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Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer, I read Peter Dizikes essay in The New York Times about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.

According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.  First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati.  Plainly, that claim is untenable today.  With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it.  (See, for example, this New Yorker article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review of a couple of books about string theory.) 

Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, etc.)  Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.

Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati.  This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited.  Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral.  The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.

That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer.  McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments.  Copenhagen, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives.  (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)

Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists."  This claim, of course, is risable.  To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.

That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education.  Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures."  Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post).  After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.
Thinking about Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I cannot help but relate it to Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

When I saw Copenhagen in 2002, at the Kennedy Center, it was much-buzzed as the play to see.  I remember leaving the theater befuddled at the buzz: "boring" was the word I would've applied, followed by "repetitive." 

The play three times enacts the famous walk that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg took in 1941, during which they had a conversation -- the substance of which remains unknown -- which fundamentally altered their relations for the rest of their lives.  At the time, I recognized fully that the repetitive enactment of the walk-and-conversation was a dramatization of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is colloquially (though controversially, from a physicist's point of view) understood to mean that our understanding of any situation is always limited by our perspective; shift the perspective, and the content changes.

However boring Uncertainty might be to learn in the classroom, Copenhagen didn't make the case that dramatizing it improved the learning experience.  On the contrary, I found the physics lesson to get in the way of Frayn's proper task: storytelling. 

The number one priority in telling a story, so far as I'm concerned, is maintaining interest, entertaining the audience.  This imperative is among the most difficult of the novelist's tasks.  "Most novels incredibly boring. It's amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge."  That's McEwan talking, quoted in a recent New Yorker piece (at p. 48).

But McEwan appears as vulnerable as the rest of us to recognizing principles that we don't apply in our own lives.  The Child in Time makes the same blunder as Copenhagen (although, seeing that Copenhagen post-dates The Child in Time by a decade, perhaps it should be the other way around.)  The entire plot line involving Thelma and Charles Darke, Thelma's long physics lectures, Charles' regression into childhood, as well as the lorry accident and Stephen's near-miss driving around it -- these some hundred pages or so are all peripheral to the story of Kate's disappearance, and Stephen's reuniting with Julia.

These irrelevancies are not in the book to advance plot.  They're in the book to illustrate physics principles about the nature of time.  McEwan is elaborating in prose on his intellectual love affair with physics.  These passages are all cerebral masturbation.  And, while admittedly they're more masterfully done than Frayn's tiresome redundancies, these diversions are as disruptive to McEwan's storytelling in The Child in Time as Uncertainty was to Frayn's in Copenhagen.

The irony, of course, is that nothing illustrates the importance of perspective to determining content, or the elasticity of time, better than a well-told story.  With a page-turner in hand, the content of the world of the page is determined wholly by the author's perspective, and time flies.  

Sex and the single girl's world view

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My belief is that the world is fundamentally indifferent to any individual's presence.  Our course in life is mapped, not by design or fate, but by a combination of individual resource and luck.  As individuals, we should care if we're enjoying ourselves (indeed, I believe that joyfulness is an aspect of moral responsibility), but the world itself is as indifferent to our pleasures as it is to our sorrows.

Not everyone shares my perspective.  If you were to have asked me why -- what accounts for differences in world view -- I would've guessed that a combination of experience and temperament accounted for the variance.  Reading Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I discovered a new explanation: world views correspond to our styles of lovemaking.

The Child in Time includes a sex scene between Stephen, the protagonist, and his wife, Julie, during which Stephen wonders:

how anything so good and simple could be permitted, how they were allowed to get away with it . . . . [M]atter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it. . . . Surely the, he thought . . . surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, it likes itself.

(p. 68.)  The passage brought an abrupt halt to my reading, as I mused that I'd never found sex to be "good and simple," nor did the pleasure of an orgasm suggest (to me) the fundamental benevolence of the world.  On the contrary, the humiliating complexity, searing ecstasy and basic irrationality of sex has always implied a world that, if not indifferent, was sardonic.  (My own preference for indifference over sardonicism relates to the my temperament: I'm not a pessimist.) 

I nonetheless appreciate McEwan's insight.  I recognize intuitively the correctness of his observation: what we like to do in bed, how society responds to those preferences, and how we deal with the societal response, colors our world view.  Unlike Stephen, I myself have never experienced the word "home" repeating itself in my mind during intercourse.  The sex Stephen and Julie share derives its joys from the habitual: "the known dip and curve [leading to] a deep, familiar place."  (p. 68.)  The societal approprobation that accompanies such a domestic delight in sex no doubt supports a benevolent world view.

That our behavior in our most primal moments should correpond to the fundaments of our world view is logical, but not necessary.  In fact, the correspondence might -- at the opposite extreme -- be viewed as silly.  Why should a personal fetish, for example, complicate one's understanding of something universal, like matter (to use McEwan's formulation)?  The fact that it so clearly does, however, is yet another instance of the world's indifference to what we think.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The Child in Time category.

The Catcher in the Rye is the previous category.

The Clan of the Cavebear is the next category.



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