Philip Coleman (ed.), On Literature and Science

Philip Coleman (ed.), On Literature and Science: Essays, Reflections, Provocations (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), 270pp. £50hb. ISBN: 978-1846820717.

Reading a medievalist on the relations between The Canterbury Tales and sci-fi is not an enticing prospect: “Chaucer, technology and the rise of science fiction in English” sounds like the most egregious piece of shoe-horning since Cinderella’s sisters set eyes on the slipper. But Helen Conrad-O’Briain makes a persuasive case that continuities between Chaucer and modern day science fiction writing are substantive and non-trivial. Her work is not, she claims, “the result of looking for science fiction in medieval texts, but of finding it” (29).

The result is a meditation on the continuities between magic, technology, and scientific knowledge – a confluence which (in bringing to mind Arthur C Clarke’s observation that a technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic) deftly captures the diagnostic criteria we employ when we categorize a particular work as sci-fi. For if the distinctions between those three elements are unclear for the societies we imagine five hundred years in the future, they were equally unclear for societies five hundred years in the past. The extension of “fantastic” is being constantly eroded by novel technologies: if science fiction is fiction about where innovation is going and how people will adapt to that, then it has been with us for a lot longer than we thought.

Conrad-O’Briain’s essay is the first – and among the strongest – in On Literature and Science, edited by Philip Coleman, which collects work that emerged from two series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2005. Consequently, the contributors to the volume are largely drawn from Trinity (14 of the 20 essays are written by colleagues of the editor). By soliciting work on science and literature from scholars who may not usually count this among their research interests, there is the risk that the results will have only a token relationship with the field. However, it is a testament to the strength of the department (and, presumably, Coleman’s stewardship) that the collection is not overly myopic as a result of this. Indeed, the strategy has paid off surprisingly well.

The book is divided into two sections. The second section focuses on poetry and science, and I’ll return to that later. It is less easily addressed than the first (and fortunately also the longest) section, which surveys interactions of science and literature and is organised chronologically, beginning with Chaucer and moving through the Renaissance before dwelling in the nineteenth century – the site where, out of the innovative work of scholars such as Gillian Beer and Katherine Hayles, literature and science criticism largely began, and where science as we know it really emerged from the chrysalis of “natural philosophy.” The editor’s own “Reflections on science in American short fiction” brings the scope right up to date with a focus on David Foster Wallace and George Saunders (although one suspects with these two writers that any engagement with science is more an accident of their allusive promiscuity than any particular interest in scientific knowledge per se).

The historical essays here are especially interesting – a germane reminder that what counts as scientific knowledge is arbitrated by future generations. The distinction between astronomy and astrology is not at all clear in the fourteenth century – and whilst some elements of modern astronomy clearly have roots in medieval scholarship, parsing the (scientific) astronomical from the (magical) astrological would not be possible or even sensible for contemporary thinkers.

A long lens also means we can witness the terms of scientific discussion being negotiated through metaphors and imagery – a language creaking as it expands to accommodate the conceptual growth. John Scattergood’s essay on horology, for example, locates in the poetry of Donne and Shakespeare the emergence of the “nature-as-clockwork” trope that would remain a rhetorical staple of mechanistic/determinist arguments for centuries to come – right up to Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker and Stewart Brand’s “Clock of the Long Now” – and reveals it to be bound up with both the spread of timepieces and the rationalisation of financial accountancy.

Employing a different set of figurative associations, Andrew J. Power’s essay surveys attempts to diagnose using modern psychiatry the malady that affects Hamlet. Historical retro-diagnoses are a sort of parlour game for medical professionals (did Lincoln have Marfan’s? was Newton autistic?), but it does not take much reflection to realise that the diagnosis of literary illnesses is considerably more problematic. However, Power settles on the more promising and quite charming Hobbesian notion that it is the state of Denmark that is sick: “the corruption of that fatal wound to the head spreading through the rest of the body politic” (95).

As historians of science are well aware, literary fiction is a good barometer of the cultural reception of scientific ideas, and Stephen Matterson and Kate Hebblethwaite both analyse the manner in which Darwin-induced anxieties about human uniqueness (what Hebblethwaite calls “the demotion of mankind” [99]) were addressed by Victorian fiction – Poe’s murderous orang-utan, of course, but also how Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies acknowledges the amphibious ancestry of modern humans.

The historical reach of the volume also raises an interesting issue for literature-science scholars: because what counts as scientific knowledge is (historically) in flux, so too is what lies within the ambit of “literature and science” criticism. This perspective radically expands the field, which seems good. But it also risks making the categories hopelessly baggy. Because astrology and astronomy or alchemy and chemistry are historically entangled does not automatically mean that all belief systems are candidates for being “scientific,” even historically. Daryl Jones, for example, contributes a perfectly decent account of catastrophism and the end of empire, but it is far from clear that this topic fits the promise made by the collection’s title. Likewise, psychologists who have struggled for much of the past century to emancipate themselves from associations with Freudian analysis might be dismayed to find psychoanalysis applied (in a non-historical sense) for an exposition of surrealism in Benjamin Keatinge’s essay. But substantiating any charge of improper inclusion here awaits a definition of science that is sufficiently nuanced to negotiate those gradations dividing astronomy out of astrology, whilst robust enough to preserve the outlandish and improbable character of ideas like the “parallel universes” and “wormholes” that hold epistemic currency in our own time.

The second part of the book feels very different – the contributors here are practising poets, and the scholarly, academic tone of the essays is replaced with autobiographical writing and poems which explore scientific themes. Reviewing this is reviewing poetry – performing literary criticism itself, and doing justice to that task would require more space than is available here.

But sidestepping the poems themselves, the second part does address more proximate academic concerns: the ability of poetry to yield and convey knowledge about the world. Peter Middleton’s essay – “Can poetry be scientific?” – is the most sustained analysis of that question here, but it warrants its question mark, settling that poetry can be scientific if we are willing to operate with a revised definition of science that includes poetry.

While the historical essays in the first part of the book usefully problematise our historical definition of science, the manner in which the definition of poetry is a problem for the book’s second part is less obviously a gain. Iggy McGovern’s essay concludes “science and poetry are not, after all, so different; or, if so, only a little!” (222). The next essay (by Randolph Healy) begins “A poem can be anything” (223). This creates difficulties for deciding how the poems speak to or even, epistemically, compete with scientific knowledge. Working on the same problems that scientists work on – Gary Snyder’s ecology is an example – does not make that activity science. Nor does imitating scientific language – as with the poems at the end of the book. It is not clear if separatism or reconciliation is the goal. Are these poems staking out territory for poetry which science cannot access? Or are they seeking to demonstrate that poems, too, can perform the work of science? The latter claim is unfeasible, but the former finds poetry with an uncomfortably transcendental role, in need of explanation and at odds with the claims for poetry’s ability to convey useful knowledge.

Overall, consuming the essays here is very much like attending a conference (you might choose to recreate that conference-feel by reading one essay an hour over the space of a weekend). But it is cheaper than most conferences, and won’t take up so much of your time. And you don’t need to take notes. All of which is a very good thing, and makes the book a valuable addition if not to your own shelves, then certainly to your library’s.

Jon Adams, London School of Economics