‘The motion of these little animals in the water was so swift, and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that I confess I could not but wonder at it.’ Snyder underlines the accent of wonder and delight in Leeuwenhoek’s accounts, which launch out into the droplet-sized oceans, leaping from scale to scale: here, ‘very small animalcula did swim gently among one another, moving like as Gnats do in the Air’; there, larger swimmers would ‘move more swiftly, tumbling round as ’twere, and then making a sudden downfall’; whereas other ‘poor little creatures’ would get hopelessly entangled among dead filaments. The empathetic excitement in these descriptions feels primal, one might say innocent; although, inevitably, the water would soon evaporate and the animalcula die.

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[*] Routledge, 456 pp., £30, January 2009, 978 0 415 96664 1