Tuesday, August 29, 2006

`Attentive Writing'

I wrote the other day about zoologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson and his book from 1917, On Growth and Form, without benefit of the text or of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, where I first learned of Thompson in 1972. Both books are now in front of me, borrowed from the library, and both are filled with pleasing convergences.

Thompson’s book – I have the 1942 edition from Cambridge University Press, all 1,116 pages of it -- carries five epigraphs, one of which comes from Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essay for May 5, 1750:

“The mathematicians are well acquainted with the difference between pure science, which has to do only with ideas, and the application of its laws to the use of life, in which they are constrained to submit to the imperfections of matter and the influence of accident.”

As a science writer for a university, this distinction is one I’m reminded of daily. Science is “pure” or “applied,” with the former always on the defensive in a time and place like ours when almost everything, including science, is market-driven. What excites me, however, is Johnson, not by any stretch a scientist but an enthusiastic amateur and man of voracious curiosity (rather like our own Benjamin Franklin), weighing in on such a seemingly arcane matter. Men and women of unbounded learning, with interests transcending the provinciality of specialization, are rare, endangered species. I seldom meet them in academia. Kenner was one – he limned the modernists, built his own computers, wrote a book on “geodesic math” and another on the animation of Chuck Jones. I interviewed him once by telephone, a few days before Christmas in 1994, when he was teaching at the University of Georgia. I was calling about Yeats but we also spoke of Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, Laurel and Hardy, Richard Ellmann, and the rock band REM (based in Athens, Ga., as was Kenner at the time). There was more but that’s what I remember.

Kenner cites Thompson three times in The Pound Era, his master work, published one year before the death of Ezra Pound himself, on Nov. 1, 1972. The first mention, in a chapter titled “Transformations,” comes in the context of Kenner’s gloss on a passage from “Novices,” a 1923 poem by Marianne Moore (who died nine months before Pound, on Feb. 5, 1972). The passage is composed of four quotations, which Kenner dutifully identifies. He then parades an interesting selection of his own quotations, from Louis Agassiz (whom Thompson also cites, approvingly, on the subject of periwinkles), Thompson, Samuel Johnson (again!) and Gustave Flaubert. I love this Borgesian game of quotations-within-quotations. Here’s the Thompson line:

“The cells are stellate, and the tissue has the appearance in section of a network of six-rayed stars, linked together by the tips of the rays, and separated by symmetrical, air-filled intercellular spaces, which give its snow-like whiteness to the pith.”

Kenner observes of Moore, and by extension of Thompson:

“Minds so absorbed write with pith and concision. Such qualities, engendered by intercourse with a subject, persist in the writing even when we do not know what its subject was, and the phrases have a virtu Miss Moore can put to her own uses. Not all writing can be used in Miss Moore’s way: only attentive writing. Idiosyncrasy of language derives from attention…”

In Kenner’s second mention of Thompson, he refers to On Growth and Form as “a study of economies and transformations,” and notes it was published in the same year as Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius. He reproduces two drawings of fish, each superimposed on a graph, and observes, “They correspond point for point, as Pound’s phrases correspond to the Latin word by word, but directions and emphases alter.”

The final reference to Thompson comes in the chapter titled “Privacies,” in a section devoted to Wyndham Lewis:

“And the chemists, the physicists, the biologists, were everywhere discovering a pattern-making faculty inherent in nature. Salt was crystalline, bubbles were vectorial equalibria, Marconi’s pulses patterned the very ether, D’Arcy Thompson in 1917 explained how the bird’s skeleton and the cantilever bridge utilize identical principles.”

I’m pleased that I referred in passing to Marconi in my posting on Thompson the other day, without remembering Kenner having done so. Kenner’s use of Thompson was enough to inspire in me a long-deferred desire to read On Growth and Form, which I did 20 years later, in 1992, immediately after reading Lewis’ gargantuan novel The Apes of God, a book I am pleased to have read once, at Kenner’s urging, but have no intention of rereading.

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