Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/July 1884/Are Science and Art Antagonistic?



A STORY is told of the poet Keats, that once after a dinner at Haydon's, the English painter, he raised his glass and proposed as a toast, "Confusion to the memory of Newton!" When asked his reason for offering this singular sentiment, the poet replied, "Because he destroyed the poetry of the rainbow with his prism."

Is the poetry of things really destroyed by a scientific acquaintance with them? Does all poetry in a sense resemble that many-colored, light-embroidered band which the ancients deified, and whose wholly geometrical and earthly texture Newton laid bare? Pascal said there was no difference between the poet's trade and the embroiderer's; Montesquieu said the poet's business was "to overload reason and nature with fine fancies, as we used to bury women under their dress-trimmings." Voltaire regarded such expressions as only jests, though malicious ones; but they appear to a considerable number of the scientific men and thinkers of the present day to embody the exact expression of a truth. Poetry, which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had the majority of the good people on its side, has now, they tell us, only the minority. Science is the great obsession of our age; we all render to it, often unconsciously, a sort of worship, and can not help feeling a kind of scorn for poetry. Mr. Spencer compares Science to the humble Cinderella, who was hidden so long in the chimney-corner, while her proud sisters displayed their tinsels in everybody's eyes. Now Cinderella is taking her turn; "and some day Science, declared the best and the fairest, will reign as sovereign." M. Renan predicts a time "when the great artists will be an antiquated affair, nearly useless, while the value of the scientific man will be more and more appreciated." M. Renan has also expressed regret that he did not himself become a scientific man instead of being a dilettante in erudition. Who can say that Goethe, if he had been born in the present age, would not have preferred to devote himself entirely to the natural sciences; or that Voltaire would not have applied himself more to mathematics, in which he showed some force; or that Shakespeare would not have engaged in a more weighty occupation of his psychological powers than the construction of his dramas of human paltriness? Darwin's grandfather devoted a part of his talent to writing poor poems; the grandson, if he had been born a hundred years earlier, might have done the same; but Charles Darwin, in the spirit of the age in which he lived, instead of a poem of gardens, gave us the scientific epic of natural selection. Poems die with their languages, and poets can hope for their works "only an evening of life in the hearts of lovers"; the canvases of painters wear out, and, in a few hundred years, Raphael will be nothing but a name; statues and monuments fall into dust; only thought seems to live, and he who adds a thought to the stores of the human mind may live by its means as long as mankind itself. Must we believe that imagination and feeling are not as vital as thought, and that art must finally give way to science? The question is worthy of consideration, for it concerns the destiny of human genius and the shapes it is to assume in the future.

The writers who predict that poetry and the arts will gradually disappear rest upon a number of facts, some of which are borrowed from physiology and history, and others from psychology. We will inquire, first, what the natural and historical sciences teach us concerning the medium in which art can live.

Art, to reach its full development, requires around the artist and within him a cultivation of beauty of which the Greeks have given an example. This people had, for purity of form, for the harmonious proportion of the limbs, and for beautiful nudities, a love that went to the verge of adoration; and beauty was, in their eyes, invested with something sacred. This worship of beauty was revived at the renascence. In our days, on the other hand, strength and beauty of body are not the ideal. Many things seem to show that a too exclusive preoccupation with pleasing forms, as well as with ornaments and decorations, are a sign by which we can recognize primitive conditions of civilization. With those modern people who are still in an inferior grade of civilization, as with the Arabs, the male sex itself displays much coquetry, and seeks to please especially with its strength and physical beauty, its vesture, and its adornments. Civilization gradually destroys these primitive instincts, which have been, however, according to Mr. Darwin and Mr. Spencer, the germ of art. The man of our days does not care whether he has, under the convenient and ungraceful vestments that hide him, a well-developed torso and vigorous muscles. Coquetry survives and will doubtless continue to survive with women, but it too often tends to stray from its purpose, which is to bring out the beauty of the members. Women, who ought, more than all other persons, to endeavor to preserve pure and correct forms, take a thousand devices to hinder the development of their bodies and the circulation of their blood. So, not only the ancient culture, but beauty itself, seems to be falling into decadence, and the principal object of the arts is tending to disappear.

Many circumstances in our artificial modern life are combining to produce a tendency to diminution of stature and an augmentation of bodily deformities; among them the constantly increasing division of labor, under which the physical systems of workmen become developed in a single direction only, and too often cramped in other directions; the efforts of philanthropic science to preserve the sick and deformed, and help them propagate their race; the agglomeration of multitudes in cities; conscription, taking the most vigorous men for the army; and the dissipations of society and fashionable life, are producing a kind of reverse selection that may encourage infirmity and ugliness. The brain is becoming more and more the pre-eminently active organ. According to some anthropologists, the nervous system of the civilized man is thirty per cent larger than that of the savage, and it is destined to go on increasing at the expense of the muscular system. It is not probable, however, that this process will go so far as to result in permanent injury, for with the expanding development of the brain will go an increased quickness in detecting whatever evils may threaten the rest of the system and readiness to apply the remedies. It is one of the prerogatives of science to cure the wounds which itself inflicts, and it will do this in the present case by means of a better regulated education, through a more complete understanding of hygiene and gymnastics, and generally by a more methodical application of the laws that regulate the harmonious development of the organs. While there is doubtless something admirable in the motionless purity of forms, in proportion, and in the perfect adaptation of the organs to their functions which constitute plastic beauty, supreme and really poetic beauty, nevertheless, lies pre-eminently in expression and movement. To the modern age, the face is still the most beautiful part of the man, and that is constantly tending, by the development of the nervous system, of intelligence and morality, to become more expressive. By virtue of the mutual dependence of the organs, the man of future ages, if the development of his nervous system continues in a manner compatible with bis general vigor, will wear in his very physiognomy the steadily brightening reflection of intelligence, "and infinity of thought in the depth of his eyes." Even if the body is less sturdy and less handsome than the bodies of the athletes of Polycletus and the fleshy giants of Rubens, the head will have acquired a superior beauty. Are a brow radiant with living thought and eyes through which the soul is shining of no value from the plastic point of view? Intelligence ultimately impresses its mark upon the whole body, which, if less fitted under its predominance for the combat or the race, gains nevertheless a beauty peculiarly its own. Beauty, in short, will be intellectualized, and the same will be the case with art. Now, if modern art and poetry are to live chiefly by expression; if the head and thought are already assuming an increasing importance in the works of our epoch; if movement, the visible sign of thought, is finally to animate everything with it, as in the works of Michael Angelo and Puget—will art be destroyed in undergoing the transformation? We might say, borrowing the terminology of contemporary science, that the ancients were mainly acquainted with "static" art, while modern art, with its movement and expression, is "dynamic." Following in its course the evolution of human beauty, art tends to rise, as it were, from the limbs to the face and the brain.

History also, as well as physiology, has furnished some specious arguments against the future of art. The development of particular arts seems frequently connected with particular manners and a particular social condition. M. Taine believes that many arts now languishing are threatened with starvation in the future. M. Renan says the reign of sculpture was over when men ceased to go half naked. Epic poetry disappeared when the age of individual heroism passed away, and can not coexist with artillery. Every art, except music, is thus dependent upon a past state; and music, too, which may be regarded as the art of the nineteenth century, will some day have run its course.

The art most compromised in modern times is sculpture. Victor Cousin said, before M. Renan, that there could be no "modern sculpture" with the manners of our days. Admitting that sculpture is declining, the progress of science has had nothing to do with producing this condition. On the other hand, ancient sculpture lived by science. The ancient artists were more learned in the technics of their art than modern artists. In the renascence, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo were great scientific geniuses. Instead of killing sculpture, it is modern science which will finally be capable of rejuvenating it. Nothing, for example, has been of more value to art than the investigations of such men as Darwin upon the expression of the emotions. Ruskin has written that the sculptor can not be allowed to lack the knowledge or neglect the expression of anatomical detail; but that which is the end to the anatomist is for the sculptor the means. Detail is to him not simply a matter of curiosity or a subject of investigation, but the final element of expression and grace. The change of manners has not produced and will not produce the disappearance of statuary. We may not have another Venus of Milo or Hermes of Praxiteles. But no one can assert that the sculptor may not become capable of embodying in stone ideas and poetic emotions which the Greeks, with all the plastic perfection they attained, could not translate or even conceive. Praxiteles could not have imagined Michael Angelo's "Night" or "Aurora," any more than Michael Angelo could have executed some of the works of Praxiteles.

Painting enjoys a still greater promise of vitality and advancement. Color is eternal. No Newton, with his explanations of the aërial arch of the rainbow, will be able to break it up or to do away with it. The sense of color has even grown since antiquity. The Greeks were without words to describe a considerable number of colors which we distinguish; and their artists had certainly not as fine perceptions of color as Titian or Delacroix. Mankind seems to have been all the time growing more sensible to the language of tints, and to all the plays of light. Here, certainly, is an open road for art.

The language of sounds is likewise inexhaustible. The idea of melody responds to a particular mental and moral condition of man which changes from age to age; it will, therefore, change and make new advances with man himself. A class of musicians like Chopin, Schumann, and Berlioz have expressed feelings congenial to our epoch, and corresponding with a condition of the nervous system which Handel, Bach, and Haydn could hardly have understood. Mr. Spencer has shown that music is a development of accent made by the voice under the influence of passion. The variations of tone, the modulations natural to the human voice, grow refined as the nervous organization becomes more delicate. Musical melody following the variations of human accents is capable of taking on as many shades as there are feelings in the heart. Rossini has already been criticised with severity for the innovations he introduced into musical composition, and for his departure from the simple themes and solos of the olden time. A similar reproach was laid against Wagner, and is doubtless held in reserve for the next musical genius that shall arise.

Extinction has also been predicted for the poetic art, but with no better reason than for the other arts. Great poets still exist, and are still produced. They may not excel in the same way as their predecessors, but they excel as well, and reflect with equal power and equal grace the feelings of their age.

From the external conditions of art we pass to the mental and moral conditions; they are the most important ones. The question before us is, if the scientific spirit, which is gradually penetrating humanity and fashioning its brain from generation to generation, will not, in the long run, destroy the three essential faculties of the artist—imagination, the creative instinct, and sentiment.

According to some philosophers, the development of the scientific spirit is destined to arrest that of the poetic imagination. The reign of science, succeeding to the dynasty of legends and religions, will engender a reign of "platitude"; without mystery, say others—without superstition, Goethe added, there can be no true poetry. The poetic imagination does, in fact, need a kind of superstition, in the ancient sense of the word, which will not permit it always to explain events by their cold reasons, and a sort of ignorance, a demi-obscurity, under the cover of which it may play at will around things. Nothing is less poetic, we might say, than a broad, bare road devoid of nooks and turnings, with the sun shining directly upon it; but thickets, shrubberies, shady corners, or anything we can not look into at the first glance, whatever appears to hide from and evade us, these constitute rural poetry. The fault of bare plains is that they conceal nothing from us, and we do not like a straight line because we can see all there is to the end of it. The indefinable charm of evening consists in its showing us everything half veiled; and of moonlight that it gives a softness to objects whose outlines we can only dimly make out, and causes them to appear as through a thin, transparent obscurity. If the skies were cleared of what about them is mysterious, what would distinguish them from the earth we tread under our feet? The "aching for the infinite" that troubles some minds, also gives them some of their most precious joys; and such minds would probably be reluctant to exchange it for universal knowledge.

To us the incompatibility which these writers endeavor to establish between poetry and science is superficial. Poetry will always find a justification in science. Matthew Arnold remarks, in his essay on Maurice de Guérin, that poetry as well as science is an interpretation of the world. The interpretations of science will never give us that intimate sense of things that the interpretations of poetry give us, for they address themselves to a limited faculty, not to the whole man; for that reason poetry is eternal. All the theorems of astronomy will never prevent the view of the infinite sky exciting the vague restlessness in us and the unsatisfied desire to know which constitute the poetry of the heavens. Are there any discoveries that do not touch upon other mysteries, and thus favor the always still wider play of the imagination? Science, which begins by astonishment, ends also, Coleridge says, with astonishment, of which poetry as well as philosophy is born; there is, therefore, an eternal suggestion, and consequently an eternal poetry in science. That very craving for the mysterious and the unknown which the human imagination feels, will appear, if we analyze it to the end, a disguised form of the desire to know. We have just spoken of the peculiar charm of narrow roads, of thickets, and turnings; the chief source of their charm is in their allowing us to make discoveries at every step, in their keeping the mind in a constant stretch of curiosity. The poetry in them does not come only from their closing the horizon to us, but rather from their always promising us something new. That science is constantly changing the points of view from which we have been in the habit of regarding men and things, that it keeps on producing new light-effects, and often surprises, and even vexes us, no one will deny; but what is there in that to disturb the poet? I have sometimes envied the ant, whose horizon is so narrow that it has to mount a leaf or a stone to see a half step around itself; it must be able to distinguish a host of things that wholly escape us; to it a gravel-walk, a piece of turf, the bark of a tree, are replete with poetries unknown to us. If its view were enlarged it would be at first unhomed, and in the sight of our forests and mountains would miss the fleeting shadows of its grass-blades. So if we were to rise high enough we should regret to see the poetry of details disappearing, the little things blending together, all the angles in which our thought was lost smoothed away, all the turns that excited our curiosity straightened out. Nothing, at first sight, but the view of a grand whole, bare and shadeless, in a harsh, uniform light; but what breadth! As we survey it, we see still beyond it, a new set of endless perspectives still losing themselves in the shadows; still something to look at, to learn, and to experiment upon.

There is another mystery which science can not destroy, and which is destined to be always a theme of poetry; the metaphysical mystery. There is no need of weaving, as the theologians do, new obscurities around the one that everlastingly envelops the beginning of things; having got to that, the investigator himself, obliged to stop, may suffer himself, as Claude Bernard says, "to be rocked in the wind of the unknown, amid the sublimities of ignorance." Science may dispel, without poetry suffering by it, the artificial mysteries of religions, which apply their symbols even to the explanation of purely scientific phenomena; but it can never destroy this metaphysical mystery, which bears not only upon unknown laws, but upon the essence of things which are perhaps really incognoscible. That mystery will always be competent to sustain in art, above that of the beautiful, pure, and simple, the emotion of the sublime.

Superstition does not appear to us any more indispensable than mystery or ignorance to the flight of the imagination, although Goethe has described it as "the poetry of life." In their origin, it is true, the religious myths had their poetry; but it was, after all, because they were first attempts at explanation. Superstition consists essentially in putting in things, or back of them, wills like ours. Animals are not superstitious, because they do not try to comprehend. Man, on the contrary, tries to account for the phenomena he perceives, and, in order to do this, projects himself, in a fashion, into them. This first attempt to systematize the universe had a kind of grandeur, even in a scientific view, and had also its poetry. But the myths of the ancient ages can no longer be seriously regarded in the age of science. Is this to be regretted for the sake of art? Yes, they say; for it was more poetical to put wills like ours behind exterior objects than to submit them to the hard laws of science: a law is not as good as a god. But we answer to this, that a law in itself has something of the divine. As one of the characteristics of divinity is infinity, a law connecting phenomena one with another, and inviting us unhaltingly to ascend the chain of causes, opens immense perspectives to the mind, and gives to whoever investigates it a view of infinity in the smallest objects, or, we might say, makes the infinite present in every phenomenon. While mythology compels the mind to stop in its search for causes, giving the capricious will of some god as its final explanation, science removes all limitations and puts the mind in immediate view of infinity. From this arises a new kind of poetry, more austere, perhaps, but more profound and more lasting. When Leibnitz respectfully put back upon a leaf the insect he had taken from it to look at through the microscope, he did not regard it with the same eye as an ancient would have regarded it. In that atom he perceived, as Pascal did in the fleshworm, an epitome of the world. This idea of the infinite divine is quite as precious as are the classic wonders and the tinsel decorations of Olympus. The poet loses nothing in the transformation of the universe by science. Mr. Spencer, who once defended the poetry of science against that of the Greek odes, has made some just remarks on this subject. To the man of antiquity or to the ignoramus of our own days, a drop of water is only a drop of water. How it is changed in the eyes of the scientific man when he thinks that, if the force that holds its elements together were set free, it would produce lightning! A dish of snow becomes a wonder when one examines with the microscope the varied and elegant forms of its crystals. A rounded stone striated with parallel scratches calls up the thought of the glacier silently sliding over it millions of years ago. Art and science have this in common, that both require genius as a condition of their full development. Science in its highest departments, like art, can not live and grow except by incessant discovery. The faculty which enabled Newton to divine the law of the stars is the same with that by which Shakespeare perceived the psychological laws that govern the characters of Hamlet and Othello. Like the poet, the man of science also must always be able to put himself in thought in the place of Nature, to learn how she acts, and to represent to himself what she might do if one should change the conditions of her action. The art of either is to place the beings of Nature in new circumstances, as if they were active personages, and thus, to as great an extent as possible, to renovate or new-create Nature. The hypothesis is a kind of sublime romance, a scientific poem. Kepler, Pascal, and Newton had, as Mr. Tyndall remarks, the temperaments of poets, almost of visionaries. Faraday compared his intuitions of scientific truth to "interior illuminations," to a sort of ecstasies that raised him above himself. Once, after long reflections on force and matter, he perceived in a poetic vision the whole world "traversed by lines of forces," the endless vibrations of which produced light and heat throughout immensity. This instinctive vision was the origin of his theory of the identity of force and matter. Science, then, in the face of the unknown, comports itself in many respects as poetry does, and demands the same creative instinct. For its advancement is required the power of intuitive intelligence collected by many generations; insight, as Carlyle calls it, to perceive the true or the beautiful before having a full knowledge of it.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes,