Valeria Tinkler-Villani and C.C. Barfoot (eds.), Restoring the Mystery of the Rainbow: Literature’s Refraction of Science

Valeria Tinkler-Villani and C.C. Barfoot (eds.), Restoring the Mystery of the Rainbow: Literature’s Refraction of Science, 2 vols (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011) 1106 pp. £198 hb. ISBN 978-90-420-3325-2.

Having spent the past 14 months reading, off and on, the two volumes of Restoring the Mystery of the Rainbow, my overall feeling is of gratitude to those scholars who, in contributing the 47 chapters of the book, have provided such a rich diversity of material. All of it is interesting, much of it insightful, and some of it truly inspiring. As a scientist with a strong interest in the possibilities offered by literary perspectives on science, I was thrilled, charmed, puzzled and infuriated in roughly equal measures by the material. Of course, as a scientist I am an outsider to the field of literature and science, and I felt very conscious of that when getting to grips with this book. But, in passing, I scurried off to read Graeme Gibson, A. S. Byatt, Robinson Jeffers, and many others in response to the chapters, and I have found the experience very rewarding. So that’s the first message: if you are not well versed in literature and science as an academic discipline, this book could be a useful introduction.

The crucial question for the reader of this review, though, is: what is the book about, and what can we learn from it? The title seems to suggest an exploration of the ability of literature to obfuscate the findings of science, if by ‘refraction’ (a much used word in the book) bending and distortion are implied. Alternatively, and more flatteringly to literature, refraction could mean the splitting up of scientific information by viewing it from many different perspectives, just as the rainbow arises from the splitting of white light into its component colours. Regardless, the emphasis on ‘restoring the mystery’ suggests a key objective is to make mysterious, or hard to explain, that which scientists have laboured to make clear.

Finding this hard to believe, I consulted the Introduction for clarification. For the first five pages the editors weave a tapestry of instances concerning poets and things to do with scientists: Keats (of course), Newton, Blake, Wordsworth, Davy, Coleridge. These instances are contrasted and nuanced in a way that gives confidence in the authors as scholars, and also creates the impression that they are talking about something real, definite, ‘out there’, which is much more debatable; literary scholars creating... more literature. Yet interesting questions are provoked, for instance when we are told: ‘Whether Keats was right to suggest that the development of scientific knowledge had taken the romance out of Nature, certainly for some writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century it seems to have made the natural world more problematic for the imagination to confront and appreciate.’ More problematic relative to what: the collective imagination of previous generations? Or more problematic than these writers would have liked it to be? Further, ‘A young poet like Keats... may have felt challenged physically by the material applications of science, emotionally by the intrusion of scientific awareness in his sensual encounters with the natural world, and intellectually by the recognized need to fully understand what renowned scientists were saying’. Yet these challenges did not stop Keats from being a great and prolific poet.

Halfway through the Introduction we reach the important information: ‘For the last two hundred years at least, educated people have been bound to ask how this sense of a changing world both promoted and created by science would affect their own understanding of themselves and the world in which they live... In one form or another, basically these are the question that most of the essays in these two volumes are concerned with. How have we come to live with science, and with all the issues scientific discoveries and propositions have raised? And how has this refraction with science been explored and expressed in works of literature?’ This means that the book aims to address a topic so vast that even one million pages, let alone one thousand, would be insufficient. Herein lies the problem: the aim of the book is so large and general that the chapters it does contain seem pretty arbitrary. This leads to the suspicion that the editors have got together a whole lot of scholars who are interested in various aspects of the topic, and created, post hoc, some kind of structure. This is dressed up nicely though, as including a ‘great variety of voices’, and ‘we have deliberately made no programmatic choices and we have not privileged the aesthetic way of knowing as being more inclusive’ (I’m not sure what that means). Finally, the editors come clean, admitting that the division of the book into four sections is ‘to some extent a matter of convenience, since only a cursory glance at the titles of many of the articles indicates that several of them might have occurred in different sections, while others perhaps belong in none of them.’ This is how the academic world works, I suppose; but what matters, and is revealing for the subject of the book, is the creative urge that leads the editors to dress up (almost) arbitrariness in the weft of words that makes a 12 page Introduction. The editors leave us with the hope that the articles in the book ‘clarify the extent to which literature mediates between the scientist and the reader (often the same person, of course), and the world in which we all live.’ I don’t believe that statement means anything.

Having suggested that the Introduction is not worth spending much time over, it is important to stress that the book itself is full of treasures. In Part I (The Conflict of Science in Literature) there are ten articles. Stephen Voyce provides a rich discussion of the impact of Robert Hooke’s work with the microscope on contemporary attitudes to the natural world, and links this imaginatively to Richard Feynman’s anticipation of the development of nanotechnology and its impacts. C. C. Barfoot offers a witty, learned article on the response to the Royal Society and its ‘Transactioners’, those enthusiasts who contributed detailed accounts of obscurities in the natural world, and were royally sent up by William King in the early eighteenth century. I felt there was a useful message in this article for anyone attempting to understand historical and contemporary antagonisms towards science; let’s hope a few scientists actually read it. John Ames and Rebecca Knell each contribute an article on a critical period at the end of the eighteenth century, the end of the Enlightenment and the birth of Romanticism; their different perspectives on Erasmus Darwin are valuable, and Knell’s discussion of Percy Shelley’s position in relation to scientific thinking offers a helpful difference in emphasis to that of Ames.

Renata Schellenberg gives a detailed analysis of Goethe’s ‘subjective empiricism’, its ultimately neo-Platonic object, and the singular character of Goethe’s scientific work. She highlights an important aspect of Goethe’s colour theory, which characterize his whole approach; he ‘fundamentally challenged the notion of a strictly empirical approach to science, advocating in addition the value of scientific intuition and the need for broader commentary by scientists concerning the subjective, the cultural, and the historical dimensions and implications of their projects’. This different approach has much appeal, and might make science a good deal less off-putting to many. Schellenberg omits to say, however, that it has been almost completely without influence on the progress of mainstream science. In the following article, on Bram Stoker’s fiction, J. D. Ballam emphasizes Stoker’s implication that the empirical mode of scientific enquiry means that it is ultimately inadequate for the task of dealing with the occult. I would suggest that this article is about (Victorian) science fiction as a literary genre, not science: the science in Stoker is superficial, a general way of approaching things. Interestingly, as with Goethe’s lack of relevance within science now, it turns out that science has been able to deal rather effectively with the occult. It says something about the field of literature and science that the (ir)relevance of old science is rarely a topic of interest. The frequent emphasis in this book on forgotten science makes it read like an alternative to science as portrayed by (traditional) science histories, where the focus is on discoveries and developments which led somewhere.

The article by Malte Herwig sets out to address the question of the compatibility of science and literature. He first offers a refreshing resolution of underlying misunderstandings and frictions between science and the humanities, concluding with a quote from Roland Barthes which emphasizes the unifying role of literature (‘Literature does not say that it knows something, but that is knows of something, or better, that it knows about something – that it knows about men’). Humanism is concerned with everything to do with the promotion, study and betterment of Man; and this includes scientific approaches. To provide a successful example of this inclusive ability of literature he discusses the work of Thomas Mann. The argument is convincing. I was just aware of a gulf: as a scientist one may well be interested in the world, with Man at best incidental, at worst a problem. In other words, science may not privilege the human/human nature, but rather nature and the non-human world. My impression is that humanities colleagues may find that hard to believe.

Part II, titled ‘Bodily Science and Literature’ contains 17 papers, and most closely fits the description of rag-bag. For example, William Henry Spates offers a long and interesting discussion of Fracastoro’s work on syphilis (but I couldn’t quite see literature’s refraction of science here); this is followed by a review of sensibility in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which is followed by a review by Anastasaki of the human quest for immortality, and its shift from being a preoccupation of alchemy (Paracelsus etc) to science (Bichat etc). (More science that did not make it.) There are papers on Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of hair (science uncovering Nature’s cruelty); H. G. Wells’ Dr Moreau (more cruel science); the Passenger Pigeon (science as devising the best ways to trap, kill, and ultimately exterminate the bird, so cruel again); posthumanity and genetic engineering (science as source of a threat); and eugenics, again dealing with the perceived threat from advances in science, biotechnology this time. In this article, by Marie Aline Ferreira I wondered about the author’s understanding of the background science; the statement ‘Indeed, every member of the future species Djerzinski envisages will share the same genetic code...’ foxed me, until I realized that what is meant is not ‘the same genetic code’ (A, T, C, G, which we all share anyway), but ‘will be genetically identical’. Similarly, in an article by Renk on the science of Darwin in A. S. Byatt and Pauline Melville, we read: ‘Although scientists view the Big Bang as the origin of the universe approximately fifteen-million-years ago...’ - isn’t that in the Miocene epoch?

In the same section there’s a lively article by Carmen Lara Rallo on A. S. Byatt’s use of geological words in her fiction; and a cross one by Greta Olson on neo-Darwinian behavioural models and their expression in contemporary literature. Olson, rightly in my view, objects to the willy-nilly application to humans of bowdlerised versions of animal behavioural studies (here in relation to sex); but her solution is to suggest that it’s all just a (scientific) narrative: ‘By analysing the metaphors used in neo-Darwinian theories of sexual selection, we may uncover the mental constructs behind them and question their status as universal truths.’ Another approach would be to read the original scientific studies in detail and arrive at conclusions based on what has actually been said and discovered about animals. Finally, in this section, in an article I found very obscure, Eleanor L. Arnold seems to think that Fritjof Capra is the best person to cite on the way genomes work. Again, I’d suggest there are sources closer to the actual research field.

Part III (Physics Old and New in Literature) does just about what it says on the tin: it contains eight papers concerned with the use of physics in literature. Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Charles Olson, Tom Stoppard are all discussed, the emphasis in the section being on twentieth-century physics. For me, this was the least engaging section, I suppose because the scientific ideas refracted by literature are the high level, most general ones; when Jocelyn Emerson discusses the ‘appropriation’ of chaos theory by A. R. Ammons, for example, what is being discussed is how a concept is used to generate poetry of a certain kind. As far as I can see it has nothing to do with the science. The same author discusses Leslie Scalapino as follows: ‘In short, she appropriates the idealized synchronic perspective of normative science, but displays the complexities within that synchronic view that linear perspectives usually attempt to suppress or marginalize.’ I wasn’t convinced this was interesting, but then I can’t understand Scalapino, so I’m probably not the best judge. As a welcome contrast, however, to close this section, Michael Whitworth uses two poems from 1919-20 by the obscure poet W. W. Gibson to provide a fascinating analysis of the influence of the new physics on poetry, revealing the ability of literature to awaken the metaphorical potential of scientific language by changing its context.

Part IV (The Politics of Science in Literature) includes 12 papers. Dickens, H.G. Wells, Thoreau, Jeffers, Victorian Canadian women poets, recent Spanish writers portraying the impacts of science and technology, Kurt Vonnegut, Stanley Kubrick, all put in an appearance. Just when I was becoming exhausted by the scale, scope and diversity of literary offerings on which ‘science’ has had an impact, two final chapters provided welcome relief. Sarah Dauncey discusses with nice balance the use and abuse of forensic science in Anil’s Ghost by Ondaatje; and Naama Harel provides an uplifting discussion of anthropomorphism in science and literature. Here is genuine fertile ground for science/literary collaboration going forward. So hats off to the editors for the choice of this paper as the last one in the book.

One problem with this book is that no one troubles to say what they mean by science. By inspection I gathered that it can be lots of things: for example, a certain type of information (e.g. quantum or evolutionary theory); an activity, which is essentially forensic (Sherlock Holmes appears several times); or a way of thinking (‘scientific readings of vampires’). It is something to be mocked, regretted, feared, or resisted, but rarely, based on these chapters, is it something to be valued or embraced positively. Most important of all, however, is the impression that what is not of interest is the detail of scientific knowledge, and of how it is generated; its peculiar conditional-yet-certain character (clear, objective, evidence-based; yet also able to change, develop, become untrue). For me, the most striking thing about scientific knowledge is just how specialized it is; how very difficult it is to have a meaningful discussion about any aspect of contemporary scientific research, which is how knowledge is discovered or created, with anyone outside the immediate field. Yet science is most meaningfully understood as a contemporary process of uncovering and trying to understand things. Why, I wonder, is no one (judging by this book) refracting any of that? Perhaps this is why there is a tendency to focus on stuff that happened a long time ago (in terms of scientific progress), and which most scientists would very probably regard as only of passing interest and little contemporary relevance. At a distance of 100 years, scientific knowledge, and activity, can become rather abstract and generalized, and the difficulties neutralized or forgotten. Then literary people can get to work refracting the general concepts, those which scientists might regard as always in need of qualification, and possibly not very interesting. That all sounds negative, but it is actually just puzzlement. There is plenty to be done at the literature/science interface, and this book does a great job of highlighting that.

Nick Battey (University of Reading, School of Biological Sciences)