Modernist Responses to Science and Technology

The nineteenth century saw rapid advances in science which increasingly seemed to displace 'man' from the centre of the universe. Darwinian science suggested vast timescales in which recorded history was a pin-prick; the social sciences traced histories of languages and peoples; psychology depicted humans as driven by powerful and hidden forces; medicine and psychophysics represented the human body as a highly fallible apparatus. Most importantly, physics postulated new forces beyond the scale of the human, abandoning the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics for a new universe of invisible forces and energies: of electromagnetism ('Hertzian waves', 1888; X-rays, 1895), unstable matter (radium, 1898); of atoms conceived as vortices in the 'ether' rather than as stable entities.

At the same time, a tradition of critique of science's truth-claims developed. Critiques could be offered from within science itself: for a radical empiricist like Ernst Mach, scientific ideas are heuristic fictions which tell us as much about the organization and limits of our perception as about the 'real' world. Henri Poincaré — an inspiration to many modernists — argued that science simply offered ways of describing the world rather than absolute 'truth', seemingly closer to poetry than to mathematics. Perhaps the most influential attack on science was the Idealist F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality (1883). Bradley argued that the 'real' is better represented by the complex imagination of the poet rather than by the bloodless and abstract relations of the scientist, who creates the pretence that atoms and electromagnetic forces are the reality of the world. T. S. Eliot, who was to study Bradley as a research student, shared his understanding of the multiple world of the senses as well as his sense of the fracture between poetry and science (though in a typical reverse appropriation of science, Eliot was famously to declare that the best analogue for poetic creation was the action of a catalyst in chemistry, a substance which enabled other things to combine while remaining intact itself). Bradley's work fuelled the debate on whether science was a thin reduction of natural process (as Henri Bergson and T. E. Hulme contended) or in fact the best means of representing process and relatedness (Ernest Fenollosa: 'Poetry agrees with science and not with logic. . . . The more concretely and vividly we express the interactions of things the better for poetry') (cited in Bell, 1981, p. 101).

In fact, it was because the world posited by science, particularly after Einstein, was becoming so abstract and hypothetical that it came to seem like a kind of poetry. Using multi-dimensional geometries, statistical analyses of particles, positing matter with the properties of radiation, relativistic measurements, physics produced, as Wallace Stevens commented, 'a world in which there are no facts', in which science could be reclaimed for poetry. As Lisa Steinman puts it, in its indeterminacy 'the new physics seemed to heal the gap between the subjective and objective worlds' (Steinman, 1987, p. 65). We should perhaps stress the 'seemed' here, and the fact that modernist poets often gleaned their science second- or third-hand - from Arthur Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World (1928) and James Jeans's The Mysterious Universe (1930); from writings by Bertrand Russell and C. E. M. Joad. Perhaps the most influential exposition of scientific modernity was the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (1925), which with its discussions of quantum physics and its rejection of nineteenth-century materialism, was read by Stevens, Hart Crane and others as justifying a poetry of process, reflecting a chaotic new world.

As we will see, the poet who is central to the dissemination of scientific ideas within Anglophone modernism is Ezra Pound, who signed some of his essays 'Helmholtz' and who employed throughout his career a vocabulary derived from science, engineering and medicine: 'energy', 'precision', 'economy', 'diagnosis', 'antisepsis'. Pound's scientism served two broad purposes: to buttress the cultural authority of the critic; and to provide metaphors which might explain or energize a new style. In Quantum Poetics Daniel Albright argues that Pound, Yeats and Eliot were all inspired by particle physics in seeking the most elementary 'unit' of poetic utterance: the symbol, the image as dynamic monads. Mina Loy, in her poem 'Gertrude Stein' (c. 1924), describes her in a similar way as a 'Curie / of the laboratory / of vocabulary' who extracts 'a radium of the word' - countering Pound's linkage of scientific aesthetics to an anti-feminine stance.

Science was also, of course, linked to the huge technological changes of the new century, particularly in the USA. When Henry Adams sought a metaphor for the new era, he chose the giant Dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900, and for many modernist poets - for Yeats, Lawrence and others - the world of technological modernism was the enemy of the imagination. But another prominent strand of modernism, influenced by Italian futurism, celebrated the machine age. Gorham B. Munson, founder of the literary magazine Succession, declared in 1922 'a negative attitude towards modern life' and particularly 'Machinery' should be replaced by a more 'positive equilibrium'. William Carlos Williams's 'Classic Scene' celebrates an industrial landscape in which sits 'A power-house / in the shape of / a red brick chair / 90 feet high', a commanding American presence itself symbolic, like Adams's Dynamo, of modernity. Yet Williams also recognized the horror of technology disarticulated, or as Paterson III puts it 'Drier's Melancholy, the gears / lying disrelated to the mathematics of the / machine / Useless'. His attitude is, then, complex and even dialectical: the disarticulations of a motor car, for example, might even be a kind of creative process

(as the car crash is in The Great American Novel ). Others distinguished between different uses of science and technology: Hart Crane in the 'Cape Hatteras' section of The Bridge, for example, juxtaposes 'the looming stacks of the gigantic power house' and 'Power's script, — wound, bobbin-bound, refined' with the aspiration towards 'marathons new-set between the stars' represented by the Wright brothers. Crane insisted that poetry must 'absorb the machine', but he shared a general suspicion of what machine-age culture meant in practice.

Finally, it is important to note that relations between science and poetry are complex and mobile. Attitudes to Einstein act as a kind of indicator of these fluctuating and highly charged links. Hardy's 'Drinking Song' (1928) sees him as the culmination of the process of stripping away human illusion that began with Copernicus: 'And now comes Einstein with a notion — . . . / That there's no time, no space, no motion, / Nor rathe nor late, / Nor square nor straight, / But just a sort of bending-ocean'). Archibald MacLeish's 'Einstein' (1929) sees him as a solitary Prometheus, wrestling with the secrets of the universe. Marianne Moore's 'The Student' (1932) sees him as the embodiment of scientific open-mindedness. But for Pound, Lewis and others the relativistic universe was repellently fluid, offering the very opposite to the precision and classicism they sought (compare Lewis's fulminations against the 'slick' and 'streamlined'). Indeed, Lewis's 1934 description of Einstein as the 'race-mate' of Spinoza and Bergson anticipates the 'German Science' of the Nazis.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment