Charlotte Sleigh

Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011)

Since my post on Huxley’s treatment of “Nature,” I have occupied my time with readings from Laura Otis’ Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century (2009) and Charlotte Sleigh’s Literature and Science (2011). Otis’ work is an anthology of over 500 pages of excerpts and explanatory notes. Sleigh’s work is a sustained argument about the natural relationship between science and literature, covering a diverse range of topics, such as “Empiricism and the Novel,” “Epistolarity and the Democratic Ideal,” Idealism and the Inhuman,” Realism in Literature and the Laboratory,” Scientists, Moral Realism and the New World Order,” “Subjects of Science,” and “Says Who? Science and Public Understanding.” Both books serve well as introductions to the relatively recent field of science and literature.

Charlotte Sleigh - Literature and ScienceIn this entry I begin with Sleigh. She starts by debunking several myths about science and literature, namely science as objective and literature as subjective, essentially the “two cultures” argument presented by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in a 1959 lecture. Science, she says, is all about persuading others that certain hypotheses are true, and “persuasion is primarily an art of language and literature.” “Science,” she goes on to say, “cannot be conducted without language, and language is not a neutral tool. It actively shapes knowledge just as much as does the decision to dissect this animal, use that microscope, perform this test, and so on.” The advent of modern scientific knowledge, moreover, was “intimately connected to the gentlemanly trustworthiness of the reporter. Who did this? Who saw this? Was it someone they could trust?” Further, scientific knowledge is also representational, and thus depends on language. Scientific facts are only meaningful when they are made up of words and images, “and these words and images bring a host of allusions, history and connotations that themselves become part of the representation as the science is further developed.” Indeed, language constructs scientific discovery, “since no scientist can think through the process without the words and images of their culture.”

The distinction between an object science and a subjective literature also breaks down when “one considers the human identity of scientists.” Scientists, like everyone else, experience passion, curiosity, and awe that motivates their work. Again, these are human motivations. Indelibly, literary and scientific work “remain human activities undertaken for very human motives.”

During the nineteenth century, “the distinction between scientific writing and other kinds of publications blurs considerably.” Indeed, other scholars have argued that during the nineteenth century “science was literature.” “Knowledge was less specialized than it is today,” Sleigh explains, “and educated readers would respond to both the scientific and the literary elements of any text.”

In chapter one, Sleigh considers “the transition to modern science that took place in the later seventeenth century and the literary implications of the natural philosophers’ switch from textual to observational knowledge,” that is, “empiricism.”  She focuses on Robert Boyle and the founding of the Royal Society of London in 1660. Recent scholarship shows, however, that “experimental science and novelistic prose were not merely parallel developments born of the social shifts of the seventeenth century.” Rather, “there was also a closer and more necessary relation between them, stemming from the fact that not all scientific witnessing could be done face-to-face.” Thus some scholars have “characterized Boyle’s writing as a ‘literary technology’ that was no less important than physical technology (the air pump) and social technology (the new gentlemanly codes of observation) in making knowledge.” She then compares these developments to several pieces of literature, particularly Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1727), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) and The Wrench (1978).

In chapter two, Sleigh shows how a Benthamite model of law in courtroom hearings is employed in the reading and writing of epistolary fiction, “the layers of the text allow[ing] the reader to hear multiple perspectives and even to simulate participation in the dialogue concerning the novel’s economy of virtue.” Mary Shelley’s lusus naturae, Frankenstein (1818), an “examination of the powers of reason and experience,” is “both epistolary in nature and presented for readers’ judgment” over heated debates regarding vitalism.

Chapter three looks at the early Victorian era, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), and William Whewell’s model of scientific method. For Whewell, science was more “than the grindings of pure, mathematical, deductive logic.” “Induction, rather than deduction,” he says, “is the source of the great scientific truths which form the glory, and fasten on them the admiration of modern times.” The underlying assumption here, as Sleigh points out, is that “a person had to have the correct idea in mind before she or he could weigh up the claims of scientific observations.” Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, first published in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34, and then published as a single volume in Britain in 1838, and Edgar Allen Poe’s editorship of Southern Literary Messenger and other writings “did not conform happily” to Whewell’s agenda. Poe goes so far as to suggest that “science could be done by the power of imagination better than it could by either of Whewell’s methods; that is, by inductive or deductive logic.”

Chapter four discusses the origin of realism in literature and laboratory, situating it in the “political turbulence of mid-nineteenth-century continental Europe.” Here Sleigh works closely with the work of French novelist and critic Emile Zola (1840-1902), who “came to present the scientist as a heroic figure.” Zola, among many other mid-nineteenth-century writers, artists, and dramatists, “professed a commitment to reality in their work.” They espoused “naturalism,” who “claimed to describe [things] as they inevitably were.” The science of evolution, Sleigh points out, “provided yet more evidence for Zola and the realists that humans obeyed the laws of nature.” “From positivism, statistics and evolutionary theory,” she continues, “naturalists gained confidence that they could explain and predict human behaviour, through a mixture of hereditary and environmental factors.” Zola subsumed this confidence in his novels, particularly his Thérèse Raquin (1867), where its characters are depicted as “predictable as chemicals in a test tube.”

Chapter five develops these themes further, in the form that realism took in Victorian Britain. Unlike continental thinkers, “Victorian realism was essentially moral rather than ontological,” which transitioned from “a theological form in the nineteenth century to a rather more secular version of authoritarianism in the twentieth.” Here we find case studies on George Eliot (1819-1890), Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), and H.G. Wells (1866-1946). Like the continental realists, Eliot’s novels were packed with accurate details. But unlike Zola and continental realists, rather than just explaining the “how,” she concerned herself with the “why” of human behavior. Sleigh makes comments on Eliot’s translation of David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus (trans. 1860), Romola (1862-63), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1876). According to Sleigh, these writings suggests “that it is not so much facts captured that matter as the spirit in which they are searched out,” a “kind of moral realism.” Similarly, Charles Kingsley’s writings, particularly his Two Years Ago (1857) and The Water Babies (1863) expresses the authority of the heroic scientist on firmly moral grounds. Indeed, the true scientist has Christ-like qualities, who courageously and selflessly pursues reform and truth.

In the later part of the nineteenth century, scientists became “more assertive in their efforts to dominate moral culture.” As Sleigh correctly points out, “histories of the supposed ‘conflict’ between religion and faith were written at this time.” The teaching—and, quite honestly—preaching of T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall are noted. As Ruth Barton pointed out, Tyndall’s 1874 Belfast Address “demonstrates an almost religious faith in science. “Believing, as I do,” writes Tyndall,

in the continuity of nature, I cannot stop abruptly where our microscopes cease to be of use. Here the vision of the mind authoritatively supplements the vision of the eye. By a necessity engendered and justified by science I cross the boundary of the experimental evidence, and discern in that Matter which we, in our ignorance of its latent powers, and notwithstanding our professed reverence for its Creator, have hitherto covered with opprobrium, the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.

Similar to Eliot, “there came for Tyndall a point where observations had to stop and only ‘veracious imagination’ could stand in. What governed this imagination was a moral economy of heroism: a lonely servitude to truth.” And here is where H.G. Wells comes in. He was, according to Sleigh, a “spokesman for the truth and social value of science.” It was Huxley’s views on evolution that guided his The Time Machine (1895). Other writings of Wells are more explicitly didactic in nature, including Anticipations (1901), A Modern Utopia (1905), The Outline of History (1918-19), The Open Conspiracy (1928), The Science of Life (1929-30), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932). Sleigh concludes this chapter with a brief look at William Morton Wheeler’s “The Termitodoxa, or Biology and Society” (1920), which she describes as “a thinly disguised demand for biologists to be given the social authority to practice their eugenics in human society,” and Aldous Huxley’s more ambivalent view of the value of science in his Brave New World (1932). Aldous Huxley and others began to “recognize that ‘pure’ science was in fact nothing of the sort, and that its alternative title, ‘high science,’ actually gave a great deal away about its class identity and purposes.”

Chapter six discusses the subjectivist reaction against the objective, realist perspective, particularly in subjectivist psychologies of associationism, Bergsonism, Freudianism, and beyond, producing literature and art that came to be known as “modernist.” According to Sleigh, the two brothers William (1842-1910) and Henry James (1843-1916) “form a happy pairing of science and literature.” Briefly discussed are William James’ “subjectivity of thought” in The Principles of Psychology (1890) and Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908), which is an example of “subjectivity without a subject.” Sleigh also includes May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier (1919), which more explicitly than the James’s combined “the relativistic insights of physics and psychology.” Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1905) is called “novel of modernity,” incorporating the science of thermodynamics, Darwinian and biological degeneration, and the subjectivity of time and space. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is the subjectivity of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, “an astonishing attempt to write a work of literature focalised by a character—whom we are given to understand is a Neanderthal—who barely possesses language.” Golding’s book “tapped into a specific debate of about fifty years’ standing regarding the order of mental and physical evolution.”

The final chapter brings us to the twenty-first century. The production of science is now inextricably linked to its consumption. Thomas Kuhn is noted for his “distrust of the big-progress story told by scientists.” The 1960s counterculture movement disputed scientific authority. “[The] promise of happiness, wrapped up in fake scientificity, together with the gabbled list, obligatory under the advertising code, of bizarre and occasionally horrific possible side-effects…undercuts the notion of heroic progress, and offers instead a cynical account of the promises of science in a climate of profit.” A crucial account of scientific hubris is told in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (1981), the maverick scientist “Allie Fox is arguably more of a Frankenstein figure than Frankenstein himself.” This theme of uncertainty is also exemplified in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) and Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) and The Corrections (2001), each responding to a number of man-made environmental incidents.

Sleigh offers at the end of each chapter a helpful selection of annotated relevant texts for further reading. This is extremely helpful as a reading list, encouraging readers to broaden or reconsider their existing arguments in light of the issues she raises. “Even though science and literature are more specialist fields than they were in Darwin’s day,” as Sleigh writes at the close of her introduction, “novels can still open up these questions about the credibility and value of science. Indeed, literature reveals that belief in science depends on many things—credibility, trust, rhetoric, representation and human motivation—beyond facts themselves.”

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