When Literature was Science

MRB September 7, 2017 0

Clio Doyle reviews Claire Preston’s The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England

Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in 17th Century England, Oxford University Press, 2016.

 Science was everywhere in the seventeenth century, especially in literature. For example, it was in this century that Margaret Cavendish wrote the first science fiction novel exploring contemporary scientific discoveries by way of adventures among fish-men and bear-men. An example of a different and strange mixture of science and literature is Phineas Fletcher’s poem, The Purple Island, which is a methodical description of human anatomy imagined metaphorically as an island landscape.

Claire Preston, however, argues that statements such as these, familiar to those who study the seventeenth century, are insufficient to describe the relationship between literature and science in the period.

Scientists wrote about their scientific theories and discoveries by inventing fictive dialogues staged in imaginary locations. They expressed their hopes for science in poetry and fiction.

Literature was everywhere too, especially in science.

Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, for example, is a romance, a sort of adventure novel, that imagines a utopian society that funds its scientists adequately and provides them with research space and all the equipment they need. Bacon’s romance describes an imaginary society in order to suggest an alternative role for science in his own society. The influence between science and literature ran both ways. Literature was part of science. Not just part of the process of describing a scientific discovery post facto, but part of the nitty-gritty of science itself, part of how science understood the world that it, by its very nature, was in the business of understanding. Preston writes, “how to do science was not just an empirical question but also a rhetorical one: it was a question of how to say it”. And to figure out how to say and do science, scientists turned to literature.

The Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, true to its title, tells a series of mythological stories involving human and animal transformations. In one of Ovid’s stories, the witch Medea pours a concoction of human blood and guts into her father-in-law’s neck in order to make him young again. She succeeds, but her real goal is revenge: she tricks the daughters of one of her enemies into cutting their father’s throat and thereby killing him in hopes of replicating the procedure. According to the prolific but not entirely trustworthy biographer John Aubrey, Francis Potter was reading this story when he was struck by an idea for a technique to transfuse blood. Although the technique did not work (Potter’s only recorded patient, a chicken, did not fare well), the anecdote does – as a way into Claire Preston’s book. Potter and Aubrey are only the first introduced among a large and eccentric cast of characters indefatigably experimenting, debating, reading, and, especially, writing. The anecdote shows the transformations of science and literature, the way they turn into each other. A scientist reads a work of literature and is influenced by it, it helps him in his scientific project, then a biographer shapes (or invents) that story.

Where does science begin and literature end?

You could say, as I have been saying, that science was influenced by literature and literature by science. Preston doesn’t. She says, they were the same thing. We are the ones who think they are different, with our literature departments and science departments, our two cultures, our clichés of mad scientists and bumbling literature professors.

There is one mad scientist in Preston’s book, James Harrington, a former political theorist driven mad by the punishments inflicted on him for his republican ideas, who “conducted the simplest of observational programmes when he sat in the sun to see if his sweat produced bees.” At once anecdote and analysis, this throwaway clause captures the mood of the book. It entertains without diminishing the complexity of its material. Harrington, whose bee-related madness could be traced to his imprisonment in the Tower of London for republican leanings after the reinstatement of monarchy in England following the English Civil War, becomes, in Preston’s hands, an illustration. Harrington sweats alone, trapped in his fiction of bee-production – ironically, hoping to create monarchical insects. Harrington’s journey from political thinker and the author of a utopia describing a perfect republican government, discussing and refining his ideas through conversation in coffee houses, to “deranged empiricist” who made up “a private experimental locus consisting of the body” mirrors, for Preston, the wide range of contemporary ideas about where and how scientific knowledge could and should be generated.

Preston close-reads Harrington, finding in his body a kind of laboratory, its lonely seclusion showing one way of imagining what a place for science would look like. The laboratory as we know it was still in the process of being invented. The question of where to do science and the degree of privacy needed for it was still in question, to the extent that there was a recurrent fantasy (and occasional reality) of science and scientific discussions taking place outside. Readings like this, tying biographical accounts of scientists to letters discussing experiments, to diagrams depicting how to carve out room for scientific endeavors in a domestic space, are the real strength of the book.

Once literature and science are declared to be part of the same whole, everything is open for analysis, everything can be read.

I draw these details from Preston’s third chapter, which describes utopian visions of scientific meeting-places, from pastoral landscapes to entire academies dedicated to science, as well as real-world solutions to the question of where science could or should take place. This chapter is charming in its mixture of the fantastical and the mundane. Scientists imagined a pastoral landscape complete with nymphs and shepherds as a perfect place for scientific debate, while carving out room in a corner of their kitchens to perform experiments.

Her other chapters range widely. There is one on the scientist Robert Boyle’s experiments with different genres such as romance and pastoral, one on the rhetoric of scientific correspondence, one on the preoccupation with the countryside, as a place for scientific enquiry. However, perhaps most intriguing is the first chapter, which discusses the neologisms of Sir Thomas Browne, natural philosopher and doctor.

Browne (according at least to the Oxford English Dictionary) coined more words than any other scientist writing in English, ranging from the obscure “castrensial” (of the interval between Roman camps) to the charming “hornycoat” (cornea). Browne expanded the descriptive possibilities of the English language in an attempt to use that language as a scientific tool.

In the early modern period, before scientists could take advantage of the various methods of measurement available to them today, accurate description was a vital part of scientific study. Browne’s desire for precision is described by Preston as a spur to his search for – and frequent invention of – the right word. Preston mentions Shakespeare, celebrated for the number of first uses of words attributed to him by the Oxford English Dictionary, in passing. To compare the two men’s neologistic aptitude is to imagine a way in which you could bring literature and science into the same dialog, one in which both sides were inventing words to describe a shifting and uncertain world. Browne’s neologisms, Boyle’s pastorals, even Harrington’s bees are different ways of approaching a world that does not stand still to be approached.

Preston writes this book, itself a sort of utopian vision of harmony between science and literature, in a world, and particularly in an academy, in which science and literature are so often opposed (most obviously in the necessity for students of choosing a major, of dividing their time between taking and studying for classes in different disciplines, and of deciding what discipline to study at graduate level). In the United Kingdom, where Preston works, it is common for students to apply to study one or two specific subjects exclusively at university, resulting in even more specialization than the American system. The book asks not a new question but an important one: what do or can science and the humanities say to each other, what do they have in common? Preston finds in the two a common history, in which each subject  informs each other. Her book is no manifesto for the death of disciplines – far from it. Rather she reads seventeenth-century science not as literature, but because it is literature.

It was not until the eighteenth century, Preston argues, that literature and science became “obviously segregated”.

Scientific theories are now too complicated for the public to really understand them.

Practitioners of literature and science rarely have much idea of what their counterparts are doing. Of course, there are exceptions, and Preston mentions Christian Bök, whose Xenotext project involves encoding poetry into the genome of a bacterium, which the bacterium will continue reproducing and altering beyond the end of the human race. In part a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the first book of the project contains a long section on “Colony Collapse Disorder”, which ties a translation of a passage from Virgil’s Georgics to the worldwide collapse of honeybee colonies. It anticipates a world in which we are all, like Harrington, waiting for bees in vain. Bök’s project seems to allow for the mutual metamorphosis of literature and science, or at least literature and a bug that wakes up one day transformed into a poem.

Preston hints at a narrative of decline, one in which literature and science are now all too often separated by ignorance. But one wonders what a continuation of her project would look like, taking the twinned story of science and literature into the present day with the same breadth of research and depth of insight that she brings to the seventeenth century. For example, how to think about literary criticism in relation to science? Literary critics are in a sort of middle ground between science and literature. The old joke is that we’re all failed novelists. Some of us are even successful novelists. In the meantime, we write about literature and its reception and the things that influence it. Seventeenth-century specialists tend to have an interest in the history of science, if perhaps less of an understanding of what is happening in today’s laboratories and scientific journals. But we also work in the same places as many scientists: universities, although often on different parts of campus. How have the stories we and the scientists tell, the words we’ve made up to help us do our jobs, influenced each other? One thinks of the charts and graphs and data tables that increasingly can be found in almost any literary journal, flirting with the scientific method. I am tempted to ask (in typical ignorance, perhaps) what the scientists are doing over there, across campus. Are they continuing to be shaped, in some way, by the genres and expectations and words of literature? Or are we all like Harrington, caught in our private fictions, muttering about bees?


Clio Doyle is a PhD student in English and Renaissance Studies at Yale University. She is interested in the reception of classical Greek, food writing, ideas of localness and foreignness in relation to food, and animals in literature and science. She can be reached at: clio.doyle@yale.edu.