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Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2007

Article excerpt

The winner of this year's prize is Jonathan Greenberg's "Why Can't Biologists Read Poetry? Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. "The judge is Hortense J. Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in English at Vanderbilt University. Professor Spillers's recent work has appeared in New Centennial Review, boundary 2, and German and Japanese journals, and she is working on a manuscript titled "The Idea of Black Culture," to be published by Blackwell's.

Professor Spillers writes:

  I cannot think of a more daunting task in the powers of discernment
  that I have been called on to exercise lately than trying to select
  the winner of the 2007 Andrew J. Kappel Prize for Twentieth-Century
  Literature. Actually, the assignment has provoked a good deal of
  humility and enough anxiety of judgment in me to last awhile, except
  to say that I am sure that a case could be made for any of the
  nominees. The proof of the latter is that I have changed my mind at
  least once. That's how good they were! But "Why Can't Biologists Read
  Poetry? Ian McEwan's Enduring Love" homes right in on my own literary
  critic's readerly resistance with virtually shocking, laser-like
  precision. To cite one of the closing lines of the argument, literary
  critics can't read science (nor do they always want to) when, like the
  heroine of McEwan's Enduring Love, "they attend solely to an
  instinctual or emotional register and dismiss reflexively the
  legitimacy of science and reason," while the scientists are unable to
  read poetry when "they become triumphant rationalists, refusing to
  acknowledge the origins of their ideas in their interests--economic,
  psychological, or corporeal." I began my reading of this essay with a
  child's attitude toward eating her vegetables, or in consonance with
  the primary figurative path of the essay, not very interested in a
  "happy marriage" between literature and science, but ended up all
  aglow, to my considerable surprise, with the hope "for a rapprochement
  between the disciplines." The essay walked me--almost literally--from
  dismissive reflexion to submissive meditation in the course of a
  couple of dreary late-fall afternoons. In that regard, reading the
  essay was itself a kind of living demonstration of the very argument
  that it was making, as I was delighted to misrecall in the process
  that one of the subliminal "heroes" in the interstices of the piece--
  William Wordsworth--notes in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the
  Lyrical Ballads not exactly what I remember, but close enough in
  intimating that no perdurable chasm opens between poetry and science,
  if "poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge," as well
  as "the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all
  Science." Well over a century and a half later, this felicitous
  collision is still news.
    For the reasons that I have delineated, then, I have chosen "Why
  Can't Biologists Read Poetry?" for this year's Kappel Prize. No small
  part of my immense pleasure in reading this writing rests in the
  clarity of its prose and the eloquent persuasive force of its
  arguments. The evidence is steadily marshalled across varying
  conceptual terrains--from narrative theory, textual explication, and
  "close reading" to neo-Darwinist theory in the context of sociobiology
  and evolutionary psychology as well as aspects of philosophical and
  psychoanalytical debate. Rendered harmonious by what I would call an
  interpretive tour de force, these differing and dissonant discourses
  are aimed at offering "less a Darwinian reading of culture than a
  cultural reading of Darwinism" on the disciplinary basis of the
  humanities, especially literary criticism. The essay serves, then, as
  a staging ground of inquiry "into both the new Darwinism and the
  resistance to it" as it poses both the central question that drives
  it, "Why can't biologists read poetry? …