Contemporaries

Contemporaries

Contemporaries

Contemporaries

Excerpt

Ever since the end of the eighteenth century, when great poets like Goethe and Blake denounced experimental science as partial and inconclusive, the distinctively modern writers have been those who have claimed that literature gives us a more direct and more comprehensive access to reality than science can. It is not knowledge as such, or even the power over nature that can be won through knowledge, that the modern writers have questioned; it is knowledge gained by scientific method. Wordsworth says disapprovingly that we murder to dissect, and Whitman condescendingly turns his back on the "learn'd astronomer" to look up "in perfect silence at the stars." Poe cried out in his sonnet "To Science" that science had robbed the world of its magic, and later in the nineteenth century the great French visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud, himself in the tradition set up in France by disciples of Poe, protested that "our pale reason hides the infinite front us." As early as the seventeenth century, the particular concern of the modern writer is typified by that genius in both mathematics and literature, Blaise Pascal, who wrote that the heart has its reasons -- which reason cannot know. Yet the spell of even scientific knowledge is so great that Goethe made investigations in botany and optics, realistic novelists from Balzac to Zola have conceived of fiction as a branch of biology, and in the twentieth century an extraordinary poet and would-be mathematician, Paul Valéry, wrote certain poems as if he were preparing theorems.

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