There are those who believe we have outlived every beautiful notion about what human life must be because this is an age of science. These people must not have been paying attention. Science, being one of the unequivocally human undertakings, describes humanity to itself, for weal and woe, in everything it does. Mathematicians and physicists of a habit of using the words beautiful and elegant to endorse theories that are likelier to cleave to the nature of things because of their efficiency and soundness of structure. I would like to see language brought to a similar standard.… For me, this is a core definition of beauty: that is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.
Unlike last week’s “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” this is the kind of essay I have no idea how to talk about. It’s lovely, it’s readable… but it seems to me it skips the rails and covers a lot of territory beyond Beauty. Is that ok, in an essay? Obviously so, since it’s in this anthology, not to mention Tin House. Maybe I’m dense.
Robinson starts by talking about her earliest impressions of what Beauty might be, dives into the murky waters of “educated” and “plain” language. “Prejudice against learned language reinforces the notion that those who speak ordinary American English can’t have much on their minds” doesn’t actually make sense to me, but I’ll agree with “Plain language has a strong, subtle music in it, which is intimately related to its capacity for meaning.” Still, I’m left wondering if she’s playing both ends against the middle. But, I’m a fan of multiple dialects, so fine.
Then she gets into the crossing of swords between aesthetics and science; I very much enjoyed this section.
What would Melville have done with dark energy, or Poe with spooky action at a distance? Whitman could only have loved the accelerating expansion of the universe. Dickinson probably knew already that our sun is atremble with sound waves, like a great gong. It is a loss of the joy of consciousness that keeps us from appropriating these splendors for the purposes of our own thought.
I’ve found many stories that cross the lines between science and literature, many instances of writers doing just such appropriation. Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table is about falling in love with a scientific discovery. Jim Shepherd, Anthony Doerr, Seth Fried, Mike Meginnis, Julia Elliott, these come quickly to mind. Look at all the architects Zin found inspired by Calvino’s Six Memos. On a more literal level, look at all the bacterium photgraphs you can find on FineArtAmerica.com. Contemporary science fiction – good stuff, not space opera – is full of the beauty of the universe. Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, these are writers of beautiful, emotional stories using science as a starting point. So she’ll get no argument from me – but why does it read like she feels the opportunity has passed us by?
Then the essay seems to abandon “beauty” and turn towards narrative. I’m interested, anyway, since I’ve been encountering so much about narrative lately (like the Sunday morning political commentary show that included a panel of four writers to discuss the Obama narrative; Robinson, too, dips a toe into political observation at several points). Maybe I’ve just been paying more attention. I found this section wonderful.
We know that humankind has sat around its fires from time immemorial and told its tales and told them again, elaborating and refining, and we know that certain of these tales have become myth, epic, fable, Holy Writ. Now, because we have devoted so much ingenuity to the project, we have devised more ways to tell ourselves more stories, which means only that an ancient impulse is still so strong in us as to impel the invention of new means and occasions for telling and hearing to satisfy this appetite for narrative. At the most fundamental level, narrative is how we make sense of things…
She goes beyond describing us as creatures of narrative, though, to posit a purpose for narrative: “to practice us in acknowledging the fact that plausibility is no guarantee of truth, that plausibility can be merely an effect of intelligibility compounded by fantasy, or fear, or worse.” Or, people lie, and fiction is there to remind us, just because something makes a good story doesn’t mean it actually happened. It’s something like an analogue of object permanence, prior to the development of which the infant thinks his mother has ceased to exist if he can’t see her. Perhaps we have developed, through natural selection, a love of fiction to temper object permanence, to look beneath surface appearances, to develop critical thought: just because that guy with the big club in his hand is smiling at me, doesn’t mean he’s not going to kill me and take my wildebeest. Suspicion-for-survival. Now I’m going a little off the rails myself, I’d say.
My theory of narrative as a fundamental act of consciousness implies to me that paranoia might be entrapment in a bad narrative, and depression may be the inability to sustain narrative.
A few years ago I was temporarily in a state of paranoid delirium for a couple of days due to a medical misstep. “Trapped in a bad narrative” is a perfect capture of that time. When my potassium and calcium returned to normal levels and my mind returned to its (relatively) lucid state, it did indeed feel like I had escaped from a world hidden in some heretofore unknown dimension. I’m not so sure about the depression, however. I have been long acquainted with that, and I suspect depression, too, is a kind of bad narrative. Cognitive therapy, in fact, seems based on that very principle: if you change your thoughts about the world, you can change how you feel. To some degree, it even works. But I suspect Robinson is referring to more general, societal states of mind, in any case. Still, I’m fascinated by this idea, by the section on narrative in general.
I think this essay is a little less cohesive than I would have expected; maybe that’s why it’s a Pushcart-winning essay, when I’m more geared towards grad school theses. It’s one of those essays I enjoyed once I stopped trying to understand it.