Ruston, Sharon (ed), Literature and Science

Sharon Ruston (ed.), Literature and Science. Vol. 61. Essays and Studies 2008. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008). 188 pp. £30.00. ISBN 978-1843841784.

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In his 1959 Rede Lecture C. P. Snow famously declared that there existed within society ‘two cultures’ separated by a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’: the mutually exclusive worlds of ‘literary intellectuals’ and scientists. In opposing the study of literature to the study of science, Snow not only positioned the two disciplines as antagonists, but refused to acknowledge the existence of their commonalities. Over the last three decades a more sympathetic consideration of the relationship between the two disciplines has emerged from within the academy, an approach that was given impetus by the publication of Gillian Beer’s seminal text, Darwin’s Plots (1983). Sharon Ruston’s collection of eight essays follows in this tradition as it seeks to ‘testify to the idea that we find in both literary and scientific texts common ground, common purpose and common means’ and demonstrate that we ‘should neither dismiss the literary from the scientific nor the scientific from the literary’ (12).

By itself, such an approach, whilst laudable, is nothing new. What is notable, however, about this collection, is the scope that Ruston brings to the examination of the engagements between science and literature. As David Amigoni points out in his essay, ‘[o]ne strand in the recent study of literature and science in Anglo-American literary studies has been dominated by an historicism focused predominantly on the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries’ (153). Concomitantly, another feature of the study of the relationship between literature and science is the domination of a focus on the relationship between literature and the biological sciences. Ruston’s collection expands these existing interfaces between literature and science considerably by including essays on texts from medieval times, the early-modern period and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and by considering mathematical and physical sciences as well as biology. Furthermore, the methodology behind the engagement between science and literature differs throughout the collection, an approach that means that this book is a useful read for scholars interested in the relationship between the two disciplines but who have no specific interest in the particular texts under discussion. Of course, given the size of the book, the essays within the collection can in no way exhaust any facet of the collection’s focus. Ruston fully acknowledges this limitation in her introductory essay, arguing that rather than provide a comprehensive insight into the relationship between the two disciplines, the book is meant to bring to the fore the complexities of both literature and science and the interactions that take place between them. The collection achieves this aim with ease, providing the reader with a diverse, engaging and approachable introduction to the various interactions between literature and science.

The essays in the book initially appear to be collated in a chronological manner, beginning with Gillian Rudd’s analysis of the fourteenth-century English mystic treatise The Cloud of Unknowing and ending with Amigoni’s consideration of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (1997) and Saturday (2005). On occasions this structuring is disrupted. Closer consideration of the emphases of each essay reveals the presence of a more schematic structure: there are three distinct blocks of essay styles and focuses within the collection. The first block of essays emphasizes what Rudd describes as the ‘circular’ (31) nature of the relationship between literature and science; the second block presents a more discursive relationship between the two disciplines; and the third block calls attention to a dialogic relationship between science, literature and culture. In structuring the collection in this way rather than a purely chronological manner, Ruston may have aimed to accentuate the multiplicity of methodologies used within the collection, although as the shift in chronological ordering is not that substantive, this can easily be overlooked.

By beginning the collection with a pair of essays that present the reader with the idea of a circular relationship between literature and science, Ruston immediately presents the reader with striking examples of how the two disciplines feed off and into each other. The collection’s opening essay, by Rudd, is based on the premise that ‘literature, religious treatises and books of knowledge [all] use similar devices to engage readers and impart understanding’ (32). Rudd’s examination of the parallels between The Cloud of Unknowing and contemporary scientific understanding of cloud formation not only reveals how this is achieved, but considers what this means for both modern works of popular science and other literary texts. Rudd’s central argument is taken up by the collection’s next essay, Elaine Hobby’s analysis of The Birth of Mankind. But while Rudd considers the way in which a non-scientific text appropriates scientific knowledge, Hobby examines the way in which a scientific text appropriates what are commonly thought of as literary techniques. In an intriguing argument, Hobby contends that science writing not only imparts knowledge but can reveal important information about the society in which that writing was produced, a contention that leads her to dispute the arguments made in Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex (1990) about the ways in which the differences between male and female bodies were understood in the early-modern period.

The collection then moves on to considering the relationship between literature and science in a more discursive manner, with the majority of each essay comprising an explanation of the scientific and historical backgrounds to the argument, before the application of these details to the specific literary text(s) under discussion. Such an approach to interdisciplinary work is well-established. This tends to make the three essays that take this approach feel less innovative in their arguments than the other essays in the collection. Nevertheless, all three essays make some intriguing assertions and are deserving of consideration for their content if not for their methodology. This shift in approach begins with Ruston’s own essay on Anna Barbauld and Mary Wollstonecraft. Ruston contends that both Barbauld and Wollstonecraft based their arguments for the existence of ‘natural rights’ for various disenfranchised political groups on recent discoveries made in natural history, and accordingly focuses her essay on tracing the correspondences between the literature and the science. Following Ruston is Alice Jenkins, who contends that Victorian literary and political writings are shot through with Euclidean vocabulary and structures. Focusing her attention exclusively on considering the gender coding that Victorian culture ascribed to Euclidean geometry, Jenkins examines the gendered nature of the teaching of Euclid and geometry’s relationship to systems of gender difference in the mid-nineteenth century, before concluding with an exploration of the significance that geometry’s use within The Mill on the Floss (1860) has for gender roles. The final essay within this section is Katy Price’s essay on the theory of relativity and its use within Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective fiction. Price argues that Einstein’s theory, having become a means by which the popular press could satirise a range of current topics as well as a serious subject for scientific debate, became both a subject and a method by which Sayers was enabled to critique various social, cultural and political structures within her fiction.

The final three essays in the collection all posit, in various different ways, that science, literature and culture exist in a dialogue with each other. Such an approach to the topic is undoubtedly the most sophisticated of the three available to the reader, and this is reflected in the rich nature of the essays within this approach. Martin Willis’s essay on Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ is perhaps the richest of the three. In his essay, Willis contends that ‘public understandings of science, as well as misunderstandings, are just as much a part of science as the theoretical and experimental work of the scientist’ (111-2, emphasis in original). Such an approach is not new to the collection, but Willis places a particular emphasis upon it, arguing that in the Victorian cultural imagination science and politics could not be separated. This entwinement is mirrored in his analysis of ‘Carmilla’, as he directly links his discussion of Le Fanu’s fictional narrative and the tropes of disease and vision contained therein to a discussion of Irish political and cultural history. In so doing, Willis positions ‘Carmilla’ as a commentary on contemporary political and cultural events constructed from disease theory and framed within the traditions of Irish gothic. The scope of this essay is, at times, breathtaking, and the essay that follows it, Brian Baker’s examination of literary critical models that have their basis in Darwinian or evolutionary theory, perhaps suffers by comparison. Baker considers what a scientific model of literary analysis brings to the culture of the literary academy. In itself, Baker’s essay provides an interesting assessment of two distinct literary approaches that both claim to derive from evolutionary theory. Yet it holds little interest for anyone other than a literary scholar, and in that sense proves to be the least interdisciplinary essay within the whole collection. Succeeding Baker, and concluding the collection, is Amigoni’s examination of the way in which McEwan’s fiction interrogates the relationship between literature, science and culture. Focusing particularly on McEwan’s narrative practices in his fiction and his examination of the nature of scientific writing, Amigoni argues that McEwan brings literature and science into cultural contest, asking questions of what both disciplines have brought us to and for what purpose they exist. In this respect it is a probing, thoughtful essay and one in which it is highly appropriate the collection on, regardless of any chronological ordering.

Overall, Literature and Science is an extremely welcome addition to the number of books dealing with this subject. Its breadth of coverage – both in terms of textual chronology and disciplinary exposure – combined with its multiple methodological approaches to the subject are further strengths, making this a useful textbook for any scholar in the field.

Laura Daniels, University of Exeter