Thursday, January 05, 2006
What to do with a Mexican Jumping Bean: Science and Poetry
The debate is over what to do with a Mexican Jumping Bean. For those who don’t know, these are beans found in northwestern Mexico, which make little jerking, rolling movements, seemingly of their own accord (see a Flash video). They are apparently pretty easy to get at shops in the southwestern part of the U.S. Here is Jonathan’s account of the debate between the two writers:
The incident with André Breton and the Surrealists concerned a Mexican jumping bean and resulted, according to Caillois, in a rift developing between himself and the Surrealists. The question is: given the mystery of Mexican jumping beans, is the more fruitful posture to break them open and dispel the enigma (Caillois’ preference) or to respect the enigma and harness whatever imaginative possibilities it appeared to invite (Breton’s position)?
I think this question perfectly exemplifies the difficulties I alluded to earlier of the possible oppositional character of science and poetry. In the context above, Caillois places himself as the man of Science, intent on cutting to the core of the problem and finding out what is going on inside the bean. Breton on the other hand is the mystic, the hermit who will watch the bean jumping for hours, formulating in his head an infinite number of ways to explain why the bean is jumping. Is there a tormented soul trapped inside it? Did a woman rub it between her lips and cause it to become excited? Has it become wet with the urine of a wombat and developed paroxysms? All of these questions rapidly come to mind, stimulating the poetic instinct.
Jonathan agrees with Caillois (so do I) that thorough knowledge of natural phenomena need not be the death of poetry. For one thing, as Jonathan points out, even cutting open the bean to find out what is inside wouldn’t actually resolve the question of what makes the beans jump by itself. The larvae, freed from the limiting shell of the bean, would likely die—it certainly wouldn’t jump. Moreover, it wouldn’t explain at all how the Jumping Bean Moth evolved into a dependant (parasitical) relationship with this particular species of plant, so as to feed on its seeds, metamorphose, and eventually hatch out of the hollowed shell of the same seed. As Jonathan puts it:
Cutting the bean in half like a true scientist reveals that there is something inside making it jump, but poses a new question: why? Why does the larva throw itself around like that? This is very often the way with science. Tearing back the veil of one mystery reveals another, a Russian doll of conundrums, one inside the next, each more mysterious than the one before, deep mysteries, mysteries of time, of evolution. Like the question of how the ear evolved with tiny bones inside it. Or of how eyes developed as orbs of transparent jelly.
In effect, scientific reasoning is no less dependent on acts of the imagination—and metaphor—than poetry. Especially with his comments on evolution, Jonathan is here echoing Caillois’ arguments in a 1935 essay called “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," where Caillois explores a series of odd natural resemblances that are the result of evolutionary accidents (such as a particular species of South American butterfly that resembles an owl, or the praying mantis). Caillois uses the word “mimicry” to describe this mode of resemblance, but of course it isn’t really that at all (the animal has no knowledge of the other animal or natural phenomenon it resembles, nor has it intended to resemble anything).
Incidentally, Jonathan Wonham’s post is inspired by Donna Roberts’ review of Caillois’ The Edge of Surrealism (PDF), which also discusses Caillois’ relationship with the writer and analyst Georges Bataille, who was also both a scientist (or at least a philosopher) and a poet. Of the three writers Caillois seems to be the most grounded—emphasizing methodical rigour over brilliant madness. And yet, in at least one sample of his work that Jonathan Wonham himself has translated on his blog, one gets a sense of a powerful literary imagination. Here is Wonham’s translation of a prose poem by Caillois called “Siliceous Concretions”, which describes, in a somewhat clinical way, the beauty in a rock formation in the Ile-de-France. Here I’ll only quote a few lines:
Other volumes, more powerfully curved, hold up an efficient shield to invisible pressure. These are the ones which are slow to thin or fold themselves, the opposite of lazy they are fashioned by a long evasiveness.
An underground current filters through the sand to slowly form these great tears of stone fixed in a flight which is forever headlong, forever immobile. For it is the water which flees.
Notice the intriguing anthropomorphizing of the rocks under the water. Obviously Caillois knows as he writes that the objects he’s looking at are neither “lazy” nor “evasive” in any proper sense, nor does water “flee.” These verbs are all metaphors, which do not deny the truth of science, though they do perhaps move laterally away from its mode of perception. (Read the whole prose-poem here).
There is a danger of launching from here into large generalizations about scientific thinking vs. poetic thinking. At most, I would say that any strong opposition between the two is questionable: even as a more scientific kind of poet, Caillois remained a poet. But do you know of other examples of the interplay between science and literature? Scientists who were creative writers, or people who are primarily writers who’ve responded directly to scientific ideas or knowledge?
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Also see Jonathan Wonham’s interview with Ivy Alvarez, discussing science and poetry, here.
Update: As with so many things, I find that Scott McLemee has already been there, done that (free link at the Chronicle of Higher Ed).
See also here:
"In effect, scientific reasoning is no less dependent on acts of the imagination—and metaphor—than poetry.”
Edward O. Wilson, in his book _Consilience_, wrote about how poems could be written about scientific subjects and so on. I am sceptical.
I have been both a (beginning) scientist and a (bad) poet. And for what my introspection is worth, the writing-poetry state of mind is indeed more like the hypothesis-generating part of science. When Breton is wondering whether there is a tormented soul inside the bean, whether it’s been licked by a woman or peed on by a wombat, etc., that’s like the scientist looking at something and wondering what explains it. But a scientist then goes on and designs something to try to eliminate possibilities. A poet generally tries to keep all the original fizzing ambiguity. (I write “generally” because poetry can be anything, of course.) Caillois’ prose poem is not really a negative example: it appears to be a fairly standard nature poem in which a natural object is observed, described, and finally used for a mystic leap (the “25 million years” part).
So far I’ve really just repeated what you wrote. But my point is that in scientific work there is a turn from one kind of thought to another that I don’t think that poetry really shares in. I agree with “There is a danger of launching from here into large generalizations about scientific thinking vs. poetic thinking” and I don’t think there’s a strong opposition between the two, but I think there is more of an opposition than you suggest.
Rich, you raise a good objection.
It occurs to me that it might be useful to return to the old distinction between theory (under which I would include most forms of comprehension and interpretation) and action.
For most thinking, scientists are as dependent on metaphor (especially the metaphor of anthropomorphism) as we are. They are not dependent on it when they are actively performing tests; that is something else, and it doesn’t make sense to see it as connected to poetry at all.
But it might be possible to say from a linguistics point of view that a certain kind of poetry might perform conceptual tests on our understanding of what objects are in and through language. Take Ted Hughes’ famous poem, “The Jaguar”:
But who runs llike the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, memerized,
As a child at a dream, at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes
On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom -
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear -
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
It’s possible to read Hughes’ poem as demystifying the “caged” jaguar, challenging our anthro-centric understanding: the jaguar doesn’t know what a cage is, and will never know. Hughes is getting us to see the world as (he presumes) the jaguar sees it, and as such is testing the limits of cognition.
(On the other hand, Hughes is as guilty of other kinds of mystifying anthropomorphisms and, as you put it, “fizzing ambiguities,” as anyone. So maybe not.) Incidentally, this poem was discussed in an interesting way in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello...
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It’s not really directly relevant to your point, but here’s more on anthropomorphism in science by a comp. sci. professor at UT-Austin:
Let me first relate my experience that drove home how pervasive anthropomorphism is. It took place at one of the monthly meetings of the science section of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, where we were shown a motion picture made through a microscope. Thanks to phase contrast microscopy . . . it is now possible to see through the microscope undied cultures of living cells, and that was what they had done while making this motion picture. It showed us - somewhat accelerated - the life of a culture of amoebae. For quite a while we looked at something we had never seen: I can only describe it as identifiable bubbles with irregular changing contours, slowly moving without any pattern through a two-dimensional aquarium. To all intents and purposes it could have been some sort of dynamic wallpaper. It was, in fact, rather boring, looking at those aimlessly moving grey blots, until one of the amoeba in the centre of the screen began to divide. We saw it constrict, we saw in succession all the images familiar from our high-school biology, we saw the centres of the two halves move in opposite directions until they were only connected by a thin thread as they began to pull more frantically at either end of the leash that still connected them. Finally the connection broke and the two swam away from each other at the maximum speed young amoebae can muster.
The fascinating and somewhat frightening observation, however, was that at the moment of the rupture one hundred otherwise respectable scientists gave all a sigh of relief: “at last they had succeeded in freeing themselves from each other." None of us had been able to resist, as the division process went on, the temptation to discern two individuals with which we could identify and of which we felt - more in our bones that in our brains, but that is beside the point - how much they “wanted” to get loose. A whole pattern of human desires had been projected on those blots! Crazy, of course, but such is the pervasive and insidious habit of anthropomorphic thought.
I thought this was interesting because Prof. Dijkstra makes it a point to describe the amoebae without any anthropomorphism at all in the first paragraph, and it’s purely abstract—like looking at wallpaper. Then one of the other scientists in the room creates a human plot… and suddenly, it’s possible to “understand” it.
A wee footnote.
The profound kinship of all living substance
Is made clear by the chemical route.
Without some chemistry one is bound to remain
Forever a dumbfounded savage
In the face of vital reactions.
The beautiful relations
Shown only by biochemistry
Replace a stupefied sense of wonder
With something more wonderful
Because natural and understandable.
I have followed up some of the issues in this article by Amardeep which draws on my original post about Caillois with a further post on my blog
Well, the relation between the College of Sociology and the surrealists was a very vexed one. Caillois was certainly closer to Bataille and later to Lacan than to Breton. And I think a stranger and deeper thinker than Breton as well. Certainly “Mimesis et le psychasthene legendaire” is one of the foundational essays of twentieth century French theory. And Caillois’s pieces on the praying mantis are also extraordinary.
Oh. right and I meant to add that it turns out that Caillois’s completely weird claims about mimicry—that they aim at being devoured by space, or at least that they often put the mimic at risk rather than protecting it, finds serious and powerful confirmation in the work by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi on The Handicap Principle.
Addressing the original question ("But do you know of other examples of the interplay between science and literature? Scientists who were creative writers, or people who are primarily writers who’ve responded directly to scientific ideas or knowledge?"), I suggest starting with Carl Djerassi and Alan Lightman. Also, you might consult http://www.lablit.com/ - a site devoted to “The Culture of Science in Fiction and Fact”.
In re Amardeep’s 01/06/06 post about “more on anthropomorphism in science,” it seems open to question why the scientists were said to be “projecting” on the dividing cells—why this was referred to as anthropomorphism. Isn’t it more likely that all the human beings in the room, themselves the products of millions of cell divisions, identified “in their cells” with what they were watching? Which came first, cell or scientist?