PD Smith

In the ditch

Times Literary Supplement, 6 August 2004 

Literature and Science, 1660–1834, ed by Judith Hawley (Pickering & Chatto), £350 each Part: Part 1, 4 vols, 1610pp; Part 2, 4 vols, 1838pp

By PD Smith

In 1959, CP Snow famously stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy — although not among scientists — when he warned that "advanced Western society" was split into two hostile cultures facing each other across “a gulf of mutual incomprehension”. Despite the suspicions raised on all sides by attempts to merge the different disciplines, the relationship between writers and scientists has always been closer than many think.

Vladimir Nabokov was once asked whether he agreed with Snow that there were two opposing cultures of literary Luddites and scientific philistines. As someone with a foot in both camps — the author of Lolita was a gifted lepidopterist — Nabokov was dismissive: “I would have compared myself to a Colossus of Rhodes bestriding the gulf between the thermodynamics of Snow and the Laurentomania of Leavis, had that gulf not been a mere dimple of a ditch that a small frog could straddle.” Goethe would have shared Nabokov’s incomprehension at the idea of two cultures. He belonged to an age in which there was no dividing line between the sciences and the humanities. Goethe was a polymath who contributed to the fields of botany, comparative anatomy, meteorology, and geology, as well as developing theories of morphology and colour, and his writings resonate with allusions to science. His most enduring creation, the proto-scientist Faust, powerfully symbolises humankind’s dangerous love-affair with knowledge. Goethe’s contemporary Coleridge, that self-confessed “library-cormorant”, was also enthralled by the findings of experimental science. He was a close friend of one of the greatest chemists of the 19th century, Humphry Davy the man who, according to Coleridge, “first converted Poetry into Science”.

For the novelist and chemist Primo Levi, Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1869 was “poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we swallowed down in liceo.” In the year Mendeleev made his discovery, even Nietzsche seriously considered devoting himself to the study of chemistry, that science of mysterious forces brought vividly alive in novels such as Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809), where love is described in the language of chemistry, and Balzac’s The Quest for the Absolute (1834), in which the hero tragically pursues the philosopher's stone. Coleridge’s enthusiasm for chemistry moved him to predict that one day “all human Knowledge will be Science and Metaphysics the only Science”. His dynamic friend Davy became the scientific muse of many writers, including Mary Shelley, whose Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) remains the best-known fusion of science and literature. Davy’s inspired inaugural lecture at the Royal Institution in 1802, attended by both Coleridge and William Wordsworth, is included in Literature and Science, 1660–1834, a fascinating collection of texts on science, all printed in facsimile, under the general editorship of Judith Hawley. According to Brian Donlan, editor of the chemistry volume, after hearing Davy lecture, Wordsworth revised his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800) to acknowledge the achievement of Science. For Coleridge, Davy’s account of the properties of “oxygenated muriatic gas” in the lecture provoked revolutionary thoughts: “If all aristocrats here,” he scribbled in his notebook, “how easily Davy might poison them all.”

As Hawley writes in her introduction, the phrase "literature and science" is “anachronistic and possibly misleading” when applied to the long eighteenth century. Literature was not limited to creative writing and Samuel Johnson defined literature in his Dictionary (1755) as “Learning; skill in letters”. “Literary men” like Johnson were, as Hawley writes, “actively engaged with contemporary scientific issues and contributed to the writing of science”. (Even in 1882, in his Rede lecture on “Literature and Science”, Matthew Arnold responded to T H Huxley’s call for scientific education by arguing that "literature is a large word”, embracing Newton’s Principia as well as Shakespeare’s works.

Similarly, the word "science" had different connotations in the past. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, science meant any organised body of knowledge: chemistry, history and theology were all sciences in this sense, whereas engineering was described as an art; Snow’s gulf between the two cultures did not exist. Ample evidence of this is provided by Hawley's texts which, in genre, range from poetry to what is now called popular science writing, including fusions of the two, for example in The Botanic Garden (1791), in Erasmus Darwin introduced his readers to the “delightful science” of botany. In this 4,000-line poem, Darwin explores geology, meteorology, as well as the Linnaean "sexual system" of classifying plants. As Charlotte Grant’s volume on flora shows, Darwin was not the first writer to be inspired by the notion that plants have a sex life. Thomas Stretser’s two erotic texts of 1732, Frutex Vulvaria and Arbor Vitae, wittily exploit botanical metaphors to describe human genitalia: “The Tree of Life is a succulent Plant, consisting of only one strait Stem, on the Top of which is a Pistillum, or Apex, at sometimes Glandiform and resembling a May-Cherry, tho’ at others, more like the Nut of the Avellana or Fillbeard-Tree.” Such exercises in eroticised natural history would have delighted Nabokov, himself the author of a playful novel about insects and incest, Ada or Ardor (1969).

The volume on science as polite culture offers insight into an age when (as Cheryce Kramer notes in her introduction) scientific experiments were “consumed, like truffles and oranges, as the tokens of a luxurious existence”. At scientific soirées and public lectures, new worlds of knowledge were revealed to amazed audiences through the bangs and stinks of experiments. Kramer includes popularizations such as Bernard Fontenelle’s delightful Conversations With A Lady On The Plurality of Worlds, which in 1686 predicted a “Communication between the Earth and the Moon”, conveyed this sense of wonder to a reading public hungry for new knowledge. As Voltaire put it in a 1738 poem celebrating Newton, “how the Mind / Flies to these Truths, enlighen’d and refin’d!” There is also an extract from John Ayrton Paris’s Life of Sir Humphry Davy (1831) which describes the “extraordinary sensation” caused by Davy’s lectures on chemistry at the Royal Institution: “Men of the first rank and talent, — the literary and the scientific, the practical and the theoretical, blue-stockings, and women of fashion, the old and the young, all crowded — eagerly crowded the lecture-room.” 

Science has become our modern mythology. Today it is science rather than religion that supplies the ideas which shape our knowledge of the natural world, and ultimately, for many, our sense of what it means to be human. The conflation of  literature and science has much to say about how these understandings are created. The texts collected by Hawley and her fellow editors are sensitively juxtaposed and supported by stimulating editorial commentaries. The absence of Goethe’s voice from this otherwise impressive collection is regrettable and surprising, despite the laudable decision to favour rare texts, unavailable outside research libraries. This aside, these volumes represent a wonderful celebration of the many ways in which – to cite Erasmus Darwin – writers “inlist Imagination under the banner of Science”.

[nb. this may differ slightly from the published version]