Poetry and Science

By Elshtain, Eric | Chicago Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Poetry and Science


Elshtain, Eric, Chicago Review


Such is Nature-description as referring to a class, an action, a quality, and an individual substance. It is this very [descriptionl that rules supreme in scientific treatises; and in poetry too the same [type of description] is required.

-Kavyadarsa of Dandin 6th century.

Not only are poetry and science both theories of the world, they are also worlds in and of themselves, from the world of Herbert's Mr. Cogito to Winograd's Blocks World of early AI. And in so much as genres themselves supply us with meaning even before we get to the actual information, what do we do with the fact that, on a linguistic level, poetry and science are exactly the same thing? Much has been made of humanists' abuse of and misunderstandings about certain scientific ideas that result in the portrait of science as a cold-eyed discourse. But then what to do with, to borrow a phrase from Lyn Hejinian, the cold of poetry?

Both science and poetry wrestle with the "out there" using propositions composed of language. Maybe it's not a question of how attentive a scientist should be to poetry or vice versa, but rather a question of that fact that they are possibly the same thing, the same genre, the same iterations of epistemology and ontology and biology. To use the Linnean binomial "musca domestica," whether in an article in Nature or as the title of a book (as poet Christine Hume recently has), involves the same register of abstraction, though possibly with different ends in mind. But it's the means--subject matter subjected to language--that we're interested in.

Was Goethe's pursuit to find the intermaxillary bone in humans a scientific one or a poetical one? Both. It's in the language that he used. It's in the primacy of observation--the center of all good science and poetry and poetic science and scientific poetry. Science written as poetry uses the same raw materials as science written as science. "The world," as Aldous Huxley says, "is poetical intrinsically and what it means is simply itself." A poem, in some sense, is an 'organic unity' that does not point beyond itself--a poem is ruined if its form is changed. What it says cannot be conveyed by any other means than in poetry. "No phenomenon explains itself of itself," says Goethe. It must be supplied with, among other things, a literariness through which the phenomena will come to light. The poetic language is an aspect of Goethe's scientific methodology, and, in some respects, the science cannot be lifted out of Goethe's language without doing harm to the ideas. Style and scientific purpose are fused, in tur n giving weight to the science and emphasizing the style.

In Goethe ambiguity is a viable intellectual and scientific tool. Certain investigations stop at the moment of apercu, and without fully establishing the link between observation and thought, an observation is held in a moment of poetic suspension that awaits another reader's perceptions to give it closure. The non-instrumentality of language does not preclude an efficacious science since, as Goethe observed, "perception is itself a thinking." Language proceeding perception need not be an account or message but merely suggest or act in the manner of perception itself.

There was no Golden Age when poetry and science were considered the same thing--but in order to begin again to speak of the relationship between these two efforts at describing the world and creating new worlds, we must forget about C. P. Snow's "two cultures." Unfortunately, The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science, a collection of essays edited by Kurt Brown (Univ.

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