Utopian fancies

Otto Neurath (1943)

Editorial note (CB, ME). An intriguing fragment from the first draft of Otto Neurath's 'visual autobiography', From hieroglyphics to Isotype, is offered here to undermine any idea that Isotype forms part of an austere modernism lacking in fantasy.

Neurath's childhood recollection of drawing strange utopian worlds and beings connects with a nineteenth-century tradition of science-fictional musings. He had dealt with this theme previously in his introduction to the first volume of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (1938). There he wrote about 'an old and rich literature which helped to prepare a logico-empirical attitude by means of imaginative analysis'. Here is a passage from that earlier text, which helps to set the scene for the following fragment:

'Helmholtz and others, opposing Kant's ideology, imagined (partly for pedagogical purposes) two-dimensional beings on a sphere discussing geometrical problems. About the middle of the nineteenth century Fechner and others fancied dreamlands of different kinds: three-dimensional beings of different ages were produced by cutting off slices from a four-dimensional sausage. Some scientists fear such imaginative analogies as unreliable guides and demand the use of a more systematic analysis. Actually, the history of all these imaginations has to be regarded as a part of the history of the empiristic mosaic. One must add to these significant imaginings that of two-dimensional beings who, traversing a hill, observe a retardation region, an indifference region, and an acceleration region of a geometrically homogeneous world. One could imagine a country ("Aeonia") in which beings could be repaired as are machines. There could be beings with connected nerves, or powerful beings consisting of a brain, one muscle, and one sense organ, but using complicated mechanical devices.' ('Unified Science as encyclopedic integration', International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol.1, no.1, pp.11-12)

(Fragment, below: From hieroglyphics to Isotype, first draft typescript: IC 3.2/76).

My father told me stories of two-dimensional beings, of which I read also in Helmholtz's lectures. One of my father's stories dealt with them walking about on a mountain. They would tell us of a certain area, part of which 'repulses' a wanderer in one direction, another part in the opposite direction, and between them [there] may be a kind of 'neutral' zone (what we call the top of the mountain); or they would tell us of something in a wide valley attracting the wanderer at first sharply, then with less intensity and finally giving him rest in a neutral zone (what we call the bottom of the valley). My father tried to use these and similar imaginations to make me understand Ernst Mach's way of arguing. I liked these Flatland-like stories very much and tried myself to invent stories of different kinds up to my student period at university.

I invented a utopian country of beings with only one muscle and one sense organ, but using very complicated instruments. I drew and re-drew such utopian fancies. Some of the pictures looked like a Christie Piano with hundreds of little levers and valves, and the being with his solitary muscle playing this instrument and using his single, eye-like sense organ. Another sequence of sketches dealt with a country where every part of a human being's body could be exchanged and so a kind of earthly immortality reached. These and other attempts full of visualization led me, I think, to H.G. Wells's stories, which I encountered relatively late (I think in my twenties). French and German authors who invented worlds also interested me later on, because they helped me to expand my own limited imagination. Through Eberty I was well prepared for Wells's Time Machine.


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