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The Ache to Interpret: Literature, Science, and Seeing Again

Most of my students are budding scientists: engineers, biologists, or computer programmers who do not consider themselves writers, let alone literary types. They are required to take my writing-intensive courses in the English department at Indiana University. These students are in for a surprise.

As homo sapiens, they are, by default, interpreters of the most profound kind. But the recognition that their biology renders them poetic comes slowly. When they receive back their first papers, some of them brush off disappointment: “I’m a math person.” Or, “I do science. Facts. Not writing. It’s too subjective.” I’m not of your species, they tell me in so many words.

Our cultural climate’s pop-science partitioning of analysis from creativity, or right from left brain, advertises that humans are not one species but two: artists and scientists — subjective softies or objective fact hounds. Therefore it’s easy to overlook that some of the most monumental writers in the English language were not novelists, but scientists.

Charles Darwin, the most famous troubler of givens about divisions between species, painstakingly wrote and rewrote his theory of evolution for the entirety of his adult life. He understood the theory not only as a scientific pursuit but also as an accomplishment of language. Darwin felt his science was right only to the extent that he could express its details in exquisitely clear and compelling writing, which was difficult. The tool he used to convey his findings — language — carried as much volatility as the biology he studied. His guiding metaphors — growth, variation, the struggle for life — would look right at home in a catalogue of forthcoming poetry collections by Graywolf or Copper Canyon, two presses that publish some of the nation’s most imaginative literature.

Who would’ve known that brainiac Albert Einstein penned some of the most beautiful prose in the English language? His writings about love, wonder, and mystery shake the soul awake as much as his theories of special and general relativity do. And many of his concepts — spacetime, the curvature of light, and the relativity of simultaneity — render the study of physics poetic in its playful experiments with alliteration and metaphor.

Both scientists ceaselessly changed their interpretations of cells and fossils, of bending light and dark matter — subjects they studied deeply and loved so much until their dying days. They ached to express the invisible, the unseen, the poetry of the forces that shape our everyday lives, whether they be extinct species whose disappearance molded our present forms or quantum mechanics whose concealed churnings have shaped the roundings and points of our limbs. These scientists communicated their expertise through the craft of writing and the labor of rethinking, the patience of observation and the revision of interpretation, not unlike the skills business majors and scientists learn in my classes.

To make analytical writing and literature relevant to my students, I ask them to name some of the most profound discoveries in math and science. They easily call out Galileo’s pronouncement that the Earth rotates around the sun, Darwin’s theory that humans evolved from a spark in the water, and even Janna Levin’s recent assertion that the universe is indeed finite. I then ask students to consider what made these discoveries so enduring. My students inevitably determine that these findings were shocking: they unsettled everything that most people took for granted; they emerged from creativity and imaginative freedom from previous intellectual and religious confines. This activity helps students who don’t consider themselves writers realize that scientists do not tap into a robotic or a rote mode that is the antithesis of subjectivity and interpretation. They value the strange, the fantastical, the unique perspective as one of the most profound resources for upending what it means to be human.

As humans, we are gifted (and sometimes burdened) with a hunger to interpret what we see, hear, read, speak, and do, to make sense of our world. But, as students learn with the help of these scientists’ shocking discoveries, our pull towards nonsense, the incredible, is just as strong. We are driven to turn all that we know about this world upside-down, to be released from what are called facts, or what Friedrich Nietzsche would call the “illusory truth.”

The truth shall set you free? Nietzsche inverted this: the truth shall imprison you, often preventing one from perceiving alternatives. So Galileo, Darwin, and Levin suggest that humans are not the epicenter of Earth. From this cosmological perspective, we become as minuscule as quarks. This insignificance releases us from mastery, territory, and possession into impossible, free-wheeling potential around every bending light wave.

Attendees at an Ars Electronica convention in Austria view images of the sun. Image by Florian Voggeneder/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

Interpretation, in other words, is not only for humanists. Interpretation is for all humans — engineers and neurobiologists included. Interpretation makes our lives wider, deeper, different, better. It stimulates us to evolve in a different spacetime, where iridescence and darkness bend differently around us. And we bend differently. Our necks fold over desks as wrists move pens across paper in a writing class. Our eyes enter thesis drafts and walk through its half-lit hallways.

As a scholar whose literary research unfolds intersections between the life sciences and literature, it is important to me that students see the most impactful writing — whether scientific or artistic — as based in painstaking attention to detail and in idiosyncratic interpretations of those details. In reinterpreting and in revising, my students see again — both the details and what they seem to mean. Indeed, studying writing and literature spurs the dual force of observation and creativity into deeper discovery. Like many of us, my students tend to rush over the sentences they’re reading or writing at the speed of 4G. We don’t read each single word. We don’t notice writing them, either, so we don’t feel the gravity each carries & or upends.

I teach Toni Morrison’s novels for their dazzling and devastating content, and also for pedagogical method: Sula. Paradise. Love. A Mercy. Jazz. Home. Beloved. Single words. Her titles pay attention to words like photographs pulled from a box. From one word, otherwise unobserved life unfurls: slave ships from Africa to the colony of Virginia, mistakes, lusts, dreams, blood, hellos, survivals, kisses indelible, words unspoken, may-God-never-show-yous. Morrison, like Darwin and Einstein, looks again and again where others see nothing much, if anything at all.

Dame Gillian Beer, a literary scholar considered one of the world’s premier experts on Darwin, explains that the fantasy and adventure literature of the 18th and 19th centuries, which Darwin read as an adolescent, influenced his ability to imagine the unworldly, fantastical creatures that eventually saturated his evolutionary theory as intermediate species, now extinct. The relationship literature has with science is not combative, but complementary. And sometimes gently corrective.

Each field must leave its corner and come to the center with its contributions. My classroom transforms from an arena of defense to a space of communion. Scientists, artists, computer programmers sit down and exchange their gifts with one another to come up with new ideas about how we can live and evolve more widely and more deeply, different and better.

After a semester in my course, the scientists do not become English majors. Most students continue to pursue the discipline with which they entered. And thank goodness. We need engineers who see themselves as artists in kind, if not in degree, with literary types. The engineers in my class are moved by the final pages of Sam Selvon’s novella, The Lonely Londoners, where the protagonist, Moses, describes the bridges of London holding the city together across the Thames like a dancer’s open hands. Feats of engineering that we drive or walk over every day manifest innermost human longings for touch and contact, and my student engineers are ambassadors of these hungers realized.

Likewise, the artists in my class come to see themselves as engineers who paint or photograph a calculus of geometrical shapes, arranged precisely to achieve balance clamped across the canvas like a bridge suturing a divide, as Virginia Woolf describes Lily’s painting in her masterwork, To the Lighthouse. By the last day of class, students are not only engineers. They’re not only painters. They no longer see each other in these limiting terms. They are, as D. H. Lawrence might say, vaster than that: “something different, something more, some strange creature from the beyond.”

One informatics major, who generally claimed interpretive ineptitude, offered in class what he believed Lawrence meant:

“They are human beings.”

A woman views the art of Jon McCormac, who creates computer-generated complements to the hand-drawn scientific illustrations of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger. Image by Sergio Redruello/Flickr, Some Rights Reserved.

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