Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Pandisciplinarity and Stories

An exhibition at the London Science Museum in 2011 entitled ‘Psychology: Mind Your Head’ and celebrating the centenary of the British Psychological Society included the following observation:
Once upon a time, it was believed that stories merely recorded what happened in the world. But some modern psychologists have come to regard stories as having an almost supernatural power. What we call ‘human nature’ is now thought by some to be created by language: by conversations, narratives, folk tales, songs and poetry. We literally talk ourselves into existence.
We can also talk ourselves out of existence if we do not become alert to the possibility of no more ‘once upon a time’. Stories need all the power they can command, whether ‘almost supernatural’ or far from it, if they are to help humankind to survive. Let us briefly consider three aspects of this desideratum: Imagination, Inspiration, Explanation.

Imagination.  In an essay entitled ‘How Novels Can Contribute to our Understanding of Climate Change’, in Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 218-33, Peter Middleton writes:
Significant novels are not just composed of ideas. The novel is an art form that induces a controlled daydream through textual strategies that have been developed over the past three hundred years to make the best of our capacity to understand time, causality, and changing ideas, through storytelling or what literary critics usually prefer to call narrative. (222-3)
Indeed, throughout the whole of the Anthropocene epoch from the eighteenth century onwards the novel has provided ‘a controlled daydream’ illuminating many of the epoch’s aspects. In his essay, Middleton focuses on novels reflecting climate change, in particular by Kim Stanley Robinson and Doris Lessing. He argues that: ‘The very best fictions of crisis do more than shine a light down into the murky affairs of the social unconscious, or give us a thrilling flight in the total reality simulator; they employ the special resources of the novel to raise issues of conceptual deficit, ethical ambiguity and failures of representations.’ (232)
In particular, these works are essential for those who cannot imagine the potential of climate change to wreck our ‘safe’ world.
Inspiration.  For some authorities, the story of the Anthropocene begins in 1945, the year of the first detonations of the atomic bomb. Several of the scientists who were closely associated with the bomb’s development made special mention of the inspirational role played in their careers by other stories. Niels Bohr recommended an unfinished novel (1824-) entitled The Adventures of a Danish Student by Poul Martin Møller, quoting the ‘philosophical meditations’ of one of the main characters on the multiplicity of identity: ‘I do not know at which “I” to stop as the actual, and in the moment I stop at one, there is indeed again an “I” which stops at it. I become confused and feel a dizziness as if I were looking down into a bottomless abyss.’ Bohr related how he sought escape from the abyss of infinite introspection in his work, helped by a friend of his father’s Harald Høffding.

Leo Szilard asserted that his ‘addiction to the truth’ and his predilection for ‘Saving the World’ came from stories his mother told him and from a Hungarian classic, The Tragedy of Man, written after the failure of the 1848 revolution by a world-weary nobleman, Imre Imlach. A long poem recounts the progress through history of Adam with Lucifer as his guide, concluding with the sun setting as only a few Eskimos survive. For Szilard, at the end of the narrative, ‘there remains a rather narrow margin of hope.’ Later, his imagination, and perhaps his hope, were stimulated by his reading of H.G. Wells, in particular by two works: The Open Conspiracy (1928) which describes the establishment of a world republic by enlightened industrialists and financiers; and The World Set Free (1914) which includes the description of a war breaking out in 1956 that destroys the major cities through the use of atomic bombs but is followed by the development of atomic energy that allows human beings to escape the solar system.

More simply, following the death of a beloved brother, Enrico Fermi recalled how, following the death of a beloved brother, he did not look back after buying at a bookstall a two-volume work, Elementorum physicae mathematicae, published by a Jesuit physicist in 1840. In a more complex fashion, Robert Oppenheimer related how he wrote short stories and poems while an undergraduate at Harvard, reading widely through T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) to Hindu philosophy as well as Principia Mathematica (1910-13) by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. He listed a considerable range of works as his studies of metaphysics: ‘the bhagavad gita, Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws [by Plato], Hugo of St. Victor, St. Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza’. He went through Marx, Engels and Feuerbach, but commented: ‘I never accepted Communist dogma or theory; in fact, it never made sense to me.’ Oppenheimer’s choice of the term ‘Trinity’ for the first test site of the atomic bomb was influenced by the sonnet of John Donne beginning ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God....’ At the time of the actual test, he resorted to the declaration of the Hindu god Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ (Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986, 58-61, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, 676.)    

Explanation.  Climate change is a story going back many centuries but reaching a denouement in our own. The literature on the subject is voluminous, and there are many explanatory websites. However, our perceptions are limited by our personal stories: that is to say, we find it easy enough to appreciate the past (it is worth recalling that, in many languages, ‘story’ and ‘history’ are synonymous) but difficult to imagine a future stretching forward beyond our own life span.

Certainly, the arrival at our present predicament is the culmination of a longer narrative, more helpful for our understanding than a-historical systems analysis when it points towards the evolution of human disaster rather than the continuance of progress. Moreover, arguably, all academic subjects have their own narratives, a fusion of which should allow more certain prognosis of what is to come if we do not adopt an alternative to growth.

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