A love note to literature, and a P.S. with kisses for science

Everybody knows that being an artist isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since the idea is fossilised in romantic layers truisms about starving for one’s art, or semi-cynical mocking of poetic tendencies and how bloody useless and impractical it sounds that, say, Alfred, Lord Tennyson took ten or so years to write a long-ish poem called The Holy Grail. I’ve heard scientists dismiss what sounds to me like fascinating research into medieval literary traditions as ‘pointless’ and ‘adding nothing real to human knowledge’. To the contrary, I argued, understanding medieval literary traditions broadens our knowledge of history, of religion, of the development of culture, the development of human subjectivity, psychology and of science itself. It was as ‘real’ a contribution to human understanding as studying, say, the evolution of star types (I should probably note at this juncture that both the medieval literary traditions, and the star-types astrophsyics, are the subjects of PhD theses written by friends of mine, who both attended Cardiff University). And that idea of ‘real’ knowledge is a weaselly little bastard, suggesting that some kinds of study are more valid than others but actually validating only the speaker’s view. To someone blindfolded, a tour around the Louvre will be less ‘real’ than the view impressed on them when sight is returned, and to wilfully blind yourself by arguing that some types of knowledge are more valid than others seems appallingly arrogant. To me, though any contribution to human knowledge is important, it’s a little less impressive to be looking a balls of gas billions and billions of light-years away than it is to be studying literature, which I view as a delightful blend of crystallised contemporary culture, imagination and language.

Art reflects life. It has to, in order to generate any meanings with its audience. And art requires an audience, is always painted or performed or screened for an audience. Shakespeare’s histories are full of references to Renaissance culture, because he wasn’t writing to an audience of classicists, he was writing to Renaissance people. Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), a classic of science fiction, is packed full of adventures in phenomenally futuristic technology – but video is recorded on tapes, which must have made perfect sense at the time but are, of course, incongruously dated now. That’s what I mean by moments of culture crystallised in literature. And that’s one of the things that makes literature so crucial to human understanding – and I don’t just mean ‘art’ literature. I mean everything. I mean music, TV, magazines, pulpy crime thrillers, as well as the off-puttingly judgemental label ‘literary fiction’ – but my issues with literary fiction are an issue for another time.

For scientists (my absolutely not comprehensive, but instead dramatically-appropriate, sample of two scientists both had to be convinced of the value of literature) to dismiss literature as ‘unreal’ strikes me as not just frustrating, but frustratingly arrogant. Another scientist I know once asked me why I thought that literature could say anything about human psychology because the characters were made up. The question absolutely bowled me over. As a student of literature and a teacher of creative writing, I’d completely forgotten that something I took for granted was so unintuitive to someone else trained in a completely different discipline. Literature tells us about human psychology because it was written by a human being. On one level, it really is that simple. Literature tells us about history because it was written by people immersed in history; it tells us about culture because it both responds to and creates culture, be it high culture or popular culture; rinse and repeat for philosophy, sociology, even particular knowledge of science. It can be analysed in any way you like, meaning can be read into it in many ways, some of which are of course more useful and yielding than others, but it is always a contribution to human knowledge – even if that knowledge is a little bit meta, and tells you more about the critic than about the text, because it’s knowledge that is unusually reflexive about the human condition.

What bothered me the most about those exchanges, though, was the fact that they reflected a ‘division’ in intellectual pursuits that I had, innocently, assumed that people had grown out of because I’d grown out of it.

I’ve always believed that science and art are completely complimentary because they cover such different areas of human experience and knowledge. Literature generates a form of analysis that operates entirely outside the scientific method, which is one reason it’s so valuable – because the scientific method sometimes turns up in really peculiar places because people think it’s a better form of knowledge (but anybody who reads XKCD will know how untrue that is). At its most basic, empirical analysis of a book reveals: ink, words, pages, paper. The most casual literary analysis of scientific texts probably provides little more than a comment like ‘you haven’t consistently hyphenated jiggle-mapping’ (a sentence I have had the pleasure of uttering – to my friend who did a PhD in astrophysics, in fact). Physics can tell us truly amazing things about music, how it’s made, why things sound the way they do, but not why people like and dislike different things. The divergence in their interests makes sure that everything is covered, but also the comparison between disciplines, in a way, means that they can keep each other grounded.

This is also going up unedited, simply because I’m sleepy and I was just recording some ponderings. I may come back and tweak it later if it turns out I’ve done that thing where my brain was going faster than my fingers and I’ve missed key words out of sentences.

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