PD Smith

Elective affinity?

28 August 2007 | Brecht, Metaphor & Materiality, My Books, Reviewing, Science & literature | 8 comments

Reviewing Bahr's Weimar on the Pacific reminded me of my own research on Brecht's wonderful play about science in the atomic age, Life of Galileo. As well as forming a chapter in my book Metaphor & Materiality, I explored Brecht's use of science in a long article for Prometheus magazine. As this has never been put online in its entirety, I thought I would make it available.

"Elective Affinity: A Tale of Two Cultures?" tries to move beyond the rather tired idea that there are two opposed cultures - the arts and the sciences. Using a number of important texts from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, I try to show how literary writers have engaged with science. Scientists and writers are indeed listening to each other; and some are even talking the same language...

I'd be very interested to hear what people think about the books I discuss, and of any others you know which deserve to be mentioned.

8 comments so far:

  1. LiteraryMinded | 28 August 2007

    Such a wonderful article.

    'For Primo Levi and many other writers, science does indeed allow us to – in the words of Dawkins – ‘hear the galaxies sing’.'

    Tonight I sat on my balcony and watched a lunar eclipse. My poetic mind was switched on by the rare richness of the blood moon. I had a sudden moment, when I remembered it was our shadow, the earth collected. And I had a sense of vertigo. I was just a tiny speck on the spinning ball, tied to the earth by gravity. And the incredible thing was that I knew this.
    I also felt the alignment. Sun - earth - moon. Being at the heart of it, connected by invisible forces. An affinity.

    We are now bound by knowledge, but are still inspired on by curiosity. We hunger for answers and , as you explore in your writing, we also seek the reasons behind our curiosity - in the arts.

    Thanks again for a great read. I have finished 'Doomsday Men' and loved it (review forthcoming) 🙂 Angela

  2. PD Smith | 28 August 2007

    Many thanks for that wonderful comment, Angela! And I'm really glad to hear you enjoyed my book (phew!). Look forward to the review...

  3. David Thorpe | 29 August 2007

    Very good. I'm glad you chose Brecht, a currently underestimated writer, probaly not trendy at the moment for obvious reasons. JG Ballard has written of how SF is the main literary form of the 20th C. I precised his argument and updated it, in an article here. SF writers need to be aware of how science works, but don't need to be hamstrung by this. The main challenge is to get the politics and emotion right. Few predictions of the future are likely to be technically accurate, but history shows that the most pessimistic ones are the most likely to be socially acuurate....

  4. PD Smith | 29 August 2007

    Thanks for the link to your article, David - very interesting indeed. Ballard is a hugely influential writer. I've always thought "Crash" in particular is a quite remarkable book.

    His phrase describing the age of the hydrogen bomb is also memorable: the Auschwitz of the soul...

  5. Paul Halpern | 29 August 2007

    I found your article an intriguing and illustrative study of the growing interplay between science and culture in the past two centuries. If one adds Freudian psychology and Darwinism to the mix, along with Laplacian determinism (before the early 20th century), relativity, quantum mechanics, atomic and nuclear physics, chaos theory, the concept of higher dimensions/parallel histories and so forth, it is clear that the language of science has had an enormous influence on modern literature. Conversely, as you've shown in your work, science fiction and other forms of literature often anticipate and influence scientific ideas, and help persuade scientists (as in the case of Szilard) to consider the ethical implications of their discoveries. Your example of Brecht writing several different versions of the Life of Galileo is revealing in that regard. I would suggest the works of Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, James Joyce and Alan Lightman (Einstein's Dreams) as further examples of the 20th century symbiosis of science and literature.

  6. PD Smith | 29 August 2007

    Yes, you're so right, Paul: those four writers are key. Lightman's book on relativity is wonderful - a literary thought experiment! And I'm a great fan of Eco too. 'Foucault's Pendulum' was fascinating.

    Someone on 3quarksdaily.com (which has posted a link to my article) has rightly suggested Borges' 'Garden of Forking Paths' - one of your favourites too, I believe?

  7. Paul Halpern | 29 August 2007

    Yes, there are worlds of wonderful scientific ideas in the works of Jorge Luis Borges. It is amazing how "The Garden of Forking Paths," published in 1941, so brilliantly anticipated the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, proposed by Richard Feynman in 1948, also known as the sum over multiple histories, as well as Hugh Everett's 1957 "Many Worlds Interpretation." (The difference between Feynman's and Everett's ideas is that the former is meant as a kind of mathematical shorthand, almost universally accepted, while the latter represents an actual branching of reality into parallel universes, much more controversial.)

    I once interviewed Princeton physicist John Wheeler, Feynman's and Everett's supervisor, and a friend of Einstein's, who described asking Einstein (in 1948) his opinion about multiple histories. According to Wheeler, Einstein was not impressed. "I still can't believe that the good Lord plays dice," Einstein told Wheeler. "Maybe I have earned the right to make my mistakes."

    Wheeler, by the way, who just celebrated his 96th birthday in July, has encouraged the poetic/philosophical approach toward physics, perhaps more than any other contemporary figure. He is truly a remarkable physicist, who represents a living link between the worlds of Niels Bohr (with whom he collaborated) and many important present-day physicists.

  8. PD Smith | 29 August 2007

    I thought you'd have something fascinating to say about that, Paul - so thank you for not disappointing me!

    I think you should do a blog about this - let me know if you do (perhaps you already have done so?) - and I'll post the link to it here...

    As regards Einstein's dice comment, I rather like Stephen Hawking's reply: “God not only plays dice, but sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”

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