Quantum Poetics: in search of poetry’s elementary particles

A few years ago I was in Rome and I visited the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Even though I found it breathtaking in scope and execution, with its grand proportions, fluid lines-of-sight and enormous gilded ceiling, I wasn’t inspired. I took a seat and closed my eyes, already thinking about my next stop in the city. As I was getting ready to leave, I looked up and was caught by a gold-coloured halo around the Virgin Mary, in a fresco that adorned the dome. The Virgin stood on a rock, twelve stars floating above her head. Curiously, the rock under her feet seemed to have craters on its surface. It didn’t take me long to find out that the fresco had been painted by Lodovico Cigoli around 1610-11. Cigoli’s commission was not radical; to paint the Virgin as the ‘queen of the heavens’. Yet, whereas Mary could be readily depicted, how to do her dominion? Unsure, Cigoli looked to his friend, Galileo, for assistance. Galileo told him about his very recent discovery of the craters on the Moon, so Cigoli painted a ‘queen of heavens’ standing on a Moon-rock whose surface was full of craters. That inspired me. Art involves a great deal of observation (some would argue that art is observation); and science excels at systematic observation. Therein lies a meeting point between two very different modes of representing the world.

Basilica_Baroque_art_Santa_Maria_Rome

Lodovico Cigoli’s fresco in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, completed in 1611

The interplay and interrelation between art and science is old, at least as old as Lucretius’ first-century BC poem ‘De rerum natura’ (On the Nature of Things), which explains the Epicurian philosophy on atomism and various physical phenomena. The science (or, rather, the natural philosophy) of the time was preoccupied with the problem of physical causation and the idea of determinism. Are events caused solely by prior events? If so, the causes of things are always predetermined and there is no room for free will; if not, then where exactly does free will lie? The Epicureans, who were hardcore materialists, appropriated the concept of the atom – the notion that any physical thing can be divided and subdivided on and on until we reach a point that no further subdivision is possible. They argued that, at the atomic level, there is an inherent randomness in the motion of the indivisible particles. This powerful insight, confirmed in modern times by quantum physics, is of vast importance to our understanding of the universe and our place in it (yet, it still doesn’t solve the problem of free will). The crucial point here is that when Lucretius sought to explain these ideas in his poem (of almost 7,400 lines) he resorted to various metaphors. He talked about ‘swerves’ and ‘bonds of fate’:

[…] if all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order – if the atoms never swerve so as to originate new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect – what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?

Defining one thing in terms of another; thinking in terms of the similarities between this, which we can’t quite grasp, and that, which we can, is another major point of confluence between art and science.

So where do art and science diverge?

Is it perhaps that the notion of natural laws doesn’t apply in the arts? Physical stuff obey various sets of ‘rules’: anything with a mass is subject to the law of gravity and anything with an electromagnetic charge is subject to Maxwell’s equations. Every part of our universe tends towards a cold state of disorder, according to the second law of thermodynamics. But, surely, artistic creativity can’t be distilled or reduced into such rules.

In 1968 the British painter Harold Cohen went on a lecturing visit to the University of California in San Diego. California was then – and still is – one of the major hubs for artificial intelligence. Cohen was exposed to the main ideas of the field and was hooked by the problem of whether a machine can be creative. During the ‘70s, Cohen became the first person in history to create art by programming simple rules into a machine (‘writing code’, as he puts it) and letting the machine do the painting:

I didn’t write it to have it do what I can do perfectly well myself; I wrote it to discover what an independent (machine) intelligence might do, given some knowledge of the world and some rudimentary physical capabilities. And, in the process, to have it teach me about possibilities I hadn’t imagined.

Yet, it is difficult to take cases like this at face value. We need to be open to the possibility that the scientific paradigm of reductionism – that is, the process of analysing a system into elementary constituents and simple rules in order to represent it – may not work in art and the humanities in general. Mary Midgley fiercely opposed the supremacy of the reductionist perspective, arguing that reductionism ought to be treated as only one of the possible ways of understanding the world. In response to Richard Dawkins’ dogmatism, Midgley revisits Lamia, Keats’ poem-meditation on the place of feeling in a rational world: ‘Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy? / There was an awful rainbow once in Heaven: / We know her woof, her texture: she is given / In the dull catalogue of common things.’

Midgley says:

If we want to understand this, we had better notice what is happening at that point in the poem. Keats had just told the Greek tale of the mystery woman who is really a snake and who is unmasked as such at her wedding-feast by a philosopher. He then suddenly steps outside the frame and points out something badly wrong with the story itself… Within the story, Lamia must of course be exposed. People can’t marry snakes. But the question is, ought we to frame our life-plans around such stories? […] Should our only reaction to diamond be to explain that it is just carbon, and to a rainbow to point out that it is just water…? Keats thinks not. And to make the point clear he gives the story a new ending. In his version the deserted bridegroom does not thank the philosopher and rejoice at his escape… Instead he is desolated and dies of grief.

Nevertheless, the reductionist approach has indeed been attempted even in the remit of literary theory. The central question it seeks to answer can be phrased, quite simply, as: What are the elementary particles of poetry?

The Modernists, in particular, were clearly preoccupied with the idea of isolating the atom of poetic ‘stuff’. Theorists have referred to this poetic atom as the poememe (echoing the well-known term phoneme from linguistic theory). Yet, the more they tried to locate it and to define its boundaries, the more elusive it became. As a result, in parallel to the development of a ‘particle model’ for the analysis of poetry, a ‘wave model’ was developed alongside it. This is the central thesis in Daniel Albright’s book, ‘Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism’. It is an enticing idea, drawing parallels to quantum mechanics, which rests on the wave-particle duality: every elementary particle (such as an electron or a photon) can also behave like a wave, and be in two places at once. If you try to see where a particle is going, and how fast, then you lose its position, and it spreads in space, transmuting into a wave.

Albright shows that Pound was thinking in terms of a ‘particle model’, seeing wholes in themselves and avoiding interferences between distinct wholes. Not that Pound didn’t use metaphors – the image and the vortex are the key poetic entities in his work but he was opposed to allegory. For Pound, ‘things become most meaningful by being most powerfully themselves’. The hawk is, first and last, a hawk. Albright explains:

Pound’s revulsion against the allegorical and emblematic led him to the astonishing doctrine that poetry deals fundamentally with heft. A painting may respond to the physical extension of objects, to ratios of length and width; but a poem treats their inertia, their resistance to the hand that would pick them up. The adjective, the adverb, the whole predicate, are somewhat incidental: what counts is the noun.

Eliot, on the other hand, appears to be drawn by the aesthetic of the wave. Loosening and diffracting boundaries, decomposing representations, and diffusing monoids that metamorphose into each other, are the stuff of Eliot’s obsessions. ‘My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark… / And I must borrow every changing shape / To find expression… dance, dance / Like a dancing bear,’ he writes in ‘Portrait of a Lady’. Albright notes that:

In his dissertation Eliot argued that nothing could be confidently be said to be unreal, not even a ghost or a chimera or the present King of France, not even a sheer oxymoron such as a round square […] “It is not unreal, for there is no reality to which it should correspond and does not.” The speakers in Eliot’s poetry are similarly subject to all sorts of confusion, for they lack any criteria for distinguishing the hallucinatory from the plausible; when self-possession gutters, they are in danger of dissolving into hallucinations, chimeras, for their bodies cannot hold onto human shape.

Eliot had studied closely the writings of Leibniz (he wrote on Monadism in 1916) and was possibly struck by the well-known passage in Leibniz’s book ‘Monadology’ (1714):

Whence we see that there is a world of creatures, of living beings, of animals, of entelechies, of soul, in the smallest particle of matter.

Each portion of matter may be conceived of as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fishes. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its humours is also such a garden and such a pond…

What Leibniz had stumbled upon was complexity and it was its basic premise that appealed to Eliot. At the time, Eliot didn’t have the tools to explore this further, but so much of his work has emergence and transformation at its heart. Complexity science builds upon the paradigm of reductionism and goes beyond it: over the last half a century or so it has given us the spectacular results of chaos theory, fractals, spin glasses, network analysis and much more. It supersedes the reductionist approach by teasing out a continuous metamorphosis – each new layer emerges from the one below, in and of itself, as a new whole. Every mile of coastline looks like a coast and every yard and foot and inch within it also looks like – is – a coast.

This post was originally published in HARK Magazine’s blog, 2014.

Categories: Crossover, Modernists, Poetry, Science, T S Eliot

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Hello, after reading this remarkable piece of writing i am also
    cheerful to share my experience here with friends.

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