Margareth Hagen and Margery Vibe Skagen (eds.) Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities

Margareth Hagen and Margery Vibe Skagen (eds.) Literature and Chemistry: Elective Affinities (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014), 340pp. ISBN 978-87-7124-174-7.


The Interdisciplinary study of literature and science has continued to progress in the last few decades. Academics are beginning to leave behind the concept of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” and are focusing on the commonalities between literary and scientific texts. The focus on literature and science in this collection enlightens the dependency of the two disciplines on one another. However, what is truly fascinating about these particular essays is the narrowed focus on the sciences to the sub-discipline of chemistry. There are various examples throughout the collection of how chemical phenomena is represented in literature and other imaginative works, as well as how literature lies within chemistry. It appears as though chemistry plays a key role within literature after a particular focus on their relationship throughout history. That does not mean to say that this relationship is an obvious one, as Hagen and Skagen note that “chemistry’s fairly minor role in the last century’s fiction should not lead us to conclude that this discipline has been neglected in literature . . . it has always been there” (18).

This particular collection is useful for scholars whether their primary interest is chemistry or literature as a result of its diverse approach to “chemistry’s role in the production of narrative, metaphor, and literary form” (35). Hagen and Skagen expand upon the existing approach to literature and science as a whole and attempt through the focus of chemistry to encourage a much more specific approach to this kind of interdisciplinary study. Their aim is to make “the silent presence of chemistry everywhere more perceptible, uncovering its historical present appeal to material sensitivity, imagination, and creativity” (35). The collection successfully fulfils its aim to provide chemistry with a voice, not only within its own discipline but as a conceivable interest within literature; ultimately resulting in a diverse and fascinating introduction to the topic.

The essays are not presented in the book in chronological order, instead they are collated into distinct sections with similar themes and focal points. The first two sections explore the lives and works of professional chemists who also had a keen interest in literature, and documenting their developments; the third section provides a wider cultural approach to chemistry with a focus on the importance of the chemical industry and its representation through literature and film; the fourth section concentrates on the historical perspective of alchemy; the fifth section reflects on the understanding of oneself, and the effect that chemistry and the language of chemistry can have on human beings; and the final section explores poetry in relation to chemistry and alchemy. Overall, the collection covers a vast selection of imaginative works from novels to poetry and cinema that are all in some way immersed in the procedures and language of chemistry.

The beginning of the collection consists of two essays depicting the life and works of chemist Primo Levi. The first essay is written by Robert S. C. Gordon, and is entitled “Primo Levi’s chemical sensorium,” and focuses on Levi’s reflection of his time spent at Auschwitz as well as literary works of his including If This Is Man written in 1946. Introducing the collection of essays with Levi is an interesting tactic, not only is Levi a fascinating character but the events that surround his work are historically unforgettable. Levi’s work surrounds the chemical experiments carried out at Auschwitz, his scientific writing is based upon his applied and practical approach to chemistry as opposed to a reflective and analytical approach. Gordon suggests this allows Levi to provide his reader with a sensory experience to chemistry unsurprising to a “Holocaust testimony – so intensely weighed down by the dynamics and problematics of memory” (44). The second essay on Levi is written by Margareth Hagen and provides an autobiographical approach to Primo Levi and Oliver Sacks surrounding their history with chemistry. Hagen draws attention to the imagination of the chemist and draws on Levi’s The Periodic Table to explore his emotional attachment to chemistry, as well as exploring the literary genres covered within the book such as, hybridity, detective story and mythological tales. Hagen’s introduction of Sacks and his autobiography Uncle Tungsten also provides the reader with a striking realisation that chemistry was and continues to be, an exciting adventure.

The succeeding two essays remain focused upon notable chemists throughout history, although the time frame shifts slightly backwards to the end of the Nineteenth Century and the scientific revolution. The first essay by Sharon Ruston, focuses on Humphry Davy who is considered one of the most esteemed chemists of his day. This exciting essay concentrates on Davy’s poem “The Life of the Spinosist” and highlights Davy’s personal and professional achievements, his connections to Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the importance of using poetry within a scientific environment. The second essay written by George Rousseau about the life and autobiographical work of Ludwig Boltzmann who is depicted as a “bizarre” character, a musician, poet and scientist. Rousseau also analyses Boltzmann’s Journey to Eldorado, a creatively written autobiography which reveals his “sustained alienation” (117).

The next section of the collection moves on to “Literary and Cinematic Contributions to the Public Image of Chemistry”. There are three essays in this section of the book which predominantly concentrate on European writings within the twentieth and twenty-first century. The first essay is slightly different from the others as it focuses on the use of scientific poetry within a documentary film in France. This documentary aimed to popularise chemistry, whilst at the same time was a source of advertisement for the chemical industries that were involved. The use of literature and chemistry for “popular education” (122) is unique for a film made in the 1950’s and highlights the importance of interdisciplinary study. The following two essays analyse various science fiction novels, demonstrating that the seemingly negative public image of chemistry due to its dangerous connotations can be transformed through literature where the validity of chemistry is restored through the use of metaphors and explanatory reasoning.

The history of chemistry is not without its complications and before modern chemistry became an explicit sub-discipline of science, the closest predecessor to it was alchemy. The history of Alchemy is the next section of the book and the three essays within it cover the importance of alchemy to the history of literature and chemistry from the Middle Ages through to the scientific revolution in the eighteenth century. Alchemy and Chemistry are both similar to literature with their ability to depict the “construction of something new, unique, and unexpected” (202). This idea is portrayed throughout the essays included in this section with the close reading and analysis of alchemical literature such as, Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). Ultimately, the history and re-examination of alchemy within literature and the sciences allows for a deeper understanding of modern chemistry.

The penultimate section of the book takes the reader away from specific chemical associations and concentrates on the “Demonic, Divine or Mystical: Chemistries of Personal Interaction”. Within this section each of the essays concentrates on a specific author including, Goethe, Strindberg and Solstad; who have all written works surrounding the role of science and religion. The novels and poems selected here are all thoroughly explained through a close reading of the texts, and denote a modernist recognition of a scientific history of the world; where the creative power of chemistry plays an important role.

Finally, the last section of the book, again using three essays, explores “Poetics of Chemistry and Alchemy”. It does seem a little odd that the two sections surrounding alchemy are separate from one another, however, this does not take away the noticeable strong finish of this collection. The essays cover poetry from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and are largely focused around the first and second world wars. “Linguistic alchemy” is a common theme in post-war literature and becomes a metaphor for knowledge “located between scientific and aesthetical insight” (317). In the last essay of this section there is also a focus on the effect of the chemical industry such as munitions factories on the mental state of the public; this is exemplified through Pasternak’s My Sister Life (1922).

Overall, this collection of essays is a vast and interesting insight into the world of literature and chemistry; one which has yet to fully proclaim its worth to the entire academic sphere. The essays, which cover everything from the history of chemistry and alchemy, to post-modernist literature, all indicate the importance of recognising the role of chemistry. The silent era of the presence of chemistry is being uncovered in this collection; one which should remain an important resource to academics across the board.

 Hannah Brunning, University Of Westminster