The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Not rivals

Posted on: January 26, 2008

What is the cause of the sea storm? It is the anger of the god Poseidon. How wrong this is, but yet, how understandable! It is wrong as an answer to the question asked, and wrong in a radically uncorrectable way. We know this now. Animistic explanation of natural phenomena, the extension to nature at large of the kind of purposive causality man is familiar with in the case of his own actions, will not work. Yet it is an easily understood mode of explanation, for if one were a sea god and were angry one would create precisely this turbulence. The immediate intelligibility of the explanation counts for it, and makes it resistant to falsification. Nor need we wonder why the recognition of the inadequacy of the explanation was delayed. The action prompted by the explanation is some ceremony of propitiation: make sacrifice of appropriate animals or cast treasure into depths. This ceremony will not work but, given the kind of explanation, nonefficacy in particular cases can always be explained. The sacrifice was inadequate, the ritual was wrongly performed, the anger was too great, and, as a final resort, who can read the mind of a god? But there is more to it than this. The animistic view is appropriate to the human experience of undergoing a sea storm.

We can bring this about by changing the question from: What is the cause of the sea storm? to: What might the human experience of undergoing a sea storm be like? Now we speak mostly aptly when we say: “The sea is angry.” Anger, threat, menace are apprehended as phenomenally objecting, “out there” in the sea. The struggle of the mariner with the storm is experiences as combat. The force opposing him is felt as similar in kind to the force with which he battles it. The ship itself is now a live thing that leaps and shudders and labors in the waves. Now we feel the power of the god, and this is why Poseidon is still relevant even in an age of science.

Although it is a matter of historical record that literary artists and lovers of literature have, from time to time, nourished and voiced resentment against natural science, seen as “the destroyer of rainbows,” yet it appears by now to be generally recognized that the scientific and the literary approach to natural phenomena cannot possibly be rivals. Rivals must go battle on common ground and there is here too little common ground for genuine contention. The poem that tells us that the moon is a goddess, or love-sick, or lunatic, is as intelligible and valid as it ever was. Natural science cannot be direct help or hindrance to the literary artist although, of course, the artist who happens to take an interest in it may derive from that interest the stimulus of new perspectives, above all, perhaps, material for metaphor. Lunar landscape, understood in terms of contemporary astronomical theory, may well provide the raw material out of which reanimated metaphor might be forced. The literary importance will, of course, reside in the reanimation, not in the fact that what has been used for this purpose is something more scientifically “up to date”. Any branch of natural science, biology, crystallography, or whatever, may stir the imagination of the literary artist, and anything that stirs his imagination is potential raw material for artistic exploitation. “Raw material” and “exploitation” are the operative words. If you wish to receive the best account to date of the structure and operation of natural phenomena, you must turn to the scientist. It is useless to expect that the literary artist will submit himself to the discipline necessary for science. As private person he might do this, but as literary artist he will not. As artist he has, of course, his own discipline, but this is something other than the discipline of science.

From Literature and Knowledge (1969) by Dorothy Walsh.


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