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