05 October 2012

Review: From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature by Roslynn D. Haynes

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published 1994
Borrowed from the library

Read July 2012
From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature
by Roslynn D. Haynes

Haynes's book charts the depiction of the scientist in literature, as one might imagine from the title, going all the way back to medieval alchemical texts and up to contemporary science fiction films. This is the book that when I discovered it, I wish I had written it myself. Fortunately for me, I suppose, its breadth is both a blessing and a curse. It covers so much material that it's guaranteed to be useful for anyone starting to look into scientists in literature-- goodness knows that a number of books on my exam reading lists came straight out of here-- but it's not able to talk about any one time period in more than vague generalities.

Haynes has a very historicized reading of the literature she discusses, often linking the way scientists were depicted in a period's literature to what scientists were actually up to at the time; this is most prominent in her discussion of scientists in post-World War II fiction, where she connects a growing negative response to science's roles in the Holocaust, atomic weaponry, and environmental pollution. In my own research, I'm more interested in the epistemologies at stake in these kinds of texts (I think a lot of how people react to scientists has nothing to do with what scientists do, or even with what we imagine scientists to do, but how we imagine scientists to think), and so it would have been nice to see more of that in play. Philosophically, she also seems to think that some of the anti-science sentiment of the past few decades is justified, which is a position I've never had much time for.

Her main argument in the chapter on Victorian scientists is that though the portrayals of scientist are unusually positive at the beginning of the period compared to those of the Romantics, they become increasingly bleak over the course of the century, as geological, astronomical, and evolutionary discoveries lead to the image of the scientist rendered unfeeling by his discovery of his place in the universe. She connects this both to the Romantic stereotype of emotionally deficiency in scientists and the twentieth-century one of unfeeling and indifferent to the consequences of his research. This, she says is representative of a paradox in depictions of science: it is assumed to be both more powerful than humanity, because it can explain its place in the universe, but also subject to humanity, who hopes to use it for his own needs (127). Haynes suggests that "realistic portrayals of nineteenth-century medical researchers are, almost without exception, complimentary to the point of eulogy" (109). In general, she says, natural scientists in late Victorian fiction were idealized as crusaders for knowledge, working without desire for profit or persona gain, in works by authors such as Charles Kingsley-- himself an amateur scientist. The Faustian taint, she says, had been totally removed by this point. There is no Faustian taint, that's true, but to say that scientists were idealized in, for example, Kingsley, undersells the extent to which Kinglsey satirizes scientists in The Water-Babies as people arguing over trivialities and rejecting the obvious, and also ignores the fact that the scientist-protagonist of Kingsley's Two Years Ago is an excellent scientist, but needs to become a Christian before he can become an excellent person.

She then moves on to professional scientists, depicted in novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters and George Eliot's Middlemarch (111-3). These figures are much more realistic depiction of the scientist, experiencing the financial difficulties of working in this new field, made possible through the authors’ real-life associations with scientists: Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters is modeled on Charles Darwin, while Eliot extensively consulted actual medical researchers. I think some more idealization seeps through than Haynes fully admits (Roger's trajectory in Wives and Daughters is largely one of his scientific education being vindicated over his brother’s classical one), and she also does not fully draw out the extent to which Roger's power of observation serve him positively, which ought to be presented as a sharp contrast to other Victorian scientists, who are typically either made impotent or morally deficient because of their observational skills, whereas Roger is both moral and observant. (Except when it comes to Cynthia Kirkpatrick.)

The other work that she discusses that I've thought about a lot myself is Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, which she gives one brief paragraph, where she emphasizes Doctor Fitzpiers's "detached view of humanity," and says that he is similar to Faustus and Frankenstein in studying at a German university, but dissimilar in that he is more of an "intellectual dilettante" with to commitment to the search for truth, merely passing curiosities that he flits between inconsistently (126). Haynes concludes that "he is a cold and calculating personality, and it would seem clear that… Hardy intends to associate such traits with a scientific training." Perhaps the most interesting facet of Fitzpiers that Haynes raises is in an endnote, where she says that "in his scientific determinism and in his belief that marriage is merely a civil contract" he actually strongly resembled Hardy himself (347n60)! I'm not quite sure what to make of that, but I'm sure there's something

As well as with Kingsley, I had some issues with what she said of postwar sf writers like Isaac Asimov and James P. Hogan. The fact that the areas I know best (Victorian literature and mid-century sf) don't fully convince me makes me a little suspicious about the rest of the book, but that doesn't blunt the effectiveness of her exhaustive catalog. Or the very useful classification system she sets up in the book's introduction, which I would have liked to see her make more of.

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