Thursday, June 03, 2010

`Only By a Corresponding Experience'

I read Nige’s post on Wednesday with bemused sympathy. The science crank, the self-satisfied know-it-all who crams all of it into One Grand Scheme, is a tiresomely familiar modern type. One lurks on the margins of my awareness, ready to pounce when I stray from revealed writ. Nige’s nemesis is “fascinated and impressed by such research fields as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and what they have to tell us about 'human nature.'”

It’s no surprise she’s attracted to fashionable fields dominated not by experimentally tested findings but the wispiest of speculation. In my experience, such types seldom are scientists but rather fellow travelers of science who glean enough from the popular press to bolster the a priori bent of their characters. Good scientists aren’t troubled by mystery. Like good artists, they feed off it.

I'm reimmersed in Thoreau, whose knowledge of the flora and fauna of his native turf was encyclopedic and almost wholly self-taught. He lived in the heroic age of science when giants walked the earth. He read Darwin with sympathy. He befriended Louis Agassiz, an anti-Darwinian, and sold specimens for his collection at Harvard -- from Walden Pond, minks, muskrats, frogs, lizards, tortoises, snakes, caddie-worms, leeches, “etc., or rather, here they are,” Thoreau wrote. Once, over dinner, Thoreau and Agassiz discussed the mating habits of turtles, to the profound discomfort of Emerson. In his “Friday” chapter in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Thoreau writes:

“Much is said about the progress of science in these centuries. I should say that the useful results of science had accumulated, but that there had been no accumulation of knowledge, strictly speaking, for posterity; for knowledge is to be acquired only by a corresponding experience. How can we know what we are told merely?”

I assume with confidence that Nige’s antagonist possesses little knowledge acquired “by a corresponding experience.” Science, like art, is a discipline rooted in attentiveness and engagement. Take the example of Donald Olson, a physicist at Texas State University who practices something called forensic astronomy. Dave Lull sent me a link to the New Scientist blog in which Olson discusses his search for the astronomical origins of Whitman’s “Year of Meteors.” He thinks he has identified the meteor procession , the same one seen on July 20, 1860, by the artist Frederic Church, who painted it. Olson says:

“It turns out that both the prose and the poetry of Walt Whitman is unusually rich in terms of references to the sky - very specific ones, in fact. He tells you exactly what he sees, and often gives the date. For example, he discusses the 1833 Leonids [one of the most spectacular meteor showers on record]. So I have a big file on Walt Whitman and astronomy. He's a very rich source of descriptions of the sky.”

To his credit, Olson doesn't reduce Whitman's poem to a scientific curiosity or claimed to have "cracked" it. I'd like to turn Olson loose on Hopkins and his skyscapes. Let me repeat what I’ve often quoted from Guy Davenport’s essay on Eudora Welty, “The Faire Field of Enna” (collected in The Geography of the Imagination):

“Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.”

1 comment:

Nige said...

Thanks for the link Patrick, which I shall conceal from my 'nemesis' - I'm married to her! We also have a similarly futile non-debate on determinism from time to time, much as I try to avoid the subject... There is, however (my plea in mitigation), much on which we agree.