23 April 2010

The battle of the novel and the physics textbook

Why study the humanities, stated with a burning conviction by Rabindranath Tagore:
The real truth is that science is not man’s nature, it is mere knowledge and training. By knowing the laws of the material universe you do not change your deeper humanity. You can borrow knowledge, but you cannot borrow temperament.
Of course we all like suspension bridges, antibiotics and computers, but our technical mastery over the world will be as pathetic as Ozymandias if we lose what makes us human, namely what Tagore calls "temperament" (I'm not sure what word he uses in Bengali).

This mystical component of our nature is encoded in texts and in language, and Tagore is right that it is irreplaceable—we cannot consume our way to enlightenment. Science (and the glorious devices it makes possible, such as the laptop I use for my writing and much of my reading) runs the risk of turning us into interchangeable components of a vast machine, or perhaps worse, into animals whose basic needs are satisfied but who no longer strive to fashion themselves into human beings.

I study texts, particularly literary texts, because they are real in a way that manufactured things never can be. When we read a text, there's a sort of spark of creation that passes between reader and the words in a way that, for example, does not happen when we use a toaster. A toaster just is, but a text becomes. The relationship we have with texts is like a feedback loop, because reading makes us better readers and by being better readers we are then able to engage more deeply with texts and so on. This heightened sensitivity induced by reading, whose importance I try to convey to students in a roundabout way (because honestly the unvarnished version sounds a little too much like some celebrity cult of self-empowerment), is the keystone of our humanity. This is an old idea: Confucius, too, saw his task as educating people to be human.

Unlike Tagore, I am not categorically opposed to science. (For him the Western science curriculum was a colonial imposition on corruptible young Indian minds and therefore to be resisted on patriotic grounds.) Still, the science that attracts me basically speaks to me textually. When Tagore was writing, he could not have realized that some aspects of science, especially after Einstein, would become compelling like narratives written with the syntax of nature itself. He could not have known that the universe is made of sub-microscopic vibrating strings or that mitochondrial DNA evidence proves that our common ancestors sauntered out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. Here science is not mere "knowledge and training" but able to tell stories.

The appreciation of literature has been sidelined on the one hand by the practical claims of science (the logic of science, it has been argued, is the logic of modernity itself), but also by a fundamentally elitist classification of literature today: The postmodern effort to bring "non-traditional" texts like TV shows, rock music and so on into university curricula meant that ironically the wagons had to be circled around the "real" literature like poetry, the art novel, etc. Entering the temple of "real" literature is now forbidding and the gatekeepers (for example, the poetry editors of The New Yorker and The Atlantic) exercise too much arbitrary power. Good poetry is not necessarily what appears in magazines but what has the capacity to change us.

The point is that we should focus on the act of reading and not fetishize particular genres as providing this or that benefit to the reader. I knew and became very close to someone who professed that he neither liked nor understood poetry. I couldn't make sense of this—for me, being unable to appreciate poetry was like having a congenital brain deformity—and tried, with limited success, to bring verse into his life. I discovered, to my great relief, that even though he thought poetry was a pile of horseshit (which I think are his exact words), he appreciated other kinds of texts, especially long-form journalism. He was actually one of the most sensitive readers I have ever met, which is to say, fully human.

Even if lines like the following (by Adrienne Rich) cannot be reduced to a testable proposition, they sublimate our thinking:
But put an ocean or a fence
Between two opposite intents
A hair would span the difference.
The task of the humanities then is to provide succor to a person on his/her journey of self-fashioning, which seems egoistical because it's about just one person, yourself. But a group of  individuals is a society, and a society of readers is (at its utopian best) sensitive to its collective needs.

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