Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

"Science or Literature?" by Donald R. Maxwell (Peter Lang Publishing, 2000)

I found this rather slow and repetitive. He refers only to a narrow spectrum of writers, concentrating on French writers - fair enough, except that he almost exclusively quotes Proust (not Rimbaud, Robbe-Grillet, Oulipo, etc). The quotes from Bakhtin, Eco and Barthes are amongst their least challenging. He writes that "there are other [literary critics] whose writing is exceedingly and, I feel, purposely obscure, most of these belong to the school of so-called postmodernism, who write or wrote primarily in France", (p.104). "Throughout their writings, there are many indications that they consider that obscurantism indicates profundity and originality" (p.106). The section on Chance seems out of place, and didn't mention random procedures in writing.

The type of science he writes about isn't speculative either. He writes that science, unlike literature, is cumulative, reproducible, and predictive. By 'cumulative' he means that new work can invalidate the old - science progresses. He points out some differences -

  • "Science describes a reality that pre-exists its discovery, description, and narration, a truth that always existed, while literature creates something that might otherwise never have existed. Furthermore, there is fundamentally one type of scientist, but there are essentially two different categories of the practitioners of literary art, and this difference occurs because scientific investigation takes place at the frontier between the known and the unknown" (p.ix). The 2 types of writers are "those who write literature ... and in addition a distinct group of individuals who write about literature" (p.99). "These two areas of 'literary art' (creation and criticism) are quite distinct,and rarely is there overlap" (p.100). Literature has 2 types because literary language needs explaining, and because there are areas behind the literary frontier which are still important.
  • "The two disciplines represent two types of education, two methods of advancing knowledge and two ways of viewing reality, as well as two uses of language, and two types of authority" (p.2).
  • "The paths to these two disciplines are not only disconnected but they are almost unidirectional and irreversible for having embarked down one course it is rare that one can reverse one's steps and re-join the other", p.2

The idea of there being 2 types of writer but only one type of scientist is new to me. I can see what he means, but is IA Richards a literary writer? Can String Theorists and Psychologists be so easily bundled together? Expanding his idea, I see it more like this

Mathematicians, TechniciansLinguistic specialists, psychologists
Applied Mathematicians, TheoristsLiterary Theoreticians/Critics

There's a lot of mixing of the 2 lower layers. Writers are their own critics as they re-write. Science theorists propose experiments; experiments lead to theories, and the same scientist might well do both.

He seems to have a particular (Romantic?) view of literature -

  • "The beauty of language and literature does not have to be contemplated for long in order to be felt; and since man feels before he thinks logically, he judges that which he feels before judging that which he reflects on with logic", p.10
  • "Science deals with the objective reality external to the self, literature deals with an equally genuine reality that is within us", p.27
  • "Literature often reveals that which we thought was unique to ourselves, but which in actuality, is common to others", p.45

So, good literature's beauty can be felt and can offer "remarkable insight ... into the human condition" (p.85). "Ulysses"? "Finnegans Wake"? He writes "One function of literature and poetry is to enable us to perceive those aspects of reality that we can no longer see and understand. Of course, this description, this vision is very different from that produced by science, but perhaps is no less real" (p.90). I would have liked him to write more about the real. He says "at the junction between the past that we cannot alter and the future that does not yet have existence, there is a point of union, a boundary where present sensation is inextricably intermingled with past [sic] memory, and it is this fusion which Proust terms reality" (p.30).

I'd have liked more about the philosophy of science, the notion of proof and truth. In the past some theories have become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I noticed 2 typos - on p.49 "it's" should be "its", and on p.155 there's "comes from he exchange".

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