Marriage of heaven and hell

Art and science have long been seen as sworn enemies. But, argues Tom Sutcliffe, the age of the artist as Luddite is dead
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
For anyone interested in the continuing relations between scientists and artists, there was an instructive moment in Martin Amis's interview for ITV's South Bank Show last Sunday. The writer was talking about his new novel and in order to elaborate one of its themes he delivered a crisp prcis of recent developments in cosmology, starting with Edwin Hubble's discovery that there were galaxies beyond our own. He went on to sketch the way in which the universe, in terms of our own knowledge, has been growing ever since. It wasn't a stunning display of erudition, exactly, or even a particularly startling one - these days it would have been far more surprising if he'd suddenly demonstrated a knowledge of classical Greek. But the ease of his appropriation, the sense of friendly intercourse with scientific theory, told a story.

It told you, at least, that we have come a long way from Keats, whose view of scientific discovery is famously drear. "Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?" the poet asked. He answered his question balefully:

"There was an awful rainbow once in heaven. / We know her woof, her texture; she is given / In the dull catalogue of common things. / Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -/ Unweave a rainbow."

William Blake's mind recoiled from the new mechanics too:

"I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe / And there behold the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire / Wash'd by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth / In heavy wreathes folds over every nation".

This Luddite splinter group among poets has often been taken to represent a far wider constituency than it actually does, giving rise to the conventional picture of artists irreconcilably at odds with scientists, as if the two groups were grappling for a monopoly franchise to explain the world. Fay Weldon described the old battle-lines only this weekend, asking why it was that film-makers and writers so often depicted scientists as "irresponsible and destructive". It's true that there is no shortage of examples of technological dread, from Daedalus to Jurassic Park. But I wonder whether there isn't a category confusion here. The myth of the mad scientist is actually a variation on a far more ancient theme - that of hubris, a fatal over-reaching. It is a variation, moreover, that implicitly recognises that science has recently made most of the running in terms of human ambition. Priests, politicians and generals used to be those who suffered from hubris, when religion, politics and military violence were the prevailing modes of asserting control over the world. It's hardly surprising, then, that scientists should present a ready target now. They have taken their place on the plinth.

And while Keats and Blake speak to real terror, their strictures are far from being universal in their own age or enduring in ours. Donald Davie has usefully shown, in an essay on "The Language of Science and the Language of Literature" that, well before Keats and Blake, poets had responded to scientific discoveries with far greater confidence than the old story would suggest, that they saw the language of science as a rich new source of language (the words acrimony, volatile, and insipid, to give one small example, all start their life as narrow technical terms). Poets' relationships with the new science were complex: subversive, fascinated, satirical, experimental even. But they weren't simply hostile. Keats and Blake were the exception, not the rule.

And if their metaphors for science were prejudicial in their own time, how much more so now? It's easy to understand how Newtonian cosmology, a science of strict cause and effect, might assail the transcendental mind - the massy planets reduced to billiard balls, the mysteries of nature to a clanking set of cogs and levers. Even those who were happy to see gnomes evicted from the mines must have quailed before the scope of Newton's ideas. Wordsworth captures the sense of awe when he writes of the bust of Newton in Trinity, Cambridge: "The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone." But science in our own century is very different in its ambitions and metaphors - indeed it sometimes seems intent on restocking the mine with gnomes, weaving new rainbows - with phantom particles, alternative worlds, inherent uncertainty. It was a physicist, not a poet, who wrote recently that we might come to look upon the face of God.

The poet John Heath-Stubbs has argued, in the preface to Poems of Science, that science's success in the world of observable reality drove art inward, to subjective experience. This has a tempting neatness to it, but the idea that apprehension of the world is a zero-sum game, that when scientists win ground artists have to retreat and find other territory, is surely too simple. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has suggested, in contrast, that science and art share a common ground, that they rest on a single underlying world view. He points out, for instance, that Homeric poetry contains evidence about the prevailing cosmology at the time of its composition, not in its content alone but in its poetics. In this sense Keats and Blake's hostility is understandable as a terrible suppressed recognition that Newton's ideas would have consequences for their own imaginations, that the universe had changed irretrievably. They may have reckoned without the fugitive nature of mystery, which has now been chased to the very boundaries of the conceivable universe and, in the work of some physicists, has turned to face us in the name of God.

But Heath-Stubbs's argument may give a clue to the durable illusion that the artistic enterprise is fundamentally antithetical to the scientific one, that they aren't just different expressions of the same metaphorical instinct. It's true that for most of its history the scientific act of picturing has had to correspond to our perceptions (even if we often learn to alter our perceptions to fit new pictures) while the artistic one can readily be at odds with them. It's true too that scientific narratives have been falsifiable in ways that artistic ones haven't. But these distinctions are less and less serviceable - quantum physics and the new cosmology are often counter-intuitive, transcendent in their manner, even poetic in their methods. The old oppositions of objective and subjective knowledge are simply too crude to encompass our enlarged universe. It's hardly surprising that science should be more congenial to the artistic mind when it can encompass such ancient myths as Chaos or when it popularises its ideas with images like that of the Big Bang (incidentally a fine demonstration of the power of imaginative language - the phrase was coined by Fred Hoyle as a contemptuous dismissal of his rivals' theories but its pungency may actually have contributed to its success).

The traffic isn't one way. If science looks a lot more like art than it used to it's also possible to argue that art has always been much more like science than many scientists would like to concede. Scientists generally protest that it is experiment - measurable and replicable by others - that separates their speculations from those of creative artists. But what is a novel or a painting but an experiment in human perception, replicated in each new reader or viewer? And what is posterity but a temporal measurement of the result? Martin Amis had something to say about this too: "This is the permanent gamble," he said, talking about the intimate biography of the novels, "that what is true for you is true for others." He might equally have called it an experiment, one that every artist hopes will be successful.

The rapprochement is nothing like a peace yet. Arguments of their essential identity enrage artists and scientists alike. But the old combat is surely over. The talking has already begun.

On Wednesday, the Independent is holding a debate at the Institute of Education, London on `Monster Myths: are writers demonising the new genetics?' Tickets (£10) by phoning 0171-611 8442, or from Dillons, 82 Gower St, London WC1E 6EQ

Comments