Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Mere science cannot account for beauty

Friday 25 March 2011 01:00

It has been well said that science gives us knowledge but takes away meaning. It certainly obliterates parts of the imagination, and I cannot be the only one who thought something was lost to us when Neil Armstrong plonked his great fat boot down on the moon, even while being in awe of the daring and the technological triumph. Why? Because the mystery was no more.

There are numerous parts of the imagination, in fact, which science has subverted or done away with since it began to explain the world in rational terms in the 17th century. You could put religion itself at the top of this list, although if you are religious, you will not; but it might be generally agreed that there are numerous non-rational ways of looking at the world, numerous once-widespread, once-resonant traditional beliefs which we have now ceased to engage with, such as alchemy, or magic, or the power of curses, or the story of Adam and Eve.

All of these provided powerful food for the imagination, and as with the conquest of the moon, I think something has been lost with their inevitable suppression. One in particular is currently exercising me, and that is the idea of spirits. By that I mean disembodied beings, supernatural entities able to speed through the world and appear and disappear at will, some malevolent maybe, some benign, and if you ask me to give you an example, I have one ready to hand: Shakespeare's Ariel, the attendant spirit of The Tempest.

Ariel, you may remember, is bound to serve Prospero, the magician-duke who has been deprived of his dukedom of Milan by his evil brother and exiled, with his young daughter, to a desert island. Ariel flies hither and thither doing Prospero's bidding – he whips up the storm which brings all the characters together so that the story can be resolved – but he is also desperate for his freedom, which in the end Prospero reluctantly grants him.

Ethereal, insubstantial, even androgynous (I'm saying him for the sake of convenience), Ariel is a joyous creation, a creature unbound by gravity, unburdened by human clay, who brings to life the ephemeral longing in us to be lighter than air. But The Tempest being what it is, there is more to him than a pet sprite, especially if we see the story of Shakespeare's last play, as many people do, as profoundly autobiographical: Prospero giving up his magic at the end is Shakespeare saying farewell to art.

In this reading, it is not hard to see the attendant spirit the magician is so reluctant to set free as Shakespeare's own imagination, to which, as old age approaches, he has to say goodbye. His great gift had roamed the world at his bidding, creating storms and unforgettable characters and unforgettable poetry, but now, willy-nilly, he has to say farewell to it, and go and be an ordinary citizen living in a small market town in Warwickshire, and wait for death (it took four years to come).

That Shakespeare could choose a spirit, a "tricksy spirit" to represent his own wonderful soaring wandering gift, creating such a sparkling metaphor, was singularly fortuitous and due to the fact that science had not yet consigned such beings to the dustbin of superstition; but such choices are not open to us. For us, spirits are over and done with, and we cannot compare anything to them. I have been thinking this with regret all week as I have struggled to find a way of expressing my elation at seeing, last Sunday, the first butterfly of the year.

It was a brimstone, a bright yellow brimstone. Using science, and rationality, I can tell you quite a lot about it: that it was an insect; that it belonged to the butterfly family Pieridae, the whites; that it had overwintered as an adult, one of only four British butterfly species to do so (the others pass the winter variously as eggs, or caterpillars, or pupae); that in its caterpillar stage it had fed on the plants buckthorn or alder buckthorn; and that it had hibernated disguised as a leaf, probably in an ivy clump, until the first warm day in March woke it up.

But that doesn't remotely get it. What I saw electrified me instantly; it was the sign of the turning year, not just of the warm times coming again but of the great rebirth of everything, the great unstoppable renewal, and the brilliance of its colour seemed to proclaim the magnitude of the change it was signalling. It was like a piece of sunlight that had been loosed from the sun's rays and was free to wander, announcing the spring, and I realised that science, which has now given us so much knowledge about such organisms, did not have any way of conveying its meaning at that moment, at least to me.

For if I say to you, I saw an insect, which is strictly true, what will that tell you? Nothing. The categorisation, which conveys the knowledge, immediately begins to flatten the meaning. But if I say to you, I saw a spirit, which is what it felt like – the spirit of the spring or whatever you wish – then at once we are in different territory, we are in the territory of the imagination.

Let us hold hard to the imagination as we try to preserve the Earth and what it means to us. Science is essential and has given us great things and cannot be dispensed with, but the true wonder of the natural world is beyond its grasp.;

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