The Art of Discovery: Encounters in Literature and Science

Editor Hagen, Margareth ; Koppen, Randi ; Skagen, Margery Vibe
Year 2010
Publisher Aarhus and Copenhagen: Aarhus UP
ISBN 9788779345010
Number of pages 275
  • Folkert Degenring review on BSLS:
    “A wealth of metaphors has been produced to describe the complex relationship between literature and science, each bearing its own set of implications. C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ is such a metaphor, implying separateness and distinctness but also – at least from a perspective influenced by (post)structuralist thought – a fundamental unity: both are ‘Cultures’. Other metaphors, as the editors point out in their introduction to this welcome collection of essays, draw on the topographical images of the abyss and the cleft, ‘which call out for building bridges’ (9). A different sort of metaphor has been provided by Stephen Jay Gould, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari: the quilt as a ‘diverse collection of separate patches into a beautiful and integrated coat of many colors’ (Gould in Hagen et al. 9).

    This does indeed seem to be an appropriate metaphor for the volume at hand. Organised into two sections, ‘Discoveries – Struggle, Scandal and Adaptation’ and ‘Encounters – Borders and Crossings’, the essays cover a wide spectrum of topics, approaches and contributors: from general observations concerning the relation of literature and science to specific historical reconstructions, from the history of ideas to cognitive linguistics, from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, from American, English, French, German, Italian, Latin American to Scandinavian literature, from literature, linguistics and law to philosophy of science, biochemistry and physics.

    All essays are based on contributions to a research workshop held at the University of Bergen in 2008, and while the collection could thus be described as a ‘continuation of a dialogue’ (27) only one of the essays directly refers to another one – Holly Henry’s to Gillian Beer’s – and the rest of the essays largely stand for themselves. This is by no means to say that there aren’t any correspondences between the individual contributions, but they are not grouped thematically (an index would therefore have been a very helpful addition).

    Andrea Battistini opens the first section and examines ‘The Love-Hate Relationship of Literature and Science’, placing a strong emphasis on the observation that this relationship is generally seen to be one-way only and that it is usually literature which seeks to assimilate scientific discourse; one of literature’s functions is a ‘kind of translation’ (32). At the same time, Battistini argues with Thomas Kuhn that simple dichotomies fail to describe literature and science adequately. Indeed, metaphor and analogy are at the heart of both, and literature can be as much at the service of science as science can be at the service of literature.

    Gillian Beer’s essay, ‘Darwin’s “Filthy Heraldries”’, draws attention to the aspect of scandal that surrounds the reception of Darwin’s work. Since it is not the completely new that is really scandalous, Beer argues, but that which has already been suspected and hinted at, this angle enables us to understand both the profound impact of Darwin and the role of his precursors. We may laugh at some of the reactions of his contemporaries, but Beer points out that some elements in Darwin’s theories are disturbing, perhaps even scandalous, today: the acceptance of extinction as a fundamental part of evolution seems so troubling, for example, ‘that recent commentators have blanked out what Darwin wrote and thought, since it is out of kilter with our current fears and desires’ (53).

    Holly Henry’s ‘Scandal and Oblivion: Some Thoughts on Darwin, Oedipus and Adaptation’ is a direct response to Beer’s observations, further expanding on the aspect of scandal and Darwin. Citing Brian Boyd, Henry describes myth as a survival tool, an evolutionary adaptation. If part of the scandal of the theory of evolution is that it runs counter to established myths of origins, then this confronts us with a certain paradox.

    The second section contains essays produced by scholars from the Universities of Bergen and Oslo and loosely follows the chronology of the texts discussed in each essay. Most of the essays deal with a particular author or national literature.

    Ragnar Fjelland examines Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s theory of colour in Zur Farbenlehre (1808) and his unwillingness to accept the strict division of the subjective and objective. Margery Vibe Skagen reconstructs nineteenth-century fields of associations surrounding Mesmerism and hypnosis in connection with Baudelaire’s writing, and also explores in what ways poetry itself could be described as magnetic, or even hypnotic. Randi Koppen’s essay focuses on Wyndham Lewis’ Time and Western Man (1927). Contrasting Lewis with C. P. Snow, Koppen differentiates between modernists’ engagement with scientific theory and applied science, and points out both discrepancies and connections in the evaluation of the influence of modernism.

    Roger Strand examines short stories by nuclear physicist Leo Szilard; Hans Jacob Ohldieck explores the use of the Big Bang theory in the work of the Cuban theoretician, poet and novelist Severo Sarduy. Željka Švrljuga demonstrates how Buffon’s Histoire naturelle influences Patricia Eakins’ novel The Marvellous Adventures of Jean Baptiste, Father & Mother, First & Last, while Margareth Hagen closely examines the moon in Primo Levi’s work and his attempts to connect science with poetry. Hagen emphasizes the role of wonder as a concept that is essential in poetry and perhaps science as well: ‘Overtaken by the marvel of an incomprehensible phenomenon, man will be driven to search for new knowledge. This could be a fair description of the scientific poetics of Levi as well’ (195).

    Eivind Tjønneland, Christine Hamm and Rasmus T. Slaattelid all deal with Scandinavian literature. Tjønneland explores the impact of Darwin on neo-romanticism and decadence in Scandinavian literature of the late nineteenth century, while Hamm links nineteenth-century conceptions of the female body with Sigrid Undset’s Jenny (1911). Slaattelid provides a reading of Hedda Gabler from an unusual angle: describing the Research Council of Norway’s (RCN) criteria for evaluation research grant applications (which are similar to those in the UK and the US), Slaattelid uses Ibsen’s play as a kind of case study. Asking which of the two very different academics in the play would be more likely to receive a research grant, Slaattelid also ponders the effects a normative evaluation policy has on the scope and scale of research projects.

    The remaining essays all deal with literary texts as well, but take on a more general perspective. For example, Charles I. Armstrong discusses the concepts of ecocriticism and ecopoetry in relation to the natural sciences, while Jostein Børtnes ponders the role of metaphor in relation to cognition in science, poetry and theology. Drawing on Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980), Børtnes examines both metaphor and analogy as the basis of both scientific and religious thought and language, while at the same time highlighting the differences in their usage.

    The shifting meaning of the term ‘robot’ – from machinelike man to manlike machine – is the topic of Jon Bing’s essay. From Rabbi Löw’s Golem, via Frankenstein, Ada Lovelace, Fritz Lang, Čapek’s R.U.R., to Asimov and Dick, the history of the robot as ‘a powerful literary symbol, high-lighting the way humans may be used without respecting their individual dignity’ (168) is traced.

    Given the scope of the ‘quilt’ The Art of Discovery provides, not everyone will find all essays immediately applicable to their own work; this, however, is only to be expected. For the same reason, the collection cannot (nor does it want to) provide a comprehensive overview of the subjects covered. It does provide an impressive array of possible lines of connections, however, and reminds the reader of how vast the field of literature and science studies is. It is a valuable addition to literature and science studies, and some of the individual essays are not just intellectually stimulating but also highly enjoyable to read. Certainly all provide food for thought. That some questions remain unanswered does not necessarily detract from the very positive overall impression. As Margareth Hagen puts it in her essay: ‘[T]he opposite of science and poetry is therefore surely not the quest for knowledge itself, but safe, inert, defined and secure knowledge’ (196).”


Amazon (2013): This anthology brings together scholars from literature, the natural sciences, and the philosophy of science, to present new perspectives on the relations between literary and scientific communities. Drawing on literature spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as Europe and the Americas, the authors explore how science has been portrayed from the perspective of literature at different times and in different places - as challenge or opportunity, promise or scandal. The disturbance of science emanates perhaps from its association with a frightening future or its ability to change the appearance of the past; the scandal occurs as it recalls us to thresholds and hybrids: human and non-human, animal and machine. Science, however, also emerges as a source of metaphor and imaginative modelling, of encodings and decodings, representations and discoveries. Less prominent in the collection, though no less important, is the view on how scientific cultures portray literature or the literary academic, and how science reflects on itself.