Is There a Doctor in the House?

Review by Carlo Parcelli

Made In America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets

Lisa M. Steinman
Yale University Press, 1987
hardcover $15.00

   With her 1987 book, Made In America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets, Lisa Steinman has provided us a great service. She has inadvertently provided those few of us still interested with a window into reasons for the diminished state of poetry in American culture. The trajectory is simple. Steinman focuses on three American modernist poets, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. None of these poets knew very much about science and/or technology, nor even when embroiled in scientific, or should we call it pseudo-scientific, controversy did they bother to learn very much. But this did not prevent them from speaking ex cathedra. Williams, of course, was a physician and, further, had an intimate knowledge of flowers and gardening. Moore had a background and interest in biology. And Stevens made some effort to learn about quantum theory from physicist friends and was at least familiar with European transcendental philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.

    In a sense, twentieth century American poetry found itself in a similar position vis-a-vis the sciences that religion is presumed to have faced some centuries before. Robert Musil's protagonist, Ulrich, in his monumental novel, The Man Without Qualities, puts the twentieth century or modern version of the dilemma this way (with two bracketed insertions on my part):

"You needn't laugh," he said. "I'm not religious [poetical]. I'm surveying the road to holiness [poetry] with the question whether it would stand up to one's traveling along it in a motor car."

    As the above quote demonstrates, at least by the turn of the century, science and its attendant technologies, especially as both were embodied in the new physics, were rapidly establishing themselves as the universal template by which all other aspects of the culture would be understood and administered. Poets such as Williams felt diminished in light of the power of science, especially the new theoretical physics of Albert Einstein. The above actually gives Williams too much credit, for he put out no genuine effort to engage Einstein's work at a primary, critical level. Without much more than a newspaper understanding of special or general relativity, Williams, as Ms. Steinman so admirably traces, tried to co-opt the power of the sciences for poetry by making specious comparisons between the two disciplines. When Williams' shallow parallels failed to garner popular attention for poetry similar to that being accorded the sciences, he discussed poetry in the light of its critical differences from science in order to boost it as a superior discipline. This he did in an equally ridiculous and uninformed manner. The result was that, on this score, Williams was not only ineffectual but established poetry as something of a joke when confronted by the juggernaut of the sciences. A byproduct of this, and here Ms. Moore shares some of the blame, was a further diminishment of poetry. Williams and Moore simply didn't know what they were talking about, and, because of their prominence, poetry was made to look even more ridiculous and irrelevant that it had already become.

    And this was in the utter heyday of theoretical and philosophical publishing on matters of science and technology, especially the new physics. A glance around the room in which I'm writing this review lands my eyes on books by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Louis de Broglie, John von Neumann, Otto Hahn, Ernst Mach, Emile Meyerson, P.W. Bridgman, on and on. Philosophical explanations of scientific phenomena were exploding with work by Wittgenstein, Heidegger, philosophical historians of science such as Alexander Koyre, Russell Hanson, Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Alfred Lande, Imre Lakatos, C. D. Broad and hundreds of others. How could Williams, Moore and Stevens have missed the Vienna Circle, which wedded Russell/Whiteheadian influenced mathematical logic and the rigor of the sciences to form Logical Positivism with its proponents and heirs such as Schlick, Carnap, Max Black, A.J. Ayer, Willard van Orman Quine and a host of others? In fact it is not too much of an exaggeration to say, that to be a philosopher in the twentieth century almost implied that you would at some level be a philosopher of science.

    Which brings us to the major unstated premise of Steinman's book. Science and technology had been considered society's template for several centuries prior to the discoveries by Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Turing, von Neumann, Shannon, Watson, Crick, Pitts, McCulloch and many others. Yet 20th century poets on the rare occasions that they addressed scientific matters did it from a position of ignorance, arrogance and frustration. With the possible exception of A.R. Ammons and a few little known poets, this situation still has not been addressed. American poetry was diminished because the poets with the reins were not up to the fundamental task of their epoch.

    Steinman points out that the trio she studied read, or at least were familiar with, Joad, popular Russell and Whitehead, Bergson, newspapers and magazines, a few popular books, and little else. This is the same meager fare that I find repeatedly in private libraries that I'm called into purchase from estates of the pseudo-educated upper middle class government bureaucrats who were of the generation immediately following Williams, Stevens, and Moore, or a little younger. Archibald MacLeish is the paradigmatic poet/bureaucrat we could cite here embodying all the liberal generosity that the constraints of his position would sanction, while unwittingly sacrificing the passion that his sense of integrity could have brought to his work.

    In all fairness to Moore, her knowledge of the biological sciences did lead her to insights that would enrage the scientific community, if acknowledged by them, but, nonetheless, bear up under the scrutiny of time. Steinman quotes Moore: "It is certain that never, before God is seen face to face, shall a man know anything with final certainty." Moore, here, is challenging the contingent nature of scientific discovery, a paradox of the 'real' in science that has never been satisfactorily resolved because of the sciences' proprietary claim on the 'real' itself. This paradox, which fuels much of Wittgenstein's text of continually evolving propositions, only finds closure when you abandon the very languages of closure which constitute a meta or set of a priori conditions for languages of the 'real.'

    Even more striking is the related manner in which the biological sciences led Moore to her conclusions about the contingency of scientific discovery and its relationship to the 'real.' Steinman writes: "Her [Moore's] review of Roget's Thesaurus pronounces the investigation of words to be "analogous to laboratory scientist's classification of species in botany or zoology." Compare this to a passage from Charles B. Paul's insightful book, Science and Immortality: The Eloges of the Paris Academy of Sciences (1699-1791). Paul writes:

"[Joseph Pitton de] Tournefort's reputation, however, rested not so much on the vast number of plants he collected as on a system of classification he first postulated in 1694, in the Elements de Botanique, ou Methode pour connoitre les Plantes. To [Bernard le Bovier de] Fontenelle, however, taxonomy owed its sole raison de être to its being a mnemonic device. Such a system served the purpose of putting "order in the prodigious number of plants, sown so confusedly on land and even beneath the water of the sea," and distributing them in genus and species, which facilitate our knowledge of them and prevent the memory of botanists from being overwhelmed by the weight of an infinity of different names."

    Paul asks, "But what kind of order was it, and by virtue of what botanical characteristics?" Paul goes onto chronicle how what was essentially created as a device to aid memory came to embody the "Cartesian" idea that this "system of classification Tournefort had enunciated verified the existence of the very objects (classes, genera, species) these ideas designated." This is one manner in which the contingency of scientific discovery is obscured in favor of the authority of the 'real.' This perfidy of taxonomical systems of the biological sciences seemed to have percolated to the surface in Moore's review of Roget's Thesaurus, another product of the French passion for Cartesian mathematical order and hygiene. In this manner the sciences have the best of both worlds. They appear progressive, e.g. open to change, when it is necessary or expedient to adapt to new data or sets of circumstances such as planetary degradation. But, on the other hand, they claim a special relationship to the 'real', a proprietary and permanent dialectic, which allows the sciences to set the terms for any discussion of possible solutions to problems or culpability for them. Moore granted the former to the sciences, but reserved the latter for God.

    Of the three poets Stevens, possibly through his work with actuarial statistics and his "preoccupation with finding [a] poetry [that] was tied to what he could convincingly call objective reality or fact," seems to have grasped the version of 'reality' that the new physics was broadly suggesting. Stevens employs this insight when he chides Williams on his notion of the object in "The Comedian as the Letter C." He employs Kant's Critique Of Pure Reason specifically the 'ding an sich':

The imagination, here, could not evade,
In poems of plums, the strict austerity
Of one vast, subjugating, final tone

    The good Dr. Williams was helpless against such criticism. And indeed Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is an essential text for understanding the development of twentieth century science, a fact ignored by the all too pragmatic, capital-oriented U. S. scientific community. The fact that Kant might have something to say about a viable approach to environmental concerns is as remote to today's ecological and scientific community as an understanding of Plank's constant was to Dr. Williams.

    Many times Steinman catches up her subjects in a variety of pseudo-philosophical inanities. On page 62, she writes and quotes:

To give another example, Williams used physics to certify that modern poetry was tied to reality: "It may seem presumptive to state that such an apparently minor activity as a movement in verse construction could be an indication of Einstein's discoveries . . . but such are the facts. . . . The verse I can envisage . . . comes much closer in its construction to modern concepts of reality.

    Stevens shows his relative sophistication vis-a-vis Williams in this from Steinman's book, a quote that would throw Gross, Levitt and their buddy Sokal into apoplexy:

In his 1935 essay, "A Poet That Matters" (perhaps punning on the new ideas about physical matter), Stevens pointed out the irony of "sticking to the facts in a world in which there are no facts" (OP 254). The irony is clear: Physics did away with solid matters of fact, and thus gave poetic language a new respectability; we know this because science, which we respect, tells us it is a fact. To put it another way, the objectivity of science was called on to validate the apparent subjectivity with which poetry seemed to be concerned.

    It's a sign of the irrelevance of poetry that, as far as I know, no Williams or Stevens scholars were ridiculed for teaching a poet who spouted in even more crude ways the 'glossomorphisms' of the postmodernist sociological community. Poets can say this nonsense with impunity because they threaten no one, least of all the billions of dollars in taxpayer-supplied research money to university science and tech departments that have turned every aspect of the physical world into a calibrated weapon against human sensibility.

    Poets such as Williams, Moore and Stevens tried to cadge off the popularity of the sciences and thereby create justifications for poetry. On the other hand, they insisted that poetry had more efficacy than science for a number of reasons, some still cribbing from qualities usually associated with science and technology. What they didn't do was learn enough about science and its attendant technologies to write intelligent poetry about its philosophical, cultural and aesthetic implications. Among readily available poets, only Archie Ammons has done what seems to be a thorough enough job with science, and he has recently moved from an uncritically neutral position to a capitulatory if not a enthusiastically reactionary one. Other poets have made efforts as rigorous and informed as Ammons, yet drawn far more negative conclusions. But thanks to the ignorance and frustration of poets like Williams, Stevens and Moore, it is even more difficult nowadays for poets operating in the central tenets of their epoch to be taken seriously even among the people who publish and read poetry.