Press "Enter" to skip to content

Pandora’s Slippery Box

It is difficult to speak of abstract forces without personalising them, or investing them, magically, with consciousness and will. When we (by this I mean you; I never do this) refer to the markets as ‘growing jittery’, or ‘recovering’, we (you) indulge in the same thinking that saw maidens being sacrificed to appease volcano gods. When we talk of a giraffe’s necks being ‘designed’ by evolution to reach high branches, or a bat’s ears for echo-location, it is acceptable shorthand, but it is also a fundamental misrepresentation of natural selection.

So while it is strictly incorrect for scientists to ascribe moral virtues to inanimate processes, it is still possible to say that one of the virtues of the scientific method is that it is anti-fabulist. It is arduous, collaborative, impersonal, and counter-intuitive. It moves forward, as the process of evolution does, in hard-won steps more often than grand moments of individual inspiration, and although there may be room for the individual genius, and times when the lightning of pure spirit ignites and inseminates the fertile ground of laborious research, mostly it is donkey work that advances the project of universal knowledge, and it is not just unromantic but positively anti-romantic.

And this is a virtue because oh my goodness just think what it would be like if we trusted our imaginations and narrative impulses – those most charming, fascinating, and childish part of ourselves – with the serious and useful business of determining the movements of planets, or making our mobile telephones function.

Inspiration without moral authority is of course sacrilegious, which is why Frankenstein’s creature was an abomination, and why the original Prometheus was very properly housed on a rock facility and provided with access to vulture-based liver extraction technology.

We no longer believe that the sun is dragged across the sky by a chariot, or that the behaviour of rivers and oceans are governed by the whims of gods and spirits. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are objectively and absolutely correct in this. Your Tinder profile is not powered by app sprites, but by logarithms and sciencey things to do with sums, which I do not pretend to understand, but which I know to be real because the little computer that I carry around with me in my pocket has a digital watch and can take photographs.

There is no ghost in the machine, or divinity in the device. Your tablet was not delivered from the sky to a digital Moses on a mountain top; it was pieced together painstakingly by children in a sweat shop from lots of little bits of silicon or whatever, according to rules, principles, and facts assembled over the millennia by observation, trial and error.

It is one of the tenets of Creationism that creation cannot be in error, which is why fossilised Victorians in the Southern States of the United States cannot get their heads around the whole business of dinosaurs. In scientific methodology there is no room for error either, because if something is erroneous it is not science but nescience. And since no experiment conducted in good faith looks to a particular outcome, and the proper conduct of the scientific exercise scorns the idea of a ‘happy ending’, as priggishly as a vegan in a massage parlour, there can be no such thing as a failed experiment.

Of course an experiment can feel like a success or failure. It is hard to imagine Dr Frankenstein rubbing his hands in triumph because he had managed through painstaking research to verify another way not to create life. The universal feeling of rightness or satisfaction that lightens the human heart at the correct conclusion of a fairytale, the narrative conclusion of a fable, or the almost audible click that Yeats observed as being a property of a successful poem – the inherent appreciation of the justness, or beauty, of anything, especially of an idea, is an instinct that, while valuable to the creation of advertisements, is above all things, suspect in the pursuit of truth. And don’t give me any guff, please, about the idea of objective scientific facts being in itself a kind of fairytale, you fucking student.

Kepler is a hero because he recognised this; and Einstein is a figure of pathos because he did not. Kepler’s beatific vision originally reconciled the apparent irregularities of the heavenly spheres with the absolute elegance of Platonic solids. When the vision failed to correspond to his observed data, he wrestled with the data, urging it to conform. But he did not falsify it, or ignore the profound disappointment of a reality that fails to satisfy our equally profound, but not at all truthful religious impulses.

Einstein, on the other hand, succumbed to the human heresy that the external universe must be morally comprehensible, and apparently had some kind of problem with dice.

It goes without saying, I hope, that when I talk about Einstein or Kepler or the wider histories of human thought, I don’t really know what I am talking about. I know nothing about astrophysics or the precise differences between Newtonian and Einsteinian physics, or indeed about Newton or Einstein themselves, except insofar that they are symbols in clever conversation.

But I suspect Einstein’s search for elegance and intuitive beauty was similar to Newton’s work in alchemy.

Their moments of inspiration are cultural nodes, and purely poetic. Is there a more prefect symbol than a falling apple for post-lapsarian revelation; what lovelier image for intellectual discovery than the journey on a beam of light?

Anyway, what has all this got to do with poetry? Well if the first function of poetry is entertainment, then the use of narrative and those concentrated nuggets of narrative that we call symbols is useful and natural and effective. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are beautiful. And they can be true, after a fashion.

They can be true if we demand from truth nothing more than emotional resonance. They can be true in the Freudian or Jungian sense of narrative being the only vector of meaning, which itself is fundamentally Romantic. If, however, we insist that poetry should address itself to actual truth, we are in a pickle.

I do not use the word pickle lightly. Modernism challenged the idea of narrative truth and ended up in autoprocticism. We have still not thrown overboard our dissolute mythologies, which includes the very idea of story itself. The use of dramatic devices are suspect because they are effective. Thought gorges itself on story, as flies are coprophagic, but the uses of narrative – since we are obliged to take account of objective truth – are as intellectually defunct as appeals to the Greek pantheon are silly and pretentious. Gods and heroes have their place in contemporary culture, and that place is called ComiCon.

The problem is not a new one, it is the corollary of the problem of free verse (Now don’t tell me that free verse isn’t problematic, you fucking beatnik). Q. Roland Lehr, the celebrated ‘sage, mage and king of rage’, has observed often enough, God knows, that formal conservatism in versifying is associated with narrow right wing politics. In certain cases – that of James McAuley, for instance – an understandable taste, and a developed talent for rhyme, metre, and syntactical sense found its expression in the perverse fabulism of orthodox Catholicism.

(Orthodox Catholicism, says you, is there any other kind?) And I forgive you for you have hit on a point worth making: that although the tapestry of gorgeous lies that constitutes Catholic doctrine is intellectually and morally unacceptable to any evolved adult, it has this at least to justify it: that it was up until recently taken seriously, and literally, as an interpretive framework for understanding the world. This gives it clout, which is more than can be said for the Marvel universe say.

But no matter its historical importance, and the sophistication and depth of its emotional and aesthetic appeal, the idea of the communion of saints is no more acceptable than the baroque minutiae of the sagas of Sith and Jedi: not simply because it is not true, but because its mendacity is grounded in an intuitive, and therefore inherently dodgy, appeal to a deep-rooted, primitive impulse to tell stories. And the rich linguistic imagination that may have been useful to our distant ancestors, while surviving a bewildering prehistory of poisonous berries, cave bears and anachronistic dinosaurs, is as embarrassingly dated now, and as destructive, as selling cigarettes to children.

One good question about all this is who cares? To the morally sound atheist the whole business of poetry and aesthetics can sometimes seem simplistic, a gallimaufry of oxypygical nephelococcygisms.

However, the value of a shared moral framework, either as crudely sanctimonious as editorials in The Guardian – or as cunningly wrought and intricately plotted as the storylines of the great English soap operas, which have been the United Kingdom’s crowning cultural achievement over the last half-century – is obvious. Whether this moral framework should have an aesthetic function as an entertainment, as the Iliad had, as well as primarily intellectual and theoretical function, as Emmerdale or Coronation Street have, is the question.

Where can we find a system of art that is commercially responsible, aesthetically amusing and allied to objective truth? There is mysticism in the tremulous bob of a quark, probably, but it is unlikely to strike to the soul of the general reader as effectively as the hackneyed beams of a discredited moon trailing its tiresome beams on an uninspired sea.

There is majesty and awe to be discovered still in the sight of a mountain range at sunset, if you like that sort of thing, and in the rank variety of living matter that continues to infest the planet in spite of humanity’s best endeavours to make the place more conveniently habitable. But these childish tricks of the light and inherited blood hardly have the gravitas that we demand of serious art (if they very idea of art as a serious pursuit is not in itself kind of ridiculous).

We cannot escape from story any more than we can divest ourselves of language, which is to say no more than a bird can break free from the shackles of flight, or loosen the muzzle of song. And yet the scientific method that frustrates the narrative impulse, that offers its material and objective gifts in exchange for childish images, whose stern practise refuse to obey the tyranny of the story arc – that bent rod of servility that defines the slavery of human whim, has not yet yielded up a satisfying and rigorous alternative to childish mythology.

Until we can imagine and describe our world in human language as accurately as we can using the divine language of mathematics, the best we can do is watch with a critical eye the rigorous moral thought experiments of Corrie, on ITV and Virgin Media One, with an omnibus edition on ITV2 every Sunday.


Comments are closed.