Science and the Profession of Literature

The language of humane reason can blend with poetry, as the Divine Comedy demonstrates impregnably, whereas the language of pure science constantly pushes toward mathematics, toward single-meaning. The strain to single-mean is what makes legal prose hard for a layman to comprehend; science’s success at single-meaning is not the least of what makes it emulsify so uncertainly with literature. I believe that it is natural for the mind to do with language as poetry does—to doublemean, hint, second-guess, fool around, sidestep, pry. The supersubtle paranoiac speaks, and thinks you speak, only in code; for him, language never means only what it seems to say; indeed, it seldom, to his way of thinking, means what it says at all. But not even this extreme doubleness is as hard for a poet to grasp as a statement—about something humanly important—which means all it says and nothing more. In this respect all men are poets when they are children, when they sleep, when they are emotionally engaged with others: most of their lives.

By midcentury, even we laymen could know, if we wished, that something odd had happened in physics, the uttermost science, and therefore to what it was saying and to its language. What with the indeterminacy principle and the substitution of probability for law and antiworlds and reverse time, it was apparent that even the most exact language of all was not sure what it was talking about. Science was no longer rationally deterministic, and after August, 1945, only a fundamentalist true-believer could hold on to his faith in science as the savior of mankind. The scientific world view had become scrambled, and the consequences of that scramble were manifestly affecting us, not in all respects for the better.

Hyperrational scientific thought is narrow, whimsical, and indifferent to our welfare; no other way we have found to warp reality has released such energy; it is hastening toward us a secularized Armageddon which it has already emptied of meaning. All the same, we need not therefore turn against reason even in its modest occasions. Science is not all of reason, though its devotees act as though it were. Reason— the establishing of firm, humane premises and the scrupulous, sequential linking of causes and effects— pairs off with imagination very happily, and with moral philosophy as well. Indeed, without a limited and limiting admixture of reason, imagination disintegrates into fancy or nightmare or turbulent sensation, and moral philosophy too easily simplifies into “might makes right,” “I want,” ME.

Even when faith in science was at its strongest, the emulsification of science in literature was uncertain; it is amusing to learn that Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola, those preachers, conceived of themselves in their realistic fictions as taking a scientific, not moral, view of the world. But now that the apocalyptic successes of science have so drastically weakened trust in it as a human good, that mixture has become volatile indeed. By science here I do not mean scientists as characters in novels a la Huxley or Snow, or the technological consequences of science as an element of the actual world mirrored in fiction, or scientific theories as subject matter for essays and for science fiction. I mean the scientific attitude toward the world, an attitude that both narrowed literary scholarship (which embraces criticism, interpretation, exegesis the more readily the less scientific it tries to be) and. through the movement called modernism, entered into the making of literature itself.

As for “scientific” literary scholarship, I doubt that any great shift in prestige will take place in literature departments for a long time, for science remains the model for learning in universities and shows few signs of losing that power. But the faith in science is waning as its social power becomes entrenched; science is the established religion, and universities are its churches.

“Modernism,” as the term is now used, generally became important with the Enlightenment and aimed to apply to the moral, spiritual, social world the rational standards and experimental skepticism of natural science. The philosophes made a movement of this attitude, a movement which the intellectuals have perpetuated. In its challenge of every authority and tradition, and in its advocacy of freedom and egalitarianism, modernism released enormous energies. For a long time, it generated a literary countertradition of great aesthetic force, with considerable moral, psychological, and political consequences.

A teacher is likely to be affected more than aesthetically by what he teaches, and I believe that the academic near-orthodoxy of rebelliousness—disaffection at least, nihilism at most—derives in part from the study of modernist literature: Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Ibsen, Joyce, Pound, early Eliot, Kafka, Genet, Beckett.

A modernist text dwells on the disorder and alienation of “Modern” experience. It is obsessed with disconnection, perversion, and diseased self-absorption (“Notes from Underground”). Formally, modernist literature has considerable trouble in unambiguously satisfying the emotional expectations it has aroused. Kafka, who could not have faked if he’d tried, famously left his two chief novels uncompleted. Flaubert in “A Simple Heart” permits us to connect with Felieite so warmly that when she comes to die. we want to grieve as we would in life, and the one scene in the story which Flaubert “builds” is the death scene. But then, in the very last words, he chokes off our tears with unkind irony: the vision of glory in her mind as she dies is of a stuffed parrot. Aestheticus interruptus, like that other kind, leaves the reader sad and soiled. Let one of the last images of conjugation in Ulysses stand for modernism’s impure gratifications: an (inadequate) husband kissing his (adulterous) wife (on the behind) as they lie in bed side by side (but also head to foot).

Modernist literature is very strong stuff, and studying it, especially if one does not have at the same time a fit regard for the equally strong and far less alienating but not so imposing traditional literature, can be unbalancing.

The Living Theater, a strictly modernist theatrical group, went to Europe for four years in self-proclaimed “exile.” (For modernists, nothing is more chic than alienation.) When they came back in 1968, they had turned into theatrical guerrillas mowing you down with anarchistic love. The “Paradise Now” which their writhing and chanting evoked suggested Eden less than Belsen.

From modernism to anarchism is too easy a step to take. From anarchism to nihilism is not much further; little more is needed for it than despair of the democratic, parliamentary process, and for that despair little more is needed than direct involvement in some of the gigantisms of our gigantistic society. From nihilism to totalitarianism, for those who want to take it—balked Utopists, the brutal, the very impatient—is hardly a step at all.

Meantime, rebellion is in.

When the designers of rebellious fashions put up Ché Guevara as a model for the American young, he caught on instantly. Having overthrown one wicked oppressor, he had been thrillingly thwarted from victory over another oppressor almost as bad by agents of the most devious oppressor in the world—us: martyred hero with fatigues and beard. But, I suspect, no less important to his apotheosis as the fad rebel was the unmentioned quality of his failures. First he, an Argentinian, failed to exercise the authority he had seized in Cuba, and then he failed in his attempt to impose a revolution on Bolivians who had not asked for one and who perhaps, if they ever got around to wanting one at all, would prefer to make it themselves. Our age has provided us with more martyrs than we can use; Ché is low on my list of those to revere. I think ill of a man who refuses to fulfill the heavy responsibilities imposed upon him by the success of his revolution but who substitutes imperialism for legitimate authority—an imperialism of revolution, to be sure, yet no less offensive for being socialistic and secular rather than capitalistic and Christian. As for Ché’s cultists, they are less lunatic and less unsavory than the cultists of martyred John Birch, but rather more ludicrous, and in the long run about equally dangerous—not very.

I heard of an undergraduate in an Ivy League shop who asked to see what they had in the way of Ché Guevara outfits, preferably in olive drab. When he found just what he wanted, he asked the clerk, “But don’t you have it in wash-and-wear?”

I also have heard of a state university political science department that offers a major with emphasis on revolutionary movements, including a three-credit course in guerrilla warfare, two hours a week in the classroom and four hours a week “in the field.”

“Join the Dodge Rebellion”—a mass-media advertising slogan.

But “guerrilla theater” antics, whether politically serious like the Alice-in-Wonderland trial of the eight Chicago “conspirators” or symbolically troubling like the Living Theater’s propaganda or just plain buffoonish like some of the Jerry Rubin antics, are a far cry from the aims and methods of science. Quite as obviously, modernist writing is no determinant of behavior; two Joyce scholars I know are, as citizens, on the conservative side of liberalism. If my argument is to have any validity, I must do some connecting.

My thesis is this. Qualities which are true goods in the realm of science, impersonal objectivity above ail, are in most respects inappropriate to the moral, social, and aesthetic realms. Yet the manifest successes of science, especially in dislodging religion, and its intellectual prestige are so overwhelming that those qualities have been translated wholesale into these realms of our affective lives, with frequently inhuman results. The most extensive way by which this translation has been effected in recent times is “behavioral science,” especially psychology and sociology, but modernist literature has made the strongest imaginative impact. I, of course, do not view this figurative translation as what modernist writers set out to accomplish, nor do I mean a judgment on them either literary or moral for having done it; that they did it is what matters.

Let me make my point by citing the example of the highest, Ulysses. Fairly ordinary people going about their very ordinary lives (nothing is more democratically egalitarian than science’s view of its subjects, its data); seen by a detached, remote, utterly controlling mind (without a personal God, even novelists sometimes aspire to be impersonal, like scientists); in prose and narrative styles borrowing from and parodying traditional styles (leave no authority unchallenged and untainted); overwrought with arbitrary, sometimes nonsensical intellectual games (like some of those geometries mathematicians enjoy playing with); concerned, beneath all the antics, to picture “the truth” about those unfulfilled dwellers in that unsplendid city (truth, not just the author’s moral vision of them)—whatever else this novel does and whatever else you may think of it, if it does not leave your understanding to some extent subverted, then you have not really read it. Now, Joyce was not particularly interested in science and socialism, and he was certainly not interested in converting you to scientism (or to anything else except devoting your life to studying his books). Yet Ulysses powerfully communicates modernist attitudes, not least because the book’s god, the author, perversely leaves it unresolved and leaves you imperfectly gratified.

One who imposes the values of science upon the moral and social life is likely, if he is of an emotional nature and has much spleen, to be in a state of chronic restlessness. The usual form this takes is rebelliousness and hostility toward those who are not with him. Rapid and extreme social change becomes for him a necessity, without regard to the anxiety which such change generates in ordinary people and to their reactive cruelty because of that anxiety. When rebelliousness is elevated to orthodoxy, then courtesy, respect for authority, and obedience are likely to become despicable; but to put on discourtesy, contempt for authority, and disobedience, as is so fashionable these days among with-it blacks and privileged young whites, is by no means the same as to be genuinely revolutionary. Indeed, often it looks like desexed masochism: to take a noble course, as Martin Luther King did, which entails attack on you by your enemies is one thing; to employ noble-sounding words in order to provoke attack on yourself by both enemies and friends is quite another. To discriminate between these two modes of action is not always possible and seldom easy; “Notes from Underground” is the best guide to this scientific-rebellious masochism I know of.

What reason says about a true revolution is: for it to succeed, a sizable portion of the people must want it, and an even larger portion must acquiesce to it; and the state must be weak—that is, the rulers must not be able to give clear and consistent orders, and/or the soldiers and police must be disaffected enough to be ready to refuse to obey orders or even to mutiny. What reason says about the situation in the United States now is this: a large portion of the people want not to have a revolution, but are willing to accept reform, and the state is strong. It also says that large numbers of blacks and of the young are disaffected with our social values and are tempted by amorphous violence. What threatens us is disintegration, not revolution.

The antireformist rebel who is willing to seize power and exercise authority, like Lenin, can hold together, for he bows to reason; if his revolution is unlikely to succeed, he sits tight and studies hard. But when reason itself has been unhorsed, the rebel disintegrates: like the Black Panthers, he may go through the conventional motions of revolution to win chiefly a delusional martyrdom (anyone who has read the papers knows cops kill cop-killers): like a fascist he may parody revolution and impose that travesty of authority and order, brute force; at the extreme he may degenerate into a real Sadiste, like Bernardine Dohrn, leader of the Weatherman faction of the SDS, who said of the Manson murderers, “Dig it, first they killed the pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!”

The first, and a very instructive, portrayal of what modernism can do to a man was drawn by Diderot, that exemplary philosophe, in Rameau’s Nephew. With the dark side of his splendid mind, Diderot (who is the reasonable, balanced I of the dialogue) guessed one kind of character his Enlightenment was going to produce. The He of the dialogue, Rameau, is a compendium of Enlightened (rationalistic, antireligious, “scientific”) attitudes and of spite. “He: The spleen that’s corroding my dear uncle’s innards seems to fatten his dear nephew.” It is a toss-up whether he feels more spite against power or against goodness, but there is no question what makes him feel worst of all: to be confronted with excellence in any form. “I’ve never yet heard a genius or great man praised without feeling secretly furious. I’m envious. When I hear some little degrading thing about their private lives, I always listen with pleasure. It brings them down to my level.” He can’t keep from loving good music, so his nastiness for musicians knows no bounds, and he is careful to pollute or abort his own performance of music. Not that his vices are new in the history of things; and though he expresses a good many Enlightened notions, he obviously could not have been reared on them. “My sole merit is that I have done systematically, out of clear-sightedness and a reasonable and just view of things, what most other people do by instinct.” What Diderot was doing, I think, was speculating on what might happen in a fellow with unpleasant impulses— Diderot was not as gullible as Rousseau about the nobility of man’s nature—should those impulses be freed from the old restraints by a rationalistic subversion of morality and custom. “Since I can manage to find happiness through vices that are natural to me, acquired without labor and retained without effortvices condoned by custom and congenial to my protectors—vices that are closer to their own little private needs than any virtues would be, because virtues, like so many reproaches, would make them uncomfortable the livelong day—it would be strange if I tormented myself like a soul in hell just to turn myself inside out and be something that I am not. . . . Virtue inspires respect, and respect is uncomfortable. Virtue commands admiration, and having to admire someone is no fun. I have to deal with people who are bored, and I have to make them laugh. Well, nonsense and madcap pranks are what provoke laughter; so I have to be nonsensical and madcap. And even if Nature hadn’t made me that way, the best I could do in that case would be to act as if I were.” (Had Diderot not been a decent and almost conventional man himself, he might have gone whole hog and invented Sadisme, thereby saving the Marquis the trouble of writing all those vile novels.)

Diderot did not dare publish Rameau’s Nephew in the 1760s when he wrote it—bad for the Enlightenment. (It was first published in 1805, in a German translation made by Goethe.) Now every English major, every student of European literature from the past two centuries, should be required to study it, for monitory as much as for literary reasons: See what can happen to you if you don’t take care. For He is not just our contemporary; he has become our colleague, too: the scholarly establishment has, confounding everything, opened the doors of the academy to him, and he is of it.

Like literature, science is only an aspect of reality; the error of scientism is to mistake it for the whole.

Science and technology really do progress. Only fools speak of progress in the arts. But, despite all the evidence against, true believers in scientism maintain that important social progress is possible and will improve our nature as well as our lot. In my view this belief, shared by capitalism and socialism, is not only untrue but, being very influential, has contributed, not least by experimenting with human beings, to the dreadful state the world is in now. The discouragement is that progressives, in their bigotry, see as the only remedy to our dilemma more progress.

To pure science, no fact or thing has more intrinsic value than any other fact or thing. Transported into the social world, this provides support for the glorious ideal of equality before the law—and can also be used as illegitimate, surreptitious sanction for that envious leveling which is the special hazard of democracy.

Science, taking nothing on faith, accepts only those ideas which can be proved rationally, tested by experiment, and built into a construct of logical thought. But, since our motivation is mostly irrational, those who put their trust only in the rational easily lose control of their irrational forces—indeed, as in totalitarian regimes, the irrational makes a bondservant of reason and apes logic, with monstrous results. Reason’s highest moral job is to govern our impulses well; to accomplish this, it must not only know but respect and delight in their fearful, holy strength, including the might of aggressiveness. (Where better to learn this awe than in great literature?)

Science admits no limits but the possible. Translated, this becomes contempt for every authority that is not wise, good, and true, and denial of all taboos. But very few authorities, being people, are wise, good, and true all or even much of the time; and if, as I believe, we are taboo-makers by nature, then surely the consequences of smashing recognized taboos (currently the sexual ones) must be that we will make unrecognized ones in their stead: noisily to emancipate sex may be surreptitiously to immure love. Such an intellectual as Norman Mailer has speculated on violating even the taboo against murder, and some of the young nihilistic terrorists are trying it out.

Science, to stay vigorous, must constantly press on (like a military avant-garde) into unknown territory. In art and society, the avant-garde has degenerated into guerrilla bands, crazy for novelty, scornful of the past, and demanding relevance to present concerns: ME NOW.

Over and above these transmutations and others like them, there is the straightforward impingement, not only ecological but also spiritual, of technology on our inner lives, through the media and the arts. In this respect, literature, being less accessible to technological intrusion, is luckier than painting, sculpture, and music, to say nothing of the technological arts of photography and cinema; language just about has to make sense to keep going, and making sense is a kind of order, a purely human order at that; to use words powerfully, you have to think, because words fight back in a way that electronic sounds, poured concrete, paint, and light on film do not. John Cage, that destroyer of music, simply could not have made it in poetry.

When Beckett abandoned language, he tried such dodges as having sighs set to music; but even sighs, howls, moans, shrieks mean something human, and an opera even of sighs is a structure that does whatever it is art does. Let the tombstone of modernism be Beckett’s Nobel Prize, and its epitaph be his statement that he will never write again, never create anything new again. (And let us also give thanks that he has disdained his celebrity and refused to degenerate into the mod and the pop.)

The career of I. A. Richards should be exemplary for the profession of literature. In the 1920s he published books which formulated scientific principles for analyzing language and poetry—that is, for taking them apart; in the 1950s he began to publish verse and plays, putting language and poetry back together. In his entry in Who’s Who in America, he no longer lists the scholarly, would-be scientific books that made him famous.