Figuring the Unknown

MRB September 14, 2017 0

A review of Judith H. Anderson’s Light and Death: Figuration in Spenser, Kepler, Donne, Milton.

Judith Anderson, Light & Death: Figuration in Spenser, Kepler, Donne, Milton. Fordham University Press, 2017. $65.00.

In 1959, a British novelist and chemist named Charles Percy Snow delivered a memorable lecture at the University of Cambridge. This lecture, later known as The Two Cultures, would come to emblematize the perceived gulf between scientists and humanists, a gulf that left each virtually illiterate in the others’ areas of knowledge.

Snow described his deep frustration with the scientific ignorance of his humanist colleagues and friends: “Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: ‘Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?’”

Such illiteracy, Snow claimed, was unprecedented in modern history.

During the European Enlightenment and after, literary figures understood and even contributed to the scientific debates of their day. As an important example, the most famous German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe studied optics, anatomy, and even offered pioneering botanical observations. Snow’s sympathies lie with the scientific mind-set, and the burden of re-education routinely falls on the humanist to better understand the scientific disciplines that Snow argued make the humanist’s life possible.

Over a half-century of revisionary work in the history of science, as well as cultural and intellectual history, lies between Snow’s infamous lecture and Judith H. Anderson’s Light and Death: Figuration in Spenser, Kepler, Donne, Milton. However, the nagging problem of cultural division remains behind her analysis of literary and scientific figuration in the century of the New Science, the seventeenth century. Snow, and his many reformulations in the hands of scientists, humanists, and side-line observers, remain consistent interlocutors in her work. As Anderson is a humanist herself, an English professor with specialization in the poetry of the English Renaissance, the interdisciplinary impulse in her work remains consistently grounded in the practices of literary study, such as close reading, the tracing of allusion, and cultural study. Behind those literary methods lies an impulse to integrate the disciplines of science and the humanities, answering the problem Snow detected in 1959 from the other side.

To this end, Anderson turns her attention to several artists and scientists at the dawn of modern science, the early to mid-seventeenth century, an age when no disciplinary boundaries existed between enterprises scientific and artistic (let alone humanistic, in a modern sense). As her title indicates, she discusses three English poets—Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and John Milton—and one German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Anderson argues that despite writing radically different genres—poetry and astronomical treatises among them—these writers share a roughly common sense of what it means to be a maker and thinker. According to Anderson, these authors consider their work an act of “making” itself, one that partakes of a common registry of creative practices. In turn, she supposes that these creative practices have a relationship, however oblique, to basic human facts. Anderson extends this branch to the scientific mind-set of Snow: human beings have a shared set of practices for approaching the difficult and otherwise insoluble problems of life.

The result is that Anderson appeals to shared human conditions, though she would insist that these are not shared values, perhaps, but shared limitations.

The scientist, the poet, the philosopher, and the theologian equally and inevitably encounter blank spaces in knowledge that will not yield to the sophistication of any discrete method.

Death is one of these spaces and perhaps the emblem of the rest. According to Anderson, when faced with the certainty of death, everyone resorts to figuration. Death is a black box, a void, a gap, a moment of sleep, or an eternity. Any number of disciplinary viewpoints could arrive at one of these formulations, yet what they all have in common, Anderson insists, is an attempt to build by comparison – to light the unknown by the known. Scientist and poet alike try to build systems of resemblances, ways of lighting that black box.

This is the proper subject of the book, the study of analogy. With a history reaching back to Aristotle and beyond, analogy is the arch-trope of classical and Renaissance rhetoric, but also the fulcrum of natural philosophers, like Aristotle himself, who are the predecessors of modern scientists. Analogies attempt to construct knowledge out of the unknowable via imaginative connections between things. They are, for Anderson, freighted with emotional as well as cognitive weight, and they function poetically at the same time that they build knowledge.

Analogy, whether scientific or artistic, is “essentially creative, imaginative, fictive, hypothetical, and metaphorical.”

Her study of analogy leads her to analyse how poets like John Donne analogize their way out of otherwise intractable problems of ignorance and fear, but also to the work of Kepler, where analogy forms the basis of his pioneering astronomical system. Anderson shies away from cognitive explanations of analogy, preferring to imagine that each analogical system works within a cultural framework, though also with the creator’s additions and refinements.

In her study of a practice common to natural philosophers and literary makers, Anderson’s goal is not entirely dissimilar to Snow’s. She too wants an integration of scientific and humanistic enterprises but an integration at the level of method rather than at the level of knowledge. For comparison, the work of biologist E.O. Wilson tries also to integrate the scientific and humanist disciplines, but from the other side of the fence. Wilson’s idea of “consilience” describes the integration of scientific and humanistic knowledge, not of method. In other words, humanistic knowledge can be imported into scientific canons; literature and art can be studied for psychological and cognitive allegories, or can suggest hypostases of evolutionary history in motion. When formulated in this way, the scientific method remains essentially transparent, its canons of knowledge are what is at issue.

It falls to the humanities to “speak science,” make their specific knowledge available in the domain of science.

That there’s something figurative, something poetic, about the scientific method, remains far from Wilson’s point.

Anderson’s claim is the opposite. According to her book, the scientist and the poet work from a common code of analogical figuration—or at least once they worked this way. In the hinge of her book, a central chapter on the cultural history of scientific, rhetorical, and philosophical analogy, she describes the common tropes of metaphoric figuration available at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. She assesses several such codes, but the unifying one is that of poiesis, or making. In the hands of England’s most famous defender of poetry, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), poiesis describes the common art of imaginative making, not merely a specialized domain like verse. In her analysis of the optical and metaphysical works of the pioneering astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Anderson argues that Kepler shared strategies of figuration with his contemporaries who were also philosophers, theologians, and poets.

Kepler considered his own analogical scientific method as essentially creative and deeply religious.

He built creative analogies that are subject to literary as well as scientific scrutiny. Indeed, if we cut away the literary figurative elements of Kepler’s work, we miss much about what he thought made it distinctive and valuable.

“So what?” the scientist might seriously ask. As philosopher of science Rudolf Carnap once intimated, the path from scientific method to knowledge is not especially complicated. Scientific method attempts to reduce complicating factors to a minimum. For the scientific thinker like Wilson, scientific knowledge is still at issue, not whether scientists and poets have methods or interests in common.

For this reason I insisted earlier on Anderson’s tactic of grounding the methodological comparison in terms of shared human limitations. The analogical method is a poignant reminder of humanity’s inability to transcend limitations except by imaginative effort, an effort that is life-affirming to the precise extent that it recognizes its failure to change the irreducible tragedies of death and the unknown. This hard imaginative effort will fail, but the expense of effort against limitations remains valid and powerful against the backdrop of life’s inevitable end.

In the seventeenth century, the expense of seminal fluid was believed to shorten life, thus the idea that orgasm constituted a “little death.” For this reason, a despondent Shakespeare called sex “An expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” In Donne, this seminal expenditure forms a critical part of his poetic making, where wit acts to transform the difficult rudiments of human life into creative analogy.Each poem, like each sex act, costs a little of his life.But the cost of such effort always registers in the poem, as a small death that prolongs the interest in life.

According to Anderson, human making, both scientific and artistic, is the process of coming to know limitations by imagining how they might be different. It too is an expense of spirit, a waste, but a waste that prolongs life, if only temporarily, via difficult and adequate thought.


Clay Greene is a doctoral candidate in Yale University’s department of English. A specialist in the seventeenth-century, he has worked on, among other subjects, the poetry of John Milton and George Herbert, as well as on the intersections of literature and contemporary philosophy.