Of poets, astronomers, and the man in the moon
JONATHAN SWIFT found human beings so contentious that he maintained if they had nothing else to quarrel about they would divide over which end of a breakfast egg should be cracked, and so make war as Big Endians and Little Endians. The past week or so, while the coming election was separating all good citizens by their campaign buttons into Republicans vs. Democrats, and the World Series was sorting out everybody else according to T-shirt and baseball cap as Mets fans vs. Red Sox fans, there was still room for a third case of Swiftian factionalism.
Just 30 years after C.P. Snow divided the world into ``two cultures,'' the artists and the scientists are having at it again. The latest skirmish broke out in the pages of The Nation where a reviewer, Douglas Crase, in the course of praising poems by George Bradley for dealing with the cosmos of quasars, quarks, and black holes, gave the back of his hand to poets who did not -- like W.H. Auden., who wrote less than an ode to a ``Moon Landing,'' beginning, ``It is natural the Boys should whoop it up.'' In staking out a galaxy for poets as well as astronomers and astronauts, Auden was accused of ``a preference for ignorant fancy over reality,'' petulantly attempting by his mooning over the moon to ```rapture' it back to a prequasar blur.'' The duty of the ``post-modern'' poet, as Crase sees it, is to ``ratify'' what ``we know from science to be true about the world.''
Partisan letters followed, including one from the distinguished essayist on desert life, Edward Abbey, who declared, ``The more we learn about outer space and inner space, about quasars and quarks, about big bangs and little blips, the more remote, abstract, and intellectually inconsequential it all becomes.'' Doubting that science holds a monopoly on truth, leaving a poet only to echo ``Me too!'', Abbey stated flatly: ``The idolatry of science is the grossest superstition of this gross decade.''
But wait! There are always the peacemakers. The journal Daedalus recently dedicated an issue to building bridges between ``Art and Science.'' But even here an edge of querulousness was present, as in the title of the first article, ``Art and Science: Do They Need to Be Yoked?'' The autor, Leo Steinberg, does not quite rule art and science to be incompatible, but he thinks their vocabularies may be. He suggests that when scientists speak of the ``delight'' in their research or the ``elegance'' of their results, they use the words differently from artists. With scientists, the terms smack of the pleasures of precise clarification under overhead lights rather than of the poet's pleasures in the look, the feel, the being of themselves.
One could easily add to the lexicon of words that drive scientists in one direction and artists in a direction slightly other, including ``creativity'' and ``imagination'' and finally ``knowledge.'' The root meaning of science is the Latin verb ``to know.'' But how different the ``kowledge'' of the artist is from the ``knowledge'' of the scientist!
The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner has said of science: ``Its goal is the destruction of mystery.'' Even as literary a scientist as Lewis Thomas has observed, ``I cannot imagine any sorts of questions to be asked about ourselves or about nature that cannot sooner or later be answered.'' Most poets do imagine -- do live on -- just such questions. Most poets do need mystery, as they need air to breathe. Most poets regard mystery as part of what they ``know,'' and they defend this territory of the not-known as passionately as scientists defend their territory of what they know.
It is the nature of Big Endian-Little Endian confrontations to assume that if one side is right, the other side has to be wrong, or at least a lot less right. With knowledge, there can be no such either-or. Every kind of human knowledge is partial, and we need all the parts we can get. It's just that the sciences have advanced so spectacularly that many scientists -- and some artists, too -- are tempted to believe scientific knowledge is the only knowledge. That this is an illusion may be the first and foremost thing to know.