Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Scientific Objects and Blake's Objections to Science

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Scientific Objects and Blake's Objections to Science

Article excerpt

"Rather than merely suggesting that an arbitrary boundary of scientific respectability should be pushed out a little farther," Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman wrote, "these marginal instruments lead us to inquire about the fundamental nature of the scientific enterprise and the role instruments in it" (7). Although written at the end of the 20th century, this insight by two historians of science intersects with William Blake's intellectual and creative objections at the end of the 18th century to science and its instruments. Blake's objections, although often evoked as the paradigmatic response through which to trace general Romantic opposition to science, actually pursues analytic lines now articulated within contemporary scientific communities, which now recognize that observation impacts outcome.

As Kant, suggested, his shift in point of observation was akin to a Copernican revolution (Muller-Sievers 1-3), and when Blake, like Goethe or Novalis, "refused to stand apart from nature and insisted that the objects perceived could not be separated from the subject perceiving them" (Hankins & Silverman 87), they adopt a position at the foundation of quantum theory, which through theories of complementarity and uncertainty exploded the rigid subject/object divide essential to first-stage Enlightenment epistemology. And, as Harkins argued in an early work, the synthetic nature of Romanticism profited from its historical place as the last period preceding "the separation of science from literature" that occurred across the remainder of the 19th century, since both poets and natural philosophers (think here perhaps of Coleridge and Davy) saw themselves as equal participants in "'the republic of letters'" (Hankins 8). Romantic artists, philosophers, poets, and scientists placed "the study of nature at [the] very heart" (Hankins & Silverman 87) of its trans-disciplinary exploration of that nature within and without, and the poet/painter/prophet William Blake was no exception--although his approach to the "study of nature" remains unique both in its orientation and critical intensity.

When one contemplates Blake's critique of scientific instruments, the compass generally comes first to mind, especially given its prominent visual treatment in two works at the middle of the last decade of the century: the oft appropriated "Ancient of Days" image, the frontispiece to Europe, A Prophecy, and the equally famous painting of "Newton." The "Ancient of Days" design, which depicts a hoary-haired Urizenic god leaning out of a sun to inscribe order onto a chaotic universe, has become a constant presence as cover art for contemporary books discussing mathematics and physics (Lussier, "Blake and Science Studies" 186-213). The "Newton" painting, which depicts the nude scientist bending downward and drawing with a compass at the bottom of the ocean, served as inspiration for the towering sculpture by Epstein that greets visitors to the British Library, In both cases, the problem of the compass, in Blake's view, is its tendency to reduce through abstract mathematical representation "the unpredictability and complexity of nature" (Harkins & Silverman 87). To borrow appropriate terms from Jacques Lacan and Jean Charon, the compass imposes an imaginary order, thereby providing an instrumental mediation for mental projection onto what Blake termed "the Vegetable Glass of Nature," yet this imaginary order should not be (but often is) confused with both the imagination and its perception of the real. As Blake argues in a letter to Reverend Trusler, "Nature is Imagination itself" (Erdman 702), and the compass, an object produced by and reflective of instrumental reason, imposes its imaginary order and thereby erases actual experience (i.e. a perfect circle simply does not exists in nature other than as a manifestation of thought).

Blake was acutely aware of the mediational function of scientific instrumentation and its impact on the imagination, and he links these most profoundly in his painting of Newton, where the Lucasian Professor sits at the bottom of the "Sea of Time and Space," stares intently downward to its watery floor, and charts a mechanical universe completely at odds with the very environment within which he resides (fluid, dynamic, chaotic, and uncertain). …

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