Ether (Magill's Literary Annual 2007)
The odyssey of the idea of the ether is tortuous, permeated with unexpected developments and populated with fascinating characters: charlatans, geniuses, mystics, and “technopagans.” The ether has facilitated such pivotal discoveries as the electromagnetic theory of light (with its subsequent practical applications of the wireless telegraph, radio, and television), but it has also been used by dishonest mediums to prey on the bereaved who seek contact with their loved ones. The ether is an example of a fluid concept because it can be stretched to adapt to a variety of situations. The early history of the ether centered on the cosmological question of the nature of space when it is emptied of all matter. Some scholars see later ideas of the ether as descendants from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s “quintessence,” the element composing heavenly bodies but also latent in all things. In the seventeenth century the French philosopher René Descartes treated the universe as a “plenum,” completely filled with matter of different sizes, whereas in the cosmos of Isaac Newton ethers filled the heavens and the earth, and they mediated gravitational, chemical, electrical, magnetic, and optical phenomena.
Joe Milutis, whose interests are in art, literature, film, and computer technology, is primarily concerned with the modern, extrascientific history of the ether. Indeed, he does not refer to Sir Edmund Whittaker’s monumental work, A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (2 volumes; 1951-1953). Milutis’s book is not a systematic treatment of the ether in philosophy, science, or the arts. Rather, it is “a meditation,” in roughly chronological order, on some of the many meanings of the ether on both academic and popular levels in both historical and contemporary cultures.
Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything has a bipartite structure, with both parts consisting of two chapters. The book also has an introduction, conclusion, and an extensive and helpful set of notes. The introduction, which includes a capsule survey of the ether from the ancient period to the seventeenth century, introduces some of Milutis’s principal themes, for example, the ether as a “superflux of sky” and “technology and the ether.” The ether is a “superfluid” concept because it overflowed its early cosmological meanings when later scientists, artists, philosophers, and writers extended its significance. Even after theoretical physicist Albert Einstein banished the ether from physics in 1905, it made a triumphal return through new technologies such as radio, which Milutis calls the “ethereal medium par excellence,” and the computer, whose systems of networks provide the ether with a seemingly palpable presence, which may create a new “ethereal culture.”
Part 1 of Ether, “Radiation and Intellect,” deals with how such thinkers and artists as Anton Mesmer, Edgar Allan Poe, and Federico Fellini transmogrified the luminiferous (or “light-bearing”) ether of the scientists into something that suited their medical or artistic purposes. Mesmer believed he could manipulate the ether through magnetism and hypnotism to cure human illnesses, but such scientists as Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin refuted his claims, accusing him of a retrogressive introduction of occult and magical forces into science. Edgar Allan Poe, who published in both scientific and literary journals, was attracted by the ideas of Mesmer, particularly the ether as massless matter transfusing all things and serving as a vehicle for spiritual forces. Both Poe and Mesmer believed that the ether could be the source of powerful creative and curative energies. In the twentieth century Federico Fellini, in such films as Le notti di...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)
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