Elective Affinity: A Tale of Two Cultures?

PD Smith at Kafka’s Mouse:

PdsmithRichard Dawkins argues in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) that the nineteenth century began on a note of hostility as far as relations between literature and science were concerned. In his poem ‘Lamia’ (1820) Keats typified science as ‘cold philosophy’ which stripped the world of her wondrous veil of mystery. The effect of science was to ‘unweave a rainbow’. For Dawkins, a passionate advocate of the scientific world-view, the wonder of a world described by science is self-evident. But literature has been tardy in according science its due: ‘poets could better use the inspiration provided by science’. He concludes his argument with the memorable remark: ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.

And yet, the story has not simply been one of antagonism; literature has been profoundly inspired by science, particularly in the twentieth century. In contrast to the now rather tired view proclaimed by C P Snow in his 1959 lecture, that the literary reception of science was blighted by a ‘two cultures’ mentality, I believe literature and science have for the most part existed in a close if at times stormy relationship. In fact ‘elective affinity’ might be a more accurate description of the bond between literature and science, an affinity rooted in the knowledge that both writer and scientist are committed to a process of continual exploration of the experiential world. For both endeavours are passionately concerned with deepening humankind’s understanding of itself and its place in the material universe.

More here.