Walker and Walker
Walker and Walker
Three Species of Circles (After Walker and Walker)

Brian Dillon

1. In Shakespeare, last words are rarely the last. “O, I die, Horatio,” Hamlet declares about fifty lines from the end of the play that bears his name, and six lines before his own finish. His actual end follows, famously: “ – the rest is silence”. Not quite, or not always. There are three variant texts of Hamlet, and in at least one the Dane dies differently: “ – the rest is silence. O, o, o, o.” What are they telling us, these four diminishing ‘O’s? (Or is it five? The full stop, you might say, is the last and smallest circle.) ‘O’ is everywhere in Shakespeare, as proclamation and sometimes as oral or typographic pun: “this little O, the earth” – which might also be the Globe theatre. Scholars say that Othello’s “O! O! O!” is a single roar of guilt and horror, not three discrete cries. Lady Macbeth’s “O, o, o” is heard by her doctor as a series of ‘sighs’. And Hamlet’s “O, o, o, o”? It is surely nothing more or less than the vocal expression, precisely, of silence. ‘O’ is the tragic apotheosis of zero.

2. Robert Hooke’s Micrographia was the first book published in English to describe and depict (in engravings) a set of observations made with the microscope. Among the better-known illustrations in the first edition of 1665 are those showing a fly’s many-faceted eye, the starry shapes of ice crystals and a monstrous bristling fold-out flea. Before training his apparatus on such complex curiosities, Hooke demonstrates its magnifying power with some minute but mundane sights. The point of a small sharp needle is revealed as gnarled and pitted, the svelte edge of a razor is covered in scratches and striations. The scientist turns next to “a point commonly so called, that is, the mark of a full stop, or period”. Whether printed or made with a pen, the tiny point, circle or dot of the period turns out to be disfigured, ragged, deformed. Under the lens, the microdot looks as though it’s been made with a burnt stick on an uneven floor. Imagine, Hooke writes, if he had found room in his engravings for a single ‘O’, greatly magnified: “You should have seen that the letters were not more distinct than the points of Distinction, nor a drawn circle more exactly so than we have now shown a point to be a point.”

3. In June of 1927, Virginia Woolf travelled by train and car from London to north Yorkshire: “We had come, not to lodge in the bedroom of an Inn; we were come for a few hours of disembodied interaction with the sky.” As Woolf tells us directly in her diary, and obliquely in her essay ‘The Sun and the Fish’, she had come north to view the total eclipse of the sun. As the auspicious moment approaches, clouds threaten to obscure the spectacle. The sun races towards the goal of its own oblivion. “For one second he emerged and showed himself to us through our glasses, a hollowed sun, a crescent sun.” Soon the sun will be defeated, for fully twenty-four seconds, except for “a hoop of colour ... a globe of glass”. The black sun of a total eclipse ignites the power of metaphor. Fifty-two years after Woolf, Annie Dillard witnessed a similar scene as told in her essay ‘Total Eclipse’. Colour drains from the earth, faces turn to lead, people scream. And in the sky there is an ‘O’: like an explosion, like a lens cover, like the lid of a pot or a closing eye. Afterwards, at a roadside restaurant, a college student thinks only of candy: “Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.”