Crossways

An Online Literary Magazine

The Allure of Science for the Arts: Reflections

This post is concerned with objectivity and its role in the Arts, especially literature. Objective or scientific thinking on the face of it, is alien to the Arts just as subjectivity is outside the realm of science. And yet that highest of art forms, music, is understood in systematic and objective terms. Just as that purest of sciences, mathematics, is considered more of an art than a science in its advanced state.

The Psycho-analyst Carl Jung theorised that men are attracted to woman because they appeal to the feminine side of the male psyche and vice-versa. We might consider the Arts and the sciences as two lovers gazing into each other’s psyche, reflecting each other. But this post is concerned with the Arts only, especially literature, and the role of objective thinking in it.

Everyone who has had the benefit of a third level education will know that it’s all about learning to think objectively or, in other words, how to use your mind, no matter if it is an Arts or science subject. English literature is considered to be amongst the toughest of disciplines that a student can pursue. This is because it is not easy to think objectively about literature. We are brought up to read passively. It’s a habit that most of us learn. The discipline of literature teaches us to read actively. In no other discipline is the subjective and objective so much blended.

In literary theory and criticism, we find a striving for the objective or the scientific and the systematic. Science has a special allure for the Arts and Humanities. We might live in a Post-Modern age where the meta-narrative of science no longer holds sway. The theorists tell us that it is just another discourse. But for most people, science is still objective fact or the closest we can get to it. And it still has a kind of mystical allure for the literary critics.

Of course, it started with the ancient Greeks. They invented prosody, or the science of versification, and this systematic, analytic way of thinking about literature continued through the centuries. We might consider T.S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ as a paragon of it. The notion that emotions should be conveyed in objective terms i.e. observable behaviour, and not described. This recalls the science of Behaviourism and ‘black box’ psychology, which was radicalized by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s.

William Blake said that ‘without Contraries is no progression’. The interplay of objective and subjective thinking in our way of understanding and appreciating literature is the perfect example of this. We might also quote the line from John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

Literature is a tough, rigorous discipline and it is this mix of the objective and subjective that makes it so. Dumbing down happens when the scientific aspect is ignored or overlooked. Hopefully, those who like to see it dumbed down will have their day and the discipline that has been lost will be restored.

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