THE search is on for a theory of everything. Scientists are on a quest to unify the little and large of theoretical physics: the microcosm of the sub-atomic world and the macrocosm of Einstein's universe. The prize is a total explanation for the behaviour of matter itself.
Not everyone, however, is impressed: 'Quarks, quasars--big bangs, black holes--who gives a shit?' asks the literary academic Nightingale in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia. 'If knowledge isn't self-knowledge, it isn't doing much, mate'.
Nightingale's diatribe might be seen as a rather extreme advocacy for the primacy of Art over Science. But perhaps it does have some justification, after all. For, even if we do eventually manage to explain how matter works, how would that help us to understand how we work? Pardon the pun, but does it matter that much?
This isn't to say that the unification theory of theoretical physics is not significant in itself, only that the relative importance of the search for ultimate scientific explanations may have been blown out of all proportion. Possibly this is because there seems to be a popular misconception that the only area in which absolute reality can be clearly or comprehensively revealed is that of physics or Science, i.e. not that of philosophy or Art, whose concern is with man as opposed to matter.
We appear, in other words, to have little or no confidence in our ability to do with Art what we are trying to achieve with Science. This would explain the fact that Arcadia was widely welcomed on its opening in 1993 in terms of the contribution it made to the debate on chaos theory rather than for its artistic contribution, which is considerable. So great was the misunderstanding, in fact, that Stoppard felt impelled to try to put things right. 'My only interest in science is a philosophical interest', he said. 'My interest in chaos mathematics is an artist's interest, not a scientist's'.
Taking Stoppard as our cue, perhaps it is time to redress the balance in favour of Art. This is particularly apposite considering that we are fortunate to live in an age where Art may be approaching a watershed of knowledge. Perhaps now we can at least anticipate in the not too distant future a theory of everyone, as opposed to the theory of everything with which Science is currently concerned. This is not directly related to the Human Genome Project and our increasing understanding of the influence of genes on our behaviour, although this may prove to have some bearing on the final outcome.
What is at issue here operates on a deeper, more fundamental level, a level that relates to the nature of reality as it affects man, which is what Art is concerned with, as opposed to the nature of reality as it affects matter, which is the concern of Science. We are, that is, close to seeing the hard outlines of the nature of reality as it concerns man, just as we may be close to going that much further into the nature of reality as it concerns matter. And, in this respect, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia presents us with an appropriate starting point. For, in this search for human significance, for the meaning of human life itself, it's drama that is unmistakably playing the leading role in the world of Art.
There is a certain irony in this. With the possible exception of the Greek Tragedians and Shakespeare, drama has rarely been at the forefront of philosophical exploration. For even the greatest playwrights have generally been masters at asking questions about the meaning of life while mere apprentices at providing answers.
More recent playwrights, however, with Tom Stoppard the outstanding example, are different. Where Shakespeare asked all the significant questions in Hamlet, for instance, but stopped short when it came to answers, in Arcadia, Stoppard nonchalantly blends Science with Art to show us how to find those answers.
So, what is this paragon of plays …