Can plants hear bassoons? Science and the sublime.
scene of the breaking up of the crust of the globe than the very central
peaks of the Andes....
I cannot tell you how I enjoyed some of these views.--it is worth coming
from England once to feel such intense delight. At an elevation from
10-12,000 ft. there is a transparency in the air & a confusion of distances
& a sort of stillness which gives the sensation of being in another world,
& when to this is joined, the picture so plainly drawn of the great epochs
of violence, it causes in the mind a strange assemblage of ideas.
A little known fact about Charles Darwin is that he spent a good part of his old age investigating whether plants could hear bassoons (Browne ix). It is one of those details, like Newton's preoccupation with alchemy and the Book of Revelations, or Copernicus's image of the sun as the father, and therefore, the rightful center of the solar system, which the scientific community has either ignored or suppressed. Kepler's enduring interest in celestial harmony has been more widely publicized, perhaps because the connection between music and mathematics--as opposed, say, to that of music and flora--has been sufficiently respected to warrant its passage without scandal or embarrassment beyond the boundaries of the scientific community. In the cases of Darwin, Newton, or Copernicus, however, one is confronted with interests that somehow jostle our stereotypical perception of the scientist's commitment to the rule of detached observation, rational judgment and objectivity, characteristics which presumably increase their capacity to discover nature's processes and predict its behavior. In many respects, however, the surprise or shock (perhaps even embarrassment) elicited by Darwin's interest in the hearing capacity of plants carries renewed interest for us, especially in the light of recent developments in the literature of science. The very nature of Dar-win's interest implies a wish to connect his scientific research with aesthetic ideals, as well as significant aspects of his emotional life. His insistence on crossing over into the domain traditionally occupied by poets identifies knowledge (scientific or otherwise) as something commensurate with our subjective lives.
To think of Newton and Darwin in these terms requires a reexamination of the view that science's authority as guide to the makeup of the material universe depends on its impartiality. Traditional approaches to Newton's work on alchemy, for instance, which insist on the separation of his eccentric preoccupations as a man from his monumental scientific gifts have been challenged by Richard Westfall's recent biography. In his portrayal of Newton, Westfall is able to demonstrate that the strict separation often made between the professional work of scientists and their humanity has never been universally accepted--not even by scientists themselves; nor has its intermittent acceptance been unproblematic. On the one hand, it posits for the scientist a schizophrenic existence-something similar to the Jekyll-Hyde figure we are all familiar with. At the same time, the characterization is made without the troubling and valuable insights contained in Stevenson's portrait. Jekyll's scientific experiments do not divorce his professional career from his personal identity and destiny; they bind them more closely together. The extraordinary thing about the Jekyll-Hyde story, as Chesterton has remarked, is not that one person is actually two, but that two persons are one (Haynes 148).
Chesterton's observation has much to offer in the context of the current reevaluation of science and science writing. In our culture the perceived split between scientist and human agent has been compounded by an equally disputable separation between observer and object. Even in the case of many current science writers, who reject in practice the ideal of detached and rational analysis, and who exploit the resources of language to produce richly evocative pictures of nature, there is felt the need to apologize for their reliance on simile, analogy and other rhetorical tropes. Their denunciation of figurative speech produces yet another rupture to accompany those mentioned above, namely the divorce of style and content. Implicit in their comments is science's long standing preference for the mechanical model of nature, which can be understood and explained objectively, one presumes, since machines are composed of discrete parts, work in ways that are clearly observable and predictable, and remain free of the complications and uncertainties which attend the more subtle and profound correspondences between our inner lives and the world around us. Loyalty to this model, however, grows increasingly difficult to maintain. At first rush, under the spell of Newton's great achievements, the triumph of the human mind in its capacity to discover nature's secrets offered hope of a future in which more and more of nature's powers could be harnessed in the service of human advancement. Bacon's dream of a world made immeasurably better through scientific means seemed not only possible but imminent. More recently that dream has slipped the fetters of conscious contrivance. The efforts of science to escape the irrational factors that attend the pursuit of knowledge (as it attends all our pursuits) have had about as much success as Jekyll had in his attempts to control or rid himself of Hyde.
In the wake of such developments, a bountiful literature has emerged which addresses the sometimes troubling impact of science on our everyday lives. Freud's account of the dissatisfactions and anxieties which attend modern life focuses on the repression of the irrational drives in the service of the enormous demands civilization places on orderly rational control (e.g., Civilization and its Discontents). According to Freud, however, the trust in science and technology which underlies such demands is crippling, since it denies the issue of human fulfillment and happiness, which depend so heavily on the irrational part of us. Others, such as T. S. Eliot, produce accounts of contemporary life in which the denial of our passions and emotions fail to obliterate their haunting presence, including their strong influence on our aesthetic and ethical judgements. The modern waste land, as Eliot characterizes it, is not only one in which "The river sweats/Oil and tar" (The Waste Land 3. 266, 67). The relationships established among the people in his poem, though ostensibly designed for expediency and pleasure, are at once inwardly troubling and vacuous. In spite of the surface intentions of his characters, the poem insists on a world in which external environment and inner self remain inextricably bound. The pall which hangs over London in the presence of a "brown fog" corresponds to the warped and clouded psychic conditions of its citizens (Waste Land 1. 61). Under such conditions, Eliot seems to suggest (echoing Wordsworth, perhaps, in The Prelude), science serves not as the means for a richer and fuller life, but as a "succedaneum" (The Prelude 2. 219). Lil will go for new teeth to make sure she looks pleasing to her husband Alfred, who on returning from the war will expect her to show him a good time (Waste Land 2. 139 f.) The technological world of The Waste Land is passionless, its experience barren, its stature shrunk to accommodate banal purposes. Yet the absence of fulfillment felt throughout the poem, most especially in the persona of the narrator, implies the remains of a larger, deeper and more fertile humanity sabotaged but longing still for a lost valuable treasure.
In her recent book From Faust to Strangelove, Roslynn Haynes discusses the suspicion that has traditionally attended popular images of the scientist. Typically, she tells us, they have been perceived as isolated from the rest of humanity in their interests and feelings (Haynes 1,2). Their break with society is frequently characterized as compensatory for some inner human deficiency. Her examples go as far back as Chaucer's attack on alchemy as a debilitating obsession in "The Canon Yeoman's Tale" (Haynes 15 f.). One could proceed further into the past to find in Aristophanes's The Clouds a depiction of Socrates aimed at satirizing scientific thought which has lost touch with relevance. The suspicion of the scientist which Haynes so thoroughly documents produces, however, a far from simple account. The scientist can inspire fear as well as laughter. In either case, there is present the awareness of excess, something more or less than is appropriate or required judged according to the criteria of practical common sense. One might argue, in fact, that in Haynes's account the scientist evokes many of the same responses as the poet, remembering always that in the case of the latter there is the conspicuous absence of the potential for producing poison chemicals and dangerous explosives. Nevertheless, in the way of explaining life, the writers of science have assumed many of the functions formerly relegated to poets and religious leaders and seers. The modern tendency to demand a strict separation of the various orders of understanding may at first seem enlightened in its efforts to dispel confusion. Contemporary science writing, however, shows characteristics found previously in great works of literature. The efforts of poets such as Dante and Goethe to incorporate the science of their times into their works indicates a preference for capaciousness rather than discreteness. In our own time, the tendency to associate scientific concepts with aesthetic principles and to draw ethical and metaphysical meanings from scientific descriptions of the natural world reaffirms similar aspirations.
Perhaps one can begin to appreciate the presence of underlying connections if one compares the responses to alchemy which occur in, say, Chaucer and Newton. On the surface they seem to be diametrically opposed. Chaucer finds in such pursuits an example of excessive pride, an illegitimate desire to search into God's secrets in order to transform oneself into a false god, and thereby to repeat humanity's original sin. Newton, on the other hand, would find in it a more comprehensive revelation of nature's processes than are available to science. Just as Chaucer would preserve the mystery of God's creation against unholy assault, Newton would protect it against descriptions which reduce it to a system of meaningless mechanical operations. In both men there is the insistence on joining our human aspiration after knowledge to the magnitude and glory of creation, one by reading nature's book through the guidance of religious faith, the other through a study of that book which would reestablish its superiority to quantitative description. Moreover, their surface differences share a shrewd insight concerning scientific theories, namely that they are in many ways like religious beliefs and superstitions, since their influences on us are irrational and touch the deepest levels of our subjective lives. Neither Chaucer nor Newton would accept a world divested of its magnitude, or one submissive to mechanical contrivance. Their wish to preserve wonder and mystery implies a necessary place in knowledge for the irrational, since reason alone cannot excite the emotions and passions. In some respects they attribute preeminence to the irrational (one through faith, the other through occult studies), since the irrational seems more closely bound to those aspects of nature which resist confinement or calculation. Subsequent developments in science have vindicated their views. The second law of thermodynamics, for instance, presupposes an image of nature as a machine that must eventually break down. The success it promises in predicting natural behavior does not increase our sense of power and control, but fosters instead a feeling of helplessness. Its publication in the nineteenth century was accompanied by a number of gloomy tracts calculating the termination of life on earth. Other similar concepts, including those which mechanize human nature, have created a similar gloom, since they challenge all previous beliefs in human dignity and freedom. The inevitable loss of dynamic energy predicted in these tracts inspired despair, though they were offered as impartial calculations of the distant future.
In our own time, we have seen the emergence of a different approach. The current disenchantment with science as a dry-as-dust subject, and the increasing interest in the personal lives of famous scientists, such as Galileo, Newton, Darwin, the Curies, Einstein, Freud, Heisenberg reflect a strong wish to open the domains of science to the presence of the exceptional, the unusual, even the unique individual. The ambition to control the immense material universe meets in such figures the aspiration to engage it subjectively. Their confrontation with nature's secrets fills them with a sense of nature's grandeur and minuteness. As is true of all creative activity, their discoveries testify to the preeminence of uncertainty and change. They call into play the similarities that exist between equations and similes, at least in their capacity to provide insights. Reason and analysis may teach us how to separate and classify discrete objects. But at its highest levels, knowledge occurs when new relationships are revealed by the joining of disparate objects or concepts: Juliet and the sun, energy and mass. The presence of wonder or bewilderment is no more appropriate in Romeo's discovery of Juliet by identifying her with a star than in Einstein when he squares the speed of light to transform mass into energy. The persistence of the Sublime in contemporary science writing brings it perilously close to art in its representation of reality, and with similar consequences. In both cases, the first shock that attends our recognition of the immense differences which exist between our condition as finite subjects and the enormity and complexity of the universe leads us to realize, if we follow its implications, that we are attracted not by alien characteristics, but by abiding correspondences.
In a Turner painting, to use one illustration, the sense of the infinite and the blurring of boundaries are often accompanied by blinding light. One might sense from the impact of his landscapes how the confusion that immediately strikes us in viewing them because of the indistinctness of objects ultimately resolves itself into a rich and powerful experience. Turner's art, it can be said, overturns the confidence bred by the mechanical model of nature, including its promise of certainty and mastery of its processes. His preference for another order of reality helps us to understand better the implications of Newton's interest in alchemy or Darwin's wish to share music with the plants. Newton's own observations on the mechanical model of nature are as thoroughly documented as they have been ignored. Though he accepted mechanistic explanations as valid for the behavior of particular natural phenomena, the totality of nature remained for him more than the sum of its parts (Westfall 118f.). That which Newton sought in alchemy and the Book of Revelations was what he found missing in the mechanical model, namely the presence of that mysterious intelligence which informed and moved matter. The fact that he could not accept a dead or aimless universe implies that the search for scientific truth was never separated in him from a larger quest for spiritual meaning. Looking back from our present perpective, it is strange to discover that this first expression of dissatisfaction with a mechanistic paradigm came from the man who is most responsible for its widespread acceptance and popularity.
On deeper examination, however, Newton's response shows itself to be all but inevitable. Cohen's discussion of the Principia offers a clear explanation of Newton's views concerning his work:
In the concluding General Scholium to the Principia (second edition, 1713), Newton stated unequivocally that the "system of the world" based on his science was in itself a proof of the existence and action of an "intelligent and powerful being" who "governs all things." And in a famous letter to Bentley, Newton said that when he wrote the Principia, he "had an Eye on such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief in a Deity." "Nothing," he said, "can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that Purpose." (Cohen 72)
It is likewise tempting to see in Newton's dissatisfaction with a purely mechanistic description of the world a sense of his own greatness as both scientist and man, or, to be more precise, that the greatness of the one was bound in his eyes to the greatness of the other. His reluctance to strip nature of anthropomorphic and anthropocentric meanings illustrates how deeply he wanted to preserve a human connection with it--to find in nature an objective correlative for that which was special to him, including his integrity as a human agent. In his study of chemistry, as Westfall tells us, he refers to the behavior of different elements in human terms: When water sinks into wood or quicksilver into metal, he calls their behavior "sociable"; water is "unsociable," however, when it does not sink into metal, as is quicksilver when it does not sink into wood (Westfall 145). Elsewhere, Westfall adopts a sexual metaphor which echoes Shakespeare's portraits of Cleopatra and Desdemona to characterize Newton's quest for a natural philosophy that would successfully engage him:
Mechanical philosophy had surrendered to his desire, perhaps too readily. Unfulfilled, he continued the quest and found in alchemy, and in allied philosophies, a new mistress of infinite variety who never seemed fully to yield. Where others cloyed she only whet the appetite she fed. Newton wooed her in earnest for thirty years. (Westfall 118)
Westfall imagines a passionate Newton, whose attempt to find in nature an unsubmissive partner cannot be divorced from his enormous capacity for wonder and discovery, and his unyielding efforts to keep that capacity alive. His struggles against the idea of a cold and alien universe, or an abject one, present themselves as refusals to accept a universe that is indifferent concerning us and the way we treat it. His quest is to preserve a central place for aspiring humanity, not merely as an aspect of nature or a witness to its processes, but as an integral sign of its majesty and grandeur--a consummation of its powers and a link with its creator. Given this portrait, his extraordinary mathematical rendering of the laws of matter is of a piece with his refusal to claim exhaustive authority for it. His position implies that the value of measurement and quantification as means of comprehending and explaining the material universe, as well as the limitation of their value, must remain subject to human judgment, which draws on principles not obedient to scientific constraints for their authority.
Newton's case is instructive in so much as it discloses the source of the disenchantment science has typically found in its renderings of the material universe. Though his crisis occurred at a time when religion was much more pertinent than now as a guide to knowledge of the world's purpose and design, it was by no means sui generis and carries serious implications for our own century. The reasons for its continuing relevance point back to the occasion of the rise of science in the seventeenth century and its ultimate aim to discover the link between spirit and matter. Implied in such a mission is the intention to save both the data of scientific research from assuming the condition of petty, insignificant details, and scientific thought itself from becoming the trivial unraveling of mechanical marvels. In the nineteenth century, scientists and naturalists often present their views in the form of "lay sermons," and much importance is given to the study of natural theology. The practice of science, especially in Victorian England, often becomes the province of clergymen. It is only more recently that science has sought to secularize itself. Nevertheless, much of contemporary science writing manifests a deep dissatisfaction with its divorce from former aspirations. One can cite Loren Eiseley as an extraordinary but representative case in point. When he complains that there "is something wrong with our world view," he refers to perspectives which either "minimize the abyss," (Eiseley 83) or attempt to "bring God into the compass of a shopkeeper's understanding" (Eiseley 24). Eiseley's attack is as much characterological as it is epistemological. He does not rest his case solely on the identification of error. That which is "wrong" with our world view, in his eyes, points back to ourselves--to something small or inadequate in our vision, which he finds shameworthy. A more recent writer claims that the question of objective knowledge in science is more ethical than epistemological (Montgomery x). In this respect both writers share the ancient Greek tendency to give error and falsehood ethical status.
One can identify in Eiseley, too, the spirit of Plato and Aristotle, who found the mechanical arts to be base, the proper pursuit of slaves, not free or wise men. The richness of the relation between epistemology and ethics emerges only insofar as both disciplines submit their findings to ideals of excellence. Hephaestos becomes an object of derision when he places his skill in the service of his resentment to help him expose Aphrodite's infidelity. The subtle net he devises to catch her at her indiscretions with Ares does not alter the feelings of the other gods, who would gladly have her still, in spite of the embarrassment it might cost them (Homer, The Odyssey 8. 266-367). Hephaestos's tricks may serve the practical purpose he sets for them; ultimately, however, they diminish not only the uses of his wit, but the stature of righteous indignation. To expose Aphrodite and Ares in their passion can neither define nor encompass it. Consequently, Hephaestos can only amuse his peers. In a sense he becomes the butt of his own nasty prank. By contrast, Eiseley opposes the minimalization of reality to engage in "the most enormous extension of vision" (Eiseley 46). His rejection of the Baconian mandate of objectivity draws from his wish to speak out from his "own wilderness" to discover "what marvels are to be observed there" (Eiseley 13).
Consistently, Eiseley seeks to preserve a sense of nature's mystery, while he examines its capacity to maintain continuity through change across great distances of time and space. In so doing, he places in the foreground of his thought life's awe-inspiring magnitude (57). Consistently, he remains present and accounted for in his observations. The connection of self and world is kept intact through the author's invocation of the Sublime: his inner "wilderness" seeks in its restless explorations of the material world something akin to itself. Consistently, he defines himself against those who would advocate an approach to science that is dualistic, which resonates Newton's wish to separate himself from Descartes on the grounds that the latter's approach to knowledge is demeaning to nature (Westfall 157, 158). Eiseley's case is one among many who reexamine in their work as scientists the enduring issue of relationship between observer and observed. His effort to reestablish connections and bonds aims to satisfy the desperate need to repair debilitating wounds and breaks. It also obscures the distinction between observation and creative perception, which Longinus identifies as an indication of the soul's nobility in its confrontation with nature's grandeur (Longinus 108, 109).
In more recent writers the interest in Chaos and the contention that chance and accident play significant roles in nature's behavior departs from a perspective which would rely on the conception of the material universe as a predictable clockwork machine. James Gleick's book on Chaos is subtitled Making a New Science. One of the author's suppositions is that the presence of Chaos suggests a creative energy in nature, one that resists rote repetition in the pursuit of variation and newness (Gleick 308f.). Gleick's book pays tribute to the energy he discusses not merely by reporting it, but by participating in it on the personal level. His purpose as writer is to alter and expand our perspective--to make a new science is part of fulfilling his own humanity. For him, Chaos influences not only the way we do mathematics, or apply that science to explain the behavior of matter; it colors the way we look at life itself, and by implication, the way we speak on its behalf (Gleick 5). Many contemporary writers of science share frankly with Eiseley and Gleick their openness to surprise and mystery and give preeminence to nature's life-giving and life-sustaining secrets--those qualities which consistently resist human prediction and control. Often they include in their work appeals to shock or surprise.
In the Preface to The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins says, "I want to inspire the reader with a vision of our own existence as ... a spine-chilling mystery" (Dawkins x). In order to accomplish his ends, he appeals to the reader's "imagination to escape from the prison of familiar timescale" (xii). In Fernand Hallyn's recent book on Copernicus and Kepler, there is an effort to link scientific explanations of the world, especially as they apply to astronomy, with the pursuit of beauty. The title of Hallyn's book is The Poetic Structure of the World. The affiliation of science and poetry is especially poignant in Dawkins, whose language is rich in imagery and metaphor. For this reason, his writing can be cited as an example of the paradox and irony that attends the representation of external reality in much of modern scientific discourse--a clear statement of the ways in which the pursuit of science compares with other creative human enterprises. Occasionally, he will catch himself at his rhetorical flourishes and beg forgiveness for his unscientific language (Dawkins, Selfish Gene 38,45). Nevertheless, the images and metaphors keep coming in great abundance to the inestimable benefit of writer and reader alike. It is impossible to imagine that Dawkins could equal his extraordinary discussion of how bats process sound with a language stripped of rhetorical tropes, analogy and connotation (Watchmaker; ch. 2). His willingness to share his linguistic concerns with us by frequently bringing them to our attention serves to intensify a drama in which the dictates of reason and professional propriety keep losing out to his imagination and irrational drives. Since the result represents a creative feat of substantial value, the author's disregard of the rational and professional constraints he cites (and ostensibly honors) expands our appreciation of his scientific achievement. Not only does he open up to us the wonders of a bat's hearing; he discloses, as well, the need to find a language which will successfully render his perception of the external world. Since it is his whole person which must be engaged in the enterprise--not only the hearing of bats--the full range of comic and tragic possibilities present themselves as inevitable, and perhaps treacherous, aspects of his knowing. The range of his experience outdistances that which would be available to the detached and impartial specialist he presumably would like to be. Metaphor acquires the condition of necessity similar to that of the senses themselves, or the passions and emotions--and with the same urgent poignancy. Overall, the result approximates Longinus's preference for flawed greatness over mediocre perfection (Longinus 143,144). The possibility that Dawkins may misstate his case, or be misunderstood, is constantly present in his discourse. The accomplishment of his purpose comes about only if his audience can compound their interest in his subject with an appreciation of his daring and intensity in addressing it. Our willingness to find fault with his stylistic indiscretions must share place with the feeling that we have been significantly transformed by the greatness of his achievement. His apologies and warnings offer crucial insights about our need to construe reality out of language, at the same time that it draws us closer to his vision. In addressing him, we can learn as much about the perilous wonders of knowing as we can about the perilous wonders that attend the hearing of bats.
Dawkins is one case of many that could be cited to illustrate how deeply the Sublime has entered into scientific discourse with enormous consequences. As is true in his case, the range of its influence includes the use of language itself, more specifically the management of style, which realizes a condition far different from that of a tool, or surface coloring: attributes appropriate in a mechanistic view of the world. A context is generated which requires expression that at once expands and confounds our commonplace tendency to seek predictability in the world, much in the way that Burke and Longinus have argued. In his treatise on the Sublime, Burke equates a "clear idea" with a "little idea" (Burke 58). Longinus identifies figures of speech as one of the sources of Sublimity (Longinus 108). For both writers the presence of grand and noble conceptions calls for a language which escapes the demands of purely utilitarian goals. The importance of such distinctions for science writing becomes clear once one admits that stylistic choices cannot be understood simply as attention getters, strategies for winning converts, or aids to comprehension for readers not familiar with scientific terminology: appropriate observations, once more, for a mechanistic model of life. Certain contemporary critics of science writing, such as David A. Stone and David Locke, discuss style as more than a cosmetic overlay of meaning or a set of strategies for reaching specifically targeted audiences. For Stone there is in the current popularization of science a more comprehensive goal than preaching "the doctrines of scientific culture" to the masses (Stone 306). Locke argues, as do others (See Beer; chs. 1 and 3), that meaning is not merely transmitted through language, but is constituted by it (Locke 200f).
The bypassing of clear and small purposes, to paraphrase Burke, for less accessible and more comprehensive ones can be understood as it applies to science writing only if we examine it in connection with the ideals of the Sublime, and only if we address the values which such ideals can provide for scientific discourse. Once one perceives in such discourse consistent efforts to restore to nature as an object of contemplation the mysterious greatness and terrifying strangeness it lost when science separated itself from religion and superstition, and chose instead a mechanical model of mathematical precision and clockwork predictability, one is left to question the purpose of such efforts. One might argue in this context that the presence of frequent appeals to the Sublime exists as a reminder that the mystery and terror that once were attributable to religious and superstitious beliefs are in reality enduring aspects of our subjective lives which are worthy of cultivation. Yet for science writing an unqualified concession to such views could leave the search for truth completely within the domain of human psychology. A much richer approach offers itself, however, if we consider the wedding of the Sublime to science historically, as a manifestation of science's long-standing wish to serve some greater cause than calculation and measurement, without, however, dispensing with them. Langford, for instance, associates Milton's epics and Newton's optics as sources of inspiration "for the scientific school of the sublime" (Langford 280). The motives which led Robert Boyle in the seventeenth century to write science in the vernacular (as Dante before him had similarly chosen to write his great religious epic), reemerge though substantially modified in Stephen Jay Gould's decision to write for the popular press. Both Boyle and Gould would promote righteousness of motive in the writing of science (as Dante would for the writing of poetry). Boyle contends that the discovery of "Footsteps and Impressions" which follows from a careful and honest examination of the material universe serves to increase our appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of God's creation (Cohen 127), while Gould consistently identifies the ignorance of science (particularly of Darwinian science) and the refusal to address its sometimes disconcerting truths as manifestations of human arrogance.
In this context, the comparisons that I have been making between the writing of science and poetry grow more expansive in their implications. One might cite the epic poet's invocation as illustration. By calling on the Muse, the poet admits the need for inspiration to elevate him above his ordinary everyday self to assume a stature which will enable him to realize the greatness of his enterprise. That transformation expresses itself in his choice of both subject and language; even the urgency of tone which informs his invocation carries special importance. Content and speech, matter and form become indistinguishable; together they identify the poet's calling and manifest his special understanding, just as surely as they comprise his poem. The existence of the poem itself assumes that the Muse has answered his call. The poet has been given a special stature, one assumes, not granted to everyone. His authority as guide and teacher cannot be divorced from its otherworldly origins. The interaction of gods and humans, the visits to the under-world, reinforce in the poet's subject matter the essential part played by the wonderful and the terrible in the accomplishment of his purpose. In order to be edified, his audience must share in his access to events and personages, ideals and concepts, far removed from the commonplace. In a similar way, Moses comes down from the mountain not only to bear God's glorious law, but to embody his anger, as well. The juxtaposition of leader and followers in the biblical narrative suggests that the truth is not given to us as a pleasant or friendly reinforcement of our wishes and expectations, which are represented by the predictable, though contemptible behavior of the Israelites. Its truth appeals to aspects of our subjective life that presumably go much deeper than the indulgence of greed, lust and idolatry can fathom.
My argument here is not that science is identical to religion or epic poetry, any more than epic poetry and religion are identical to each other. It is rather that the presence of the Sublime in science suggests that the way we know the world is inseparable from the selves we assume to construe it. The truth pursued by the scientist, like that of the artist or religious seer, must remain relational, contextual and ongoing. The language used to communicate truth can never assume the condition of a transparent sign, any more than can sounds in music or colors in painting. This is true even in everyday speech in which a word, such as chair must resist the tyranny of having its meaning confined to the designation of objects we sit on, or its grammatical status limited to that of a noun. It would be not only futile, but wrongheaded, as well, to remove the anthropomorphic associations from Darwin's use of the term "natural selection," which amazes us much more readily than it offers a clear explanation of the processes it identifies. Nature, as Darwin represents it, defies reification. Even its blind purposelessness becomes a splendid example of its capacity to act magnificently without the benefit of conscious planning or teleology. It does something analogous to what we do when we make choices, but without the aid of thought.
In Heisenberg's explanation of the uncertainty principle, subatomic particles act as if they "knew" they were being watched, since electrons alter either their momentum or position when they are being tracked. The amazement occasioned by Heisenberg's discovery relies in part on the association it calls up between the behavior of inanimate objects and conscious volition. One is hard put on hearing of it to discount the possibility that other studied phenomena respond similarly to investigation, and that some extraordinary network of befuddling and perhaps intractable relationships connects us to the external world. The message it brings us obviates the possibility of some final and authoritative knowledge of nature's processes and behavior. Knowledge remains provisional. We know incompletely according to our preference for object and perspective. Heisenberg's experiment mimics not only the world it seeks to explain but the way in which knowledge must be designed, so that it realizes the condition of equation or simile. The refusal of particles to stay put, or to accommodate our wishes to oversee their behavior, has mythical analogues; though their response to our efforts to know them seemingly carries none of the retaliatory violence demonstrated by Diana when she discovers that Actaeon has seen her undressed (Ovid 3. 173f). just the same, there is an emotional content to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which connects it to timeless narratives concerning knowledge, detection, secrecy and revenge: stories that reflect our need to know and our fear of it. Unmediated knowledge would leave us speechless, as is Actaeon once Diana transforms him into a stag, or completely destroyed, as is the case when Actaeon's dogs tear him to pieces.
Ultimately, Heisenberg's scientific observation takes on a life of its own, which carries beyond the reach or control of the specific experiment which generated it, principally because of the analogy it evokes between living and non-living matter, between conscious and unconscious nature. Heisenberg's identification of the curious behavior of subatomic matter under certain conditions demonstrates, among other things, that science often must bypass logic and common sense to bring its findings to the world. Traditionally the disorientation that usually accompanies such methods has been explained simply as part of what happens when one set of perceptions is exchanged for another. In such cases, the aesthetic ideals of scientists, when acknowledged at all, are given no more than an incidental place in the process. They may be recognized as providing inspiration, as with Kepler, for instance. That inspiration is seen, nevertheless, as something distinct and separate from the scientific value of the discovery.
In addressing such reversals of thought, however, it is impossible to overlook the presence of a longing for transformation, a need to remystify the world. In our time, the dissatisfaction generated by the mechanical model of nature cannot be extrapolated from the enormous energy spent at revising that model. The pursuit of a new science, to paraphrase Gleick, seems aimed at raising the world from a dead mechanical existence, as if by magic. The excitement produced by such goals is, as Longinus tells us, something different from empty emotionalism, since it discloses instead the heightened awareness of a superior mind in possession of superior knowledge (Longinus; chs. 2,3,7,8). Grandeur must be experienced, felt, intimated, intuited. It cannot be deduced, nor can it be controlled. The knowledge it offers is not of law, or only incidentally so, but rather of excess, boundlessness, infinity, uniqueness. In addressing the Sublime, whether or not the world makes sense becomes less an issue than the hold it extends over the observer. Similarly, the greatness attributed to the material universe requires less the existence of a creator than a capacious and receptive consciousness to witness it. The Sublime allows us to be overwhelmed without falling into abject submission. It encourages us to engage nature on its own terms and celebrate its independence from human things in order to bring it closer to us, since in celebrating it we honor those things we most admire in ourselves.
When Darwin goes to South America to collect, study and classify data, he leaves himself open to the spellbinding power of its landscapes and living forms. His scientific vision and purpose are fueled by the participation of the emotions and imagination in his work, which inform his powerful reconceptualization of nature. It is no accident that the effect of his thought has been to overthrow human complacency, especially when one considers that he attacked the notion of our special preeminence in a system both rationally ordered and providentially designed. The Sublime not only serves him as an emotional support and a justifying principle for the disorientation, anxiety and fear he creates in many of his readers. It also provides him with a model of nature to put in place of the one he disassembles, and a basis for reestablishing a new relationship with his readers on grounds more substantial than the comfortable and reassuring illusions he rejects. Like many of the modern science writers who have followed in his footsteps, Darwin aspires after a union and integrity, a remarriage of humanity and environment, mind and heart, speaker and audience, against the sense of isolation perpetrated by earlier science with its mechanical model of nature and its ideal of the scientist as impartial and passive recorder. In order to affect such an aim, however, he must abjure the pursuit of safe and secure standards and ideals, at the same time that he pursues attachment and continuity.
Tradition remains active in Darwin and in many current science writers as a signature of this continuity. Gould's portrayal of the demise of the Irish Elk in Ever Since Darwin draws on conditions familiar to tragic literature (Gould 79-90). Though he does not follow slavishly an accepted formula for tragedy, or provide us with new versions of Oedipus or Lear, his treatment of the Elk's fall from supremacy warrants the quotation from Horace which concludes his essay: Sic transit gloria mundi. (90). Often in Gould it is difficult to differentiate between his speaking for nature and his speaking for himself, or, to put it in his terms, between speaking for humans and speaking "for the trees" (14). It is difficult, as well, to deny in him an effort to explore the terms on which a science of nature is possible. The sense of tradition is deeply embedded in his writing, not only of literature, the arts and popular culture (his love of baseball and Groucho Marx is legendary), but of science and scientists, as well. In the Prologue to Ever Since Darwin he speaks of how "Scientists, as ordinary human beings, unconsciously reflect in their theories the social and political constraints of their times" (15). To be a scientist is to be connected with the rest of humanity. That connection is all the more sturdy and binding because of its precariousness. Like the poet, the scientist must often engage his audience in shocking or disorienting ways.
Gould's sense of the scientist's participation in culture consistently informs his effort to preserve a sense of nature's mysterious greatness in the very process of demolishing sacred cows. He brings the Irish Elk close to us, after all, by casting it in the role of tragic hero. His attacks on conventional religion, moral pieties and other social mores which presume some special place for humans in the scheme of nature bring us face to face with one of the inevitable consequences of invoking the Sublime. That which at first appears to focus on human insignificance becomes on close examination an appeal to the intellectual courage of his readers, since it calls for their willingness to entertain disquieting truths. In Ever Since Darwin, he identifies the matricide of the cecidomian gall midges during parthenogenic reproduction as "organic wisdom" (91). The violation here of basic human values which are founded on the bond that presumably exists in all of nature between mother and offspring works to transform naive and comforting assessments of life by joining the experience of love with terror and ecstasy. "Greater love hath no woman," says Gould of the sacrificial death of the mother flies (92). His projection of human ideals onto the behavior of insects is subsequently compounded by his parody of Biblical rhetoric, so that he is able to reaffirm the significance of cherished human experiences at the same time that he creates ambivalent feelings about them, or at least their application. In place of moral and intellectual security, we are given an association between human experience and the rest of nature that begs for further expansion, though it shocks and frightens us. In human birth, too, under certain circumstances, the foetus will kill the mother to preserve its own life. Consistently in his writing, Gould saves the phenomena he examines by making it difficult to set human standards against the rest of nature, or to give them a simple and exclusive authority. Consistently, too, he challenges conventional notions of limitation and constraint, such as those invoked by Thomas Henry Huxley, who argues that civilization must be built on values that oppose the workings of nature (Huxley 81f.). Appeals to the Sublime in Gould encourage, instead, disaffection for the clearly established boundaries that we have by habit come to trust and admire as byproducts of our presumed superiority.
One can detect in this process of debunking false assumptions concerning our natural preeminence the wish to generate a new sense of human greatness. Anthropomorphic and anthropocentric patterns of thought remain firmly in place, but without their traditional justifications. Our uniqueness is no longer perceived as a matter of transcendence, but the result of our bond with the material universe, a condition we share with thousands of other life forms. Life's meaning and seriousness remain central concerns in the study of nature both as a source of contemplation and an arena of action. By preserving anthropocentric and anthropomorphic perspectives, we insure a place for meaning in our thought. We avoid, as well, the dread that accompanies our sense of alienation from a mechanical world, which leaves the grounds for meaning barren, and promotes an aura of contempt. There can be nothing of enduring worth in the world we inhabit, if there is no more to it than a compilation of petty or trivial details, no matter how numerous or complex; nor can there be anything of importance in the alienation that we feel, if we are determined instruments of it. On the other hand, once we see as bogus those characterizations of natural processes, including the various aspects of our subjective lives, as totally predictable, we are free to view the gloomy picture they paint as shallow. The aim at parsimoniousness that attends the elimination of joy, ecstasy, sorrow, despair and other such words as accurate descriptions of our feelings, and the replacement of them with energized, enervated, depressed, stable, unstable can be seen likewise as cynical and therefore feeble notions, which lack both scope and integrity. There is a monumental difference between a creature that is sorrowful or in despair and one that is depressed. The implication that follows from such evaluations, namely that our lives and our world have been purged of aesthetic and ethical significance, can be viewed likewise as either contradictory or hypocritical, since the stature to judge authoritatively on such matters requires something more and other than a mechanical measuring apparatus.
Perhaps it is excessive to argue that appeals to the Sublime protect against such contradictions or hypocrisy. Nevertheless, it is interesting to examine the approach of many science writers from such a perspective. Each text they produce reflects clearly the responsibility of an individual consciousness, aversion of the world which bears the stamp of their particular person. The repudiation of superhuman status or authority implied in their approach may seem at first an expression of humility and an admission of limitations--the sense of smallness and insignificance that first attends our experience of the Sublime. On closer examination, however, one discovers something quite different. Each writer's effort to expose her humanity is inseparable from the desire to display it. The point is to preserve something of inestimable value in place of an illusion concerning the scientific observer which is weak and ineffectual, namely that she is the passive receptacle and impartial transmitter of truth. Given this position, the scientist as writer must engage a difficult task, much in the manner of Carlyle's writer as hero, whose mission is to pronounce the mystery of life and defend its greatness and value out of his personal resources. Such a writer, according to Carlyle, participates in a divine venture, not through the realization of transcendence, but rather because the divinity he speaks of is natural in the sense that it comes from within as part of the order of the material world which has made his life and his person possible (Carlyle 135). Lewis Thomas is closer to Carlyle's hero and to Keats in "Ode to a Nightengale" than to the ornithologists when he discusses birdsong. His emphasis on the importance of music in living nature represents a response to the world which requires an expansion of our capacity to participate in a reality no longer easily accessible to conceptualization. It is no longer sufficient, as Thomas sees it, to think of the thrush's song simply as a mechanism by which the male stakes out territory to attract mates for the purpose of warning off competitors in the ritual of mating and reproduction. Singing becomes rather an expression of natural powers in birds, which links them to other music-making creatures, including whales and humans. Thomas thinks of the thrush as constantly playing variations on tunes for his own enjoyment (Thomas 25). That enjoyment answers for him, as well as any other explanation, questions of purpose or design.
By bringing the singing of the thrush closer to human song, Thomas dispenses with the usual distinction made between human and animal behavior. One finds in his writing a consistent departure from a reductionist materialism. The concrete world as he characterizes it once more beckons us to participate imaginatively and emotionally in its processes. By rejecting the claims of a tired model, he is able to discredit other distinctions, such as those which would insist on a clear differentiation in thought between discovery and projection. Instead, he seeks an identification of mind and object. The power of his understanding does not express itself as a capacity to possess the objects of his contemplation or to manipulate them. He is able, rather, to capture for us the hold such objects exert over him, and to identify the basis he finds for exploring his relationship with them. Often when Thomas discusses animals and insects (one thinks, especially of his fascination with ants), his writing approaches the condition of allegory, fable or parable. His discourse shares with those genres both didactic purpose and method, since he habitually draws lessons pertinent to the human condition. An appreciation for grandeur and majesty is linked in him with a respect for intricate and harmonious design. Thomas's science, therefore, is intimate with the Sublime both in the value it attributes to wonder in the process of understanding, and in the connections he fosters between his extensive knowledge of the world and his aesthetic and ethical ideals.
Thomas's writing serves as an excellent illustration of the abiding interest that is shared by science and the Sublime in establishing a compelling version of nature, including our appropriate place in it. His work can serve, as well, as can that of many current science writers, to counter views of the Sublime that would discredit its value, not merely as a mis-guided surrender to the emotions, but as a corrupting influence on knowledge. A powerful indictment occurs in John Stuart Mill's essay entitled "Nature," where the author challenges the aesthetics of the Sublime on the grounds that it celebrates nature's magnitude, extension and power over moral and intellectual qualities (Mill, "Nature" 324). Experiences of the Sublime, Mill argues, fail to improve either our intelligence, or our spiritual and social values. We are overcome, rather, by a response to the material world which leaves us befuddled or stupefied. Despite the focus of Mill's attack, his position reveals how deeply he valued an aesthetic approach to nature which successfully integrates with other disciplines, including natural and social philosophy, the sciences, psychology and ethics. His rejection of the Sublime, in fact, rests on the assumption that an irrevocable connection exists between our representations of nature and our spiritual condition. Because the Sublime moves the emotions away from our moral and intellectual faculties, Mill contends, it threatens the cultivation of those traits most expressive of what is best in our humanity.
Mill's reasoning in defense of his position is compelling. Yet there emerges an underside to his thought that reveals an esteem for values more capacious than those accessible to rational or utilitarian analysis--those very values that the Sublime would supersede. The tribute he pays to Wordsworth's poetry as an invaluable contributor to his psychic rehabilitation is well known (Mill, Autobiography 103f.). Less publicized is his praise of music for the enthusiasm it excites and for its capacity to elevate the feelings to a "high pitch" (Autobiography 101). So deep was music's effect on him, in fact, that he was "tormented" by the fear that "musical combinations" could be exhausted and its mysteries dispelled (Autobiography 102). In his political thought, his rigorous defense of individual freedom relies on his extraordinary sensitivity to personal uniqueness and its importance in the establishment of a just and fulfilling social order. Like Huxley, Mill saw civilization as the triumph of conscious design over brute nature. Nevertheless, there is a side of him that construes order so as to defy easy or logical predictability. His famous remark concerning the inadequacy of his carefully nourished utilitarianism to provide him with happiness is deeply revealing, since it assumes that there are dimensions to our subjective lives that cannot be contained or fulfilled by practical, quantifiable, calculated designs (94). The need to preserve an important place for the irrational remains an essential component of Mill's thought, though he often discredits it and struggles against its influence.
At some level, therefore, Mill must renounce the boundaries of purely rational values to state himself accurately and successfully. In many respects, he experiences as an individual that spiritual crisis which Gay claims visited the age of enlightenment, namely that "Fear of change" began to give way to "fear of stagnation" (Gay 3). Although in his attack of the Sublime, Mill promotes the intellect and reason over other faculties, the importance he gives to our conceptualizations of nature, which generate for him a morality either of cowardice or nobility, cannot be appreciated through logical analysis alone, or without contributions from the imagination, emotions and ethical faculties. Nor can such conceptualizations be resolved without reference to the awe and fear that inevitably accompany them. Taken in its entirety, Mill's position is wonderfully paradoxical, since it discloses his own sensitivity to nature's might, and reaffirms our need to shape our experience of it with intellectual and moral integrity. In stating his case, he consistently brushes against values that are commonplace in studies of the Sublime. Monk, for instance, speaks of the "india-rubber soul of the eighteenth-century philosopher, stretching and shrinking with a dreary monotony" (Monk 142). In Burke's treatise on the Sublime, he contrasts grand or commanding conceptions of nature's might with those manifestations of strength that are useful, agreeable or subject to our will (Burke 61). For Burke, ideas of pain and danger, and "whatever is in any sort terrible," are sources of the Sublime (Burke 36).
The relationship of such ideas to much current science writing is not only readily apparent, but suggests a similarity of purpose and sensibility. One finds in many popular texts on science affinities with observations in Kant's Analytic of the Sublime where the author finds ethical and spiritual significance in our response to might.
The man that is actually in a state of fear, finding in himself good reason to be so, because he is conscious of offending with his evil disposition against a might directed by a will at once irresistible and just, is far from being in the frame of mind for admiring divine greatness, for which a temper of calm reflection and a quiet free judgement are required. Only when he becomes conscious of having a disposition that is upright and acceptable to God, do those operations of might serve to stir within him the idea of the sublimity of this Being, so far as he recognizes the existence in himself of a sublimity of disposition constant with His will, and is thus raised above the dread of such operations of nature, in which he no longer sees God's pouring forth the vials of the wrath. (Kant 113, 114)
Kant's emphasis in this passage on the transcendent source and supernatural aspects of the Sublime does not diminish from the importance of the connection he makes on the human level between fear and awe and the opportunity for nobility of spirit and courage. The fear which makes us incapable of appreciating God's might, as Kant sees it, fosters cowardice, because it is morally bankrupt, and must be differentiated from a courageous acknowledgement of the Sublime. One could compare a contemporary writer such as Prigogine, who, without Kant's appeals to a divine source of might, addresses similar issues when he speaks of our modern sense of alienation from nature. Citing Monod, he focuses on that writer's description of contemporary humanity's anxiety in the face of a frighteningly immense universe (Prigogene and Stengers 22, 23). Rather than back off from Monod's appeal to terror, or retreat into a more stable order, Prigogine states his preference for a model of the universe different from the eighteenth-century's clock or the nineteenth-century's slowly deteriorating engine-and one that would include its terrors. His preferences include the Chinese concept of a spontaneous, self-organizing world, and those represented in objects of Indian or pre-Columbian art, especially representations of the dancing Shiva (Prigogene and Stengers 22, 23). Though he acknowledges the crushing impact of human alienation from the material universe, as Monod describes it, and though he writes without Kant's concept of an all-powerful but just deity, he sees in our modern confrontation with infinity the opportunity for a relationship that both unsettles us and appeals to our deepest spiritual resources.
Sympathy with nature's grandeur is not necessarily, as Mill would suggest, the capitulation of moral integrity to force and might. There is present in it, rather, an elevation of the spirit which denotes individual excellence. When Thomas Weiskel argues that the "sublime response saves our humanity from `humiliation,'" he reasserts a perspective that goes as far back as Longinus, since to be saved from "humiliation" in Weiskel's sense requires our refusal to serve the appealing demands of safety, comfort and wordly possessions (Weiskel 95), those demands most inimical to an experience of the Sublime. In current science writing, discontent with the ideal of a passive observer carries with it similar implications. Moving passages on both the grandeur and minuteness in nature refer back to the observer in ways that insist on careful observation and breadth of vision-preciseness and magnitude of perception. In following that ideal they draw from Darwin, who returns from his voyage on the Beagle transformed by a painful but liberating experience. His changed taste in landscapes discloses a preference for designs which do not conform to traditional notions of beauty and symmetry, harmony and balance. In his Retrospect, he touts the South American scenic splendors above those in Europe most famous for their beauty. It is not thinkable," he says, "that one could stand "unmoved" in the forests of these "intertropical zones," or "not feel" amidst their primeval sublimity "that there is more in man than the mere breadth of his body" (Darwin 500). It is their "grandeur (500), he asserts, which gives "free scope" to the "imagination" (501).
Similarly, when Darwin counts or quantifies, it is done in the service of a vision that often promotes the values of plenitude and extension. Such is the case when he discusses the Doris sea slug. Its "six hundred thousand eggs," he tells us, are each "three-thousandths of an inch in diameter" (Darwin 201 fn). Here number and measurement contribute to our sense of nature's inexhaustible fecundity, as well as its astoundingly intricate workmanship. Elsewhere in describing stone pilings on the Falkland Islands, he compares them to some "vast and ancient cathedral" (197). The wonder he excites here and elsewhere incorporates our appreciation for temporal and spatial magnitude. Quantification and measurement in his use of them consistently struggle against reductionist constraints. The aids they offer to human understanding are not accessible to the impartial or detached observer. Instead, they help produce a version of reality which consistently surprises and shocks, and occasionally even stupefies. The effect, however, is not to frustrate knowledge or defeat the aspiration after truth, but rather to stagger the imagination into greater feats of discovery. His appeal to the Sublime expands and intensifies the terms of relationship which he establishes between himself and his environment, himself and his audience. Capaciousness of spirit and close scrutiny of external reality become the basis of heroic knowledge, as well as heroic participation and sharing. Even his style, so often berated for its awkwardness, shows itself on close examination to be the perfect medium for his purposes, since it arouses and excites our interest by continually departing from those rhetorical directives which promote clarity, balance, proportion. Through the agency of syntax we are taught how to move through uncertain patterns and designs without the assistance of a stable, reassuring formula. Rather than complain of the flaws in his style, I think, it would be more to the purpose to contrast the patterns in his syntax with those of writers who promote different values and endorse a different vision of things, such as, say, Gibbon, or Swift.
Seen in this context, Darwin's interest in whether or not plants can hear bassoons is no more strange or curious than his use of "fitness" and "natural selection" to describe the workings of nature. At these moments his thought aspires after the condition of poetry, or to be more precise, to join science with philosophy and poetry, in a way that recalls Lucretius, and suggest a similar set of influences. As words that describe natural processes, selection and fitness confuse both our normal associations and our confidence in logical consistency. Nature acts randomly, yet in doing so she realizes the condition of artist and engineer. Her achievements can be rendered only in language which at some point departs from the strict demands of impartial physical description. Fitness, after all, denotes a quality, not a material substance. Selection carries with it as a concept connotations of conscious choice and volition. Taken together the two terms obliterate the boundaries which presumably divide mind and matter. Final and supernatural causes are now submerged completely within the realm of the material universe, which is able to carry on its stupendous business without conscious planning or control. Reverence for nature is encouraged without the hope of its offering us a sanctuary or preeminent status from which to judge its behavior.
As I see it, Darwin does not mean to discredit scientific explanations of the material universe which rely on calculation, measurement, and quantification; nor would Kepler, Newton or Einstein. Such explanations, however, leave us with woefully inadequate accounts of our efforts to understand the world around us: Consider in this context Kepler's desire to hear the music of the spheres, or the tradition of dancing for rain among the American Indians. Certainly one cannot appeal in any rational way to cause/effect relations in order to establish a connection between humans dancing and the presence or absence of rain. It is a simple case of culturally indoctrinated superstition, as is Kepler's wish to attach music to planetary motion, which from a commonsensical point of view tells us nothing about the disposition of bodies in space. Still, one hears a preeminent contemporary man of science speak in the following way about birdsong:
If, as I believe, the urge to make a kind of music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, there ought to be an explanation for it. Having none at hand, I am free to make one up. (Thomas 27)
One knows, of course, that there are explanations "at hand" for why male birds sing--and that Lewis Thomas knows them. Birdsong has been explained as a means for males to stake out territory and attract females for the sake of mating. In this way they compete with other males for the possession of females in order to pass on their characteristics to the next generation. These explanations, however, do not settle matters to Thomas's satisfaction (25). In the spirit of probing and debate, he continues:
The rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else--an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate, random matter in chaos into the improbable ordered dance of living forms. (27)
Citing Morowitz, Thomas carries his discussion of music into the realm of thermodynamics. The steady flow of energy from the sun creates conditions which "mathematically" "destine" the earth to organize matter "into an increasingly ordered state" (27). In a non-equilibrium state it is "inevitable" that matter will be arranged "into symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation" (27, 28). Here we see present with a vengeance the celebration of improbable power combined with the fear of stagnation, as is the case in Beethoven's late piano sonatas and string quartets.
Thomas's references to music and his reliance on musical terms to express the behavior of matter here urge us to address carefully the connotations and implications of his language. One needs to decide, after all, whether his words constitute a cosmetic overlay of thought (perhaps an attempt to get those who are scientifically uninitiated interested in his subject); or, whether, in the grips of his excitement over his subject, he has allowed his speech to lose touch with scientific accuracy. My own sense of the passage is that Thomas is after something more substantial than colorful talk, and that for him the relationship between music and the ordering principles of matter is deep and abiding, as it was for Kepler. His analogy, as I see it, carries stupendous biological insights, though I cannot pretend to appreciate them as a practicing biologist might. It does suggest to me, however, that the music we make as a species is inseparable from the way in which matter lives and works in us; and, moreover, that the music made by other species ties us to them in some significant way. In the context of his passage, it no longer seems sufficient to regard a rain dance simply as a misguided notion of cause/effect relationships. A more comprehensive relationship between human agency and environment is implied. The clouds, given anthropomorphic status, may agree or refuse to join the dance, as in Hindu religious thought Parvati may or may not join Shiva's dancing, according to her wishes. The dark and bright inscrutable powers of nature cannot be commanded by simple manipulation. One beckons to them, as a lover beckons to his beloved, without certainty concerning the outcome.
In Kepler's thought, mathematics serves the study of astronomy as a way of compensating for a human limitation--in his thinking, no doubt, one of the ravages of the fall--namely, our inability to hear the music of the spheres. In his astronomical calculations, numbers become an extension of the Sublime, since they restore to us as fallen creatures the capacity to appreciate God's majesty as it is manifested in the ordered movement of bodies in space. The application of mathematics to the study of matter enables us to see in nature's independence from us signs of its integrity and nobility, at the same time that it allows us to address the external world as a source of knowledge and aspiration. Similarly, the joy, love, fear, admiration, or suffering that we come to know possess didactic value and purpose. Models of nature which demean its greatness bear consequences that are at once epistemological, moral and utilitarian. In this context, a metaphor which endows clouds with thought and volition (and, therefore, with independent purpose), such as we find among those who dance for rain, seems much less misleading and harmful than one which would make those objects into mechanisms to be manipulated according to our will.
The relevance of such issues for contemporary science goes far beyond the responsibility of improving the management of our environment: poisoning of the air and water represents only the grossest and most superficial form of blindness, arrogance and stupidity which emerge as consequences of disrespect. Lewis Thomas gives a more complete picture of misguided notions of power and force in the following comments:
If I were informed tomorrow that I was in direct communication with my liver, and could now take over, I would become deeply depressed. I'd sooner be told, forty thousand feet over Denver, that the 747 jet in which I had a coach seat was now mine to operate as I pleased; at least I would have the hope of bailing out, if I could find a parachute and discover quickly how to open a door. Nothing would save me and my liver, if I were in charge. For I am, to face the facts squarely, considerably less intelligent than my liver. I am, moreover, constitutionally unable to make hepatic decisions.... (78)
In the relationship he declares here between himself and his liver, Thomas seems closer to the spirit of the American Indian than the western man of science, or, to be more precise, he seems to be introducing into scientific discourse a sensibility that engages fear and respect as essential components for understanding our place in nature. Thomas might as well be speaking here of the sun as a god or the father of our solar system, since he introduces into his discourse a poetic version of the body's processes. The result is that our assumptions about the nature of intelligence are confounded in a way that recalls the following assertion of Samuel Butler: "There is no man in the whole world who knows consciously and articulately as much as a half-hatched hen's egg knows unconsciously." (Butler 61) Thomas's position is based in part, no doubt, on experience which has shown him that livers are amazingly efficient in the way they do their business. At the same time, his fear of taking control of something that exercises extraordinary influence over his personal well-being becomes a significant disclosure, since it connects his appreciation of nature's greatness with anxiety about his own limited powers to manage it. The liver, as he portrays it, dwarfs him in stature and discloses his inadequacies--at least initially. Yet his stature as writer grows from his capacity to speak in its behalf, to endow it with superior intelligence. The same may be said of other instances where he touts other living forms as possessed of considerable might, resilience and skill. In reading his works, it is difficult not to think of him as a glorious medium of insight, rather than an impersonal transmitter of data. At all times in his writing, he seems immersed in a reality which elevates him, as it endows him with extraordinary powers of discovery.
Thomas's work, like that of so many of the current science writers, manifests its association with the Sublime by frequently bringing together without undo strain or contradiction, anxiety and confidence, pain and joy, hope and uncertainty, beauty and deformity (Monk 139). The scientist as hero leads us into the wilderness to shatter our stultifying complacencies. In this respect science writing follows the most cherished traditions of the Sublime. Darwin may shock his countrymen with views generated during his famous voyage on the Beagle, just as Burton did on his return from Africa. Both men, however, draw on values and sensibilities deeply rooted in English soil and the English imagination. One can find kindred views in Ruskin's appreciation of gothic architecture, in Beowulf and Milton, in Shakespeare and Dickens, especially as it applies to their portrayal of plenitude and the grotesque.
In more recent times, a figure such as Jane Goodall becomes legendary as a scientist by breaking down the sharp distinctions we habitually make between primitive and civilized life. Her descriptions of the friendships, matings and conflicts of the chimpanzees among whom she lived evolve into the kinds of stories we usually read about human beings. Her narratives, in fact, successfully weave the conventions of scientific discourse with those of history, biography and myth. Her monkeys become dramatic characters, complete with human names, whose destinies occasionally assume epic proportions; one associates her methods, in this respect, with those employed by Gould in his discussion of the Irish Elk. Goodall's perceptions and generalizations, as is the case with most successful storytellers, aspire after universality without losing their grasp of the concrete specificity and uniqueness of her characters. At one point, she recalls a time when she had offered a "ripe red palm nut" to a favorite chimp, David Graybeard. Both the incident itself and its implications are spellbinding. Graybeard first accepts the fruit and takes her hand before releasing both.
At that moment there was no need of any scientific knowledge to understand his communication of reassurance. The soft pressure of his fingers spoke to me not through my intellect but through a more primitive emotional channel: the barrier of untold centuries which has grown up during the separate evolution of man and chimpanzee was, for those few seconds, broken down. (Goodall 268)
The distinction that Goodall makes here between scientific and other kinds of knowledge falls away in a fortunate moment of insight. Her comment, in fact, discovers the incompleteness of science, so long as it resists the influence of other deep and expansive sources of knowledge. In the face of Goodall's experience, we are urged to ponder whether the scientist in her ever separates itself successfully from the person or the woman. Her characterization of Greybeard and the other chimpanzees she encounters, as well as her responses to them, bear her special characteristics, including those which identify and express her sex. It is her completeness, in fact, especially in the way she integrates her work as a scientist and her personal attributes, that confounds and expands our perception of the ways in which knowledge arises and establishes itself. In attending to her, we encounter an interplay of scientific acumen with aesthetic preferences, and moral aspiration. One can find in her, too, a hint of the connection which exists in Darwin between the man who investigated the possibility that plants could hear bassoons and the one who used the term selection to identify a process in nature we all believe to be unconscious. Nature's multiplicity and variety, its vastness and infinite divisibility endow the material universe with an baffling quality. To stop in our observations where logic or rational analysis offer secure or comfortable solutions would surrender interest in particularity, not only as it exists around us, but in ourselves, especially in the way we experience knowledge. The Sublime resists such concessions. It supposes, instead, the necessity and value of a feeling and subjective presence in all assessments of reality; by doing so, it poses the possibility of a meeting ground for the boundless and ineffable, as they disclose themselves alike within our persons and the external world.
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|Author:||Mistichelli, William J.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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