Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dangerous Liaisons - Review

Dangerous Persuasions

I’m not sure a correspondence with you is something a woman of honour could permit herself.  —Madame de Tourvel, to Vicomte de Valmont

Formidable! Is “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) the best costume drama ever? Yes or no, it presents an amazing fictional demonstration—almost a primer or casebook study—of what cognitive scientists and primatologists call “Machiavellian Intelligence.” In brief, that is the idea that success for smart social animals such as rhesus macaque monkeys or Homo sapiens depends on sophisticated abilities to make long-term plans, to surmise the motives of others, and hence to favorably influence the behavior of both friends and foes.[1] It is closely related to “Theory of Mind,” an understanding of the internal drives, fears, and desires of one’s conspecifics. DL features most of the clashing elements that make communal life inherently a soap opera. What causes it to stand out are the meticulous care its creators put into making the main characters brilliant and then setting them in conflict, the luxurious wardrobes and locations, and finally the performances of the actors, with John Malkovich as le Vicomte de Valmont stealing the show.[2]

DL is based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos.[3] It takes place in France during the last years of King Louis XVI’s reign, just before the French Revolution (begun in 1789). The screenplay by Christopher Hampton, which won an Academy Award, derives from his contemporary dramatic version. It was directed by the talented Stephen Frears, and it was filmed in and around magnificent French estates, such as the Château Maisons-Lafitte. James Acheson served as Costume Designer, and his haute couture deserves a shout-out. The dressing of the two principals Valmont and la Marquise de Merteuil at the beginning, shown via cross-cutting as they’re enveloped in their accouterments and finery by squadrons of attendants, intentionally parallels soldiers arming for battle:
A bizarre paper cone with gauze-covered eyeholes conceals Valmont’s face as the perruquier blows powder at his wig. As the powder drifts away, Valmont slowly lowers the cone and we see for the first time his intelligent and malicious features. Another angle shows the complete magnificent ensemble; or not quite complete, for Azolan now reaches his arms round Valmont’s waist to strap on his sword. (2s.d.)

Valmont is a suave, cunning rake: “he is conspicuously charming, [and] never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do” (4). There’s something feline about the way he moves, which is quite ‘intriguing’ and as interesting as his affected, outwardly nonchalant line readings. The three leading ladies (with the actresses’ ages at the time of the film’s release in parentheses) are Glenn Close as la Marquise de Merteuil (41), Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel (30), and Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges (18; her character “is a demure fifteen-year-old blonde”). Besides being skilled thespians and very beautiful, another factor in their casting must have been that they all have ivory skin, pale blue eyes, and golden locks. And though each has at least one passionate meltdown moment, there’s an ‘ice queen’ quality they all share.

DL’s idle, refined, ultra-privileged characters spend their considerable time, energy, brainpower, and other resources plotting amongst themselves. Some of their favorite pastimes include, of course, arranging, setting up, and foiling intrigues, seductions, and other assorted erotic liaisons. In conjunction with these (dis)honorable pursuits, they engage wholeheartedly in manipulation, blackmail, and revenge; they write, receive, and intercept billets-doux; and they spread rumors and guard their reputations. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, primatologist Robin Dunbar contends that gossip is fundamental to the genesis of human speech and moreover integral to society.[4] Anyone who remembers the savage jungle of high school will recall that it functions as a two-edged sword. On one side, it enforces collective judgment and acts as a conservative impediment to misbehavior. Ignoring propriety gets one talked about; thus, fear of infamy compels individuals to maintain the public norms of their peer group. But conversely it can operate as a Machiavellian tool useful for character assassination, subtle self-promotion, and the accrual of social capital. In general, and not unlike chimpanzees, the protagonists are engaged in an all-out fight for power and sexual access—the ability to control weaker parties and to get away with whatever they want. Yet all of the dramatis personae retain their subtlety and humanity, something rare among even quality Merchant-Ivory productions or the sharpest, glossiest American teen shows.[5] They’re “round,” not just cleverly deployed chess pieces, and each has gaps in their understanding of social codes and others’ motives, as well as limits to their own self-awareness.[6]

The gist of the story revolves around the seigneurial Valmont’s relationships with de Tourvel and Cécile; these affairs are of the utmost concern to la Marquise, and they strongly affect her attitude, feelings, and conduct towards him. The braininess, particularly of la Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont (who are ex-lovers and allies or antagonists depending on the circumstances of the moment), shine through during their repartee, which is razor-sharp (an overdetermined ironic adjective here, given how war-like be the battle of the sexes, and the duel that climaxes the action) as well as through their ability to delay gratification in pursuit of victory. La Marquise reveals how she managed to invent herself in a de facto policy speech to Valmont:
I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So of course I had to invent: not only myself but ways of escape no one has ever thought of. And I’ve succeeded, because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own. … In the end, I distilled everything [I learned] down to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. … When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can’t. That’s the whole story. (25-26)

It seems she has indeed distilled the wisdom of Machiavelli, Ovid, Freud, and all the other grandmasters of human foibles.

There is nothing new under the sun, and DL has its roots in other writings produced in the salons of Paris by las précieuses, and the coffeehouses of London by gallant wits, during (roughly) the Long Eighteenth Century. Two of its closer theatrical cousins, William Congreve’s scintillating Restoration play The Way of the World (1700), and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895-99) both, I think, have dialogue a bit more sparkly, but they are romantic comedies.[7] The perfect catfight scene between Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew in Wilde is so great because it is so deadpan hilarious, and likewise the pointed clever stichomythia in both is, ostentatiously, a labor of the playwright’s sprezzatura and artifice. In contrast, the tragic (or at least deadly) dénouement and nasty, cutting overall tone of DL seems to render it more “real”—though obviously very few people have actually lived like decadent French aristos during the Ancien Régime.

To return to themes of a cognitive nature, the understanding of “headology” is simply extraordinary, extending to internal ambivalence (“the battle between Love and Virtue,” to quote just one of the script’s Ovidian tropes), jealousy, meanness, and painful lessons. The phrase “It was beyond my control,” to take a key example, which could be trite, here contains a whole world of connaissances (knowledges), probably enough to merit its own essai in ultra-close reading. The depiction of oh so polite, oh so nasty competitiveness, particularly the female rivalry, is, again, pitch-black-perfect. For example, the piqued Merteuil has this to say about de Tourvel: “I see she writes as badly as she dresses” (63). The leads’ “Theory of Mind” is hyper-sensitive, but no one is omniscient nor omnipotent; even the central pair make mistakes, errors in judgment, and have plans go awry. To take one signal case, Valmont inadvertently falls in love with Madame de Tourvel, precipitating unhappy outcomes for several parties.

In an earlier brief, emblematic episode, Valmont knows that he is being spied on because he’s directed his servant Azolan to conduct an affair with Madame de Tourvel’s chambermaid Julie. Thus alerted, he allows himself to be surreptitiously observed extending much-needed financial assistance to a decent but down-on-his-luck peasant near his aunt’s estate who’s in arrears over taxes.[8] He does this as part of his plot to seduce de Tourvel, who is known for (and who prides herself on being known for) her uncommon virtue and purity. She is also pulchritudinous, but Valmont’s ostensible motive is to earn renown for his Casanovan supremacy by winning her in spite of her principled resistance. He’s become a bit bored; he needs a major challenge.
Valmont: To seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervour and the happiness of her marriage: what could possibly be more prestigious? … You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought betrayal was your favourite word.
Merteuil: No, no, cruelty: I always think that has a nobler ring to it. (7-8)

The manufactured act of charity succeeds as planned, earning Valmont favor in her eyes. In this chapter we have so much: the keen monitoring of others and their opinions, the attempts at deceit, the importance of reputation, the uses/abuses of kindness, the sheer “acting” involved (e.g. when Valmont pretends to be modestly discomfited and embarrassed when found out in de Tourvel’s presence). The segment ends when Valmont, in an aside, compliments his assistant Azolan for selecting an appropriate clan—a finely detailed, cynical twist of the knife: “I must say the family was very well chosen. Solidly respectable, gratifyingly tearful, no suspiciously pretty girls” (15).

A skeptic might suggest that the extreme mannerism and noticeable sterility permeating DL invalidates reading it in terms of evolutionary psychology. It is true that their society is flagrantly unproductive economically and biologically. Monsieur de Tourvel, who works in law, is never present, and the only pregnancy, accidental and illegitimate, ends in a miscarriage. Also, the one marriage arranged is not a love match (Cécile hasn’t even met her older husband-to-be, again, never seen), and the action centers around her illicit premarital sex life, which la Marquise arranges to settle a personal grudge by pre-cuckolding the fiancé: “His priority, you see, is a guaranteed virtue. … he’d get back from honeymoon to find himself the laughing-stock of Paris” (6-7). I would, nonetheless, suggest two items: first, the environment, free from mundane concerns, has unchained the characters to explore and indulge basic human instincts which are usually not so forefronted or played with quite so much ruthlessness. Paradoxically, the artifice permits the rawness. Second, the story can’t help but function as an implicit critique of their fundamentally unnatural, overly extravagant misbehavior. Audiences, I’d posit, impose such morals, regardless of intentions. Thus, the depravity and barrenness of their world do signal its degeneration; and of course, during the impending Revolution, emphatically signaling the end of Enlightenment in history, numerous nobles were fated to meet their end courtesy of the guillotine.

I’ve tried to suggest some of what makes DL such an ab-fab success. To reiterate, there’s an intrinsic pleasure in watching a superb storyteller present such nasty behavior, especially when it’s played with such élan and ferocity. This factor permits ready elucidation. There seems to be more going on, however, a quality that strains my critical vocabulary to impart. It’s an element entwined with the story itself, a simultaneous meta-criticism happening as we see things through the eyes of such savvy social players. To this reader, Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and even The Simpsons (created by Matt Groening) share this feature—in part due to their ironic narrators (played by the camera in DL), plus an implication that we’re privileged viewers of life lessons of the utmost import.[9] None of these texts, of course, should be reduced to didactic little morality plays, though, again, their involving conflicts (including the internal fights) play a part in their aesthetic achievement. To borrow a term from the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, DL adds up to almost being a kind of “thick description,” a (fictional) ethnographical portrait of an Ancien Régime that was wicked fun while it lasted.[10]


[1] See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998); Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); and Dario Maestripieri, Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[2] Christopher Hampton, Dangerous Liaisons: The Film (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1989). Quotations will be referenced parenthetically to page numbers in this screenplay.
[3] Other versions of the novel have been filmed. Cf. “Cruel Intentions” (1999), which sets DL’s plot among upper-crust prepsters: this viewer found it tepid and disappointing after a promising opening. N.b. Swoosie Kurtz, who played Cécile’s mother in DL, has a clever intertextual cameo in CI.
[4] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). On “Sins of the Tongue,” see also M. Gluckman, “Gossip and Scandal,” Current Anthropology 4 (1963): 307-16; F. G. Bailey, Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971); Ralph Rosnow and Gary Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay (New York: Elsevier, 1976); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985); Robert Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, eds., Good Gossip (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); and Jerome Barkow, “Beneath New Culture Is Old Psychology: Gossip and Social Stratification,” in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 627-37.
[5] The unbelievable precociousness of these femmes fatale in training can be highly entertaining—witness the following recent teen black comedies: Mean Girls, Pretty Persuasion, Heathers, Election, Superbad, Wild Things, Clueless, Easy A, Brick, Assassination of a High School President, or St. Trinian’s, and their television derivatives: Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars, et al.
[6] N.b. I found a very brief note (about one paragraph) on gender and deception in DL from an evolutionary psychology p.o.v. by Prof. William Tooke on his blog (dated Aug. 12, 2009): www.darwingoestothemovies.blogspot.
[7] Valmont uses the expression “It’s the way of the world” (66); it is impossible to determine if an allusion to Congreve is intended. For that matter, the sincerity or sarcasm is difficult to judge when Mertuil states that Cécile’s income of “sixty thousand a year” plays no part in Bastide’s calculations—“None whatso-ever”—in his wishing to marry her (6).
[8] Besides this brief episode (“These days, my lord, you can find half a dozen [ruined families] like that, any village in the country,” 15), there is little in the way of socioeconomic criticism. It is perhaps noteworthy that Madame de Tourvel’s husband is away practicing law, indicating their bourgeoisie status, and the unobtrusive presence of myriad attendants is an obvious class marker. The historical irony of an idle elite on the verge of destruction from the masses below, is, from a modern vantage point, clear enough.
[9] I’m imagining specifically something like Beowulf in its original setting, performed by a bard for a receptive, illiterate band of Anglo-Saxon warriors, rather than later, literary editions/contexts far removed from the heroic pagan world of the comitatus.
[10] Honorable mention: period/costume dramas that capture the glamorous, refined atmosphere, crumbling mansions, restrictive social codes and all:
Shakespeare in Love
The Name of the Rose
The House of Mirth
La Princesse de Montpensier
Vanity Fair
Lady Jane
Dangerous Beauty
I, The Worst of All (Yo, la mas peor)
The Tudors [multi-episode cable tv series]
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen? (with Anne-Marie Duff?)
Sense and Sensibility (?)

Michael A. Winkelman studied Chemistry at Kalamazoo College and received a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Marriage Relationships in Tudor Political Drama (2005) and A Cognitive Approach to John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets (2013). He has also written reviews and essays from a New Humanist perspective. He teaches at Owens Tech in Ohio.

Copyright©2015 by Michael A. Winkelman – All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A case for the right hemisphere

Recently, my daughter (who is an artist) came home and started talking about how we have two brains, right and left. Other than the difference between our limbic system (the so-called mammalian brain) and our cortex, I had not thought much about the bilateral brain. Carole Brooks Platt has proved me wrong.

Platt’s In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015) is a cogent and lucid argument for the origin of creativity in the brain. Platt is multi-knowledgeable across various disciplines, including the literary arts, neuroscience and consciousness studies, and psychology. The book offers a fascinating account about how the brain works in terms of inspiration: for some the fine line between transcendence, dreams, and wakefulness, the blurring between oneself and a literary creation. The book is packed with scientific details and biographical information (in a parallel form) about William Blake, John Keats, Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B Yeats, James Merrill, David Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Looking to prehistory, Platt notes that we became fully human when our emotional side developed as much as our rational, and with these poets the emotional goes far beyond anything typical.

Of course it’s more complicated than saying the left hemisphere equals language, math, and logic while the right hemisphere equals spatial ability, facial recognition, and visual/musical imagery. So Platt gets down to the individual level, how childhood trauma, mood disorders, and dissociative thoughts act as a springboard for right-hemispheric dominance in some people. The right hemisphere, borrowing from Arthur Koestler (according to Platt), puts thinking aside. So while the left hemisphere produces syntactical speech, the right hemisphere deals with subtleties. Referring to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Platt notes that the right hemisphere (contextual perception) sees reality while the left hemisphere (textual detail) interprets reality. Nevertheless, in order to completely understand anything, the right hemisphere is ultimately important.

In terms of these writers dealing with dissociation, Platt covers reincarnation, séances, automatic writing, the Ouija board, telepathy and other paranormal events. Normally I’d be skeptical about all of this, but Platt has convinced me that in line with highly sensitive and creative right-hemispheric individuals these were truly crucial exercises as part of the process in their imaginative output. That is, the metaphorical-driven right hemisphere takes control for those who, because of early trauma (like the loss of a parent), are seeking emotional balance.

I’m not exaggerating by saying this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve recently read. There is a surprising blend of interest in poetic creativity and neuroscience, invaluable for anyone engaged in the making or interpretation of the literary arts. D.H. Lawrence once said something about how Cézanne did not just paint apples but went behind the apples to show us what was there. Platt does not just chronicle the visions of poets and their inspiration but goes behind the scenes of their brains – she shows us how the mind of poetic genius works. While Platt focuses on the writers mentioned above, she is also well versed in many others. The book is a goldmine for the interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific and literary matter related to the brain as a creative mechanism.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Neuroscience, art and the aesthetic experience

On Thursday, 10 December 2015 I attended a debate between G. Gabrielle Starr and Alva Noë who addressed the question, Can neuroscience help us understand art? The debate was sponsored by the New York University Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness and held at the Casa Italiana to a packed, attentive audience. Directors of the Center, Ned Block and David Chalmers, posed other questions: Can understanding the brain reshape our conceptions of the arts? Is there a viable field of neuroaesthetics?

In attendance were my wife and our daughter, who is an artist. The lively and sometimes humorous debate was more like a conversation that, in spite of similarities between the perspectives of Starr and Noë, pointed to some sharp differences in their approaches to defining and understanding the aesthetic experience. Based on the amount of audience participation after the debate, those in attendance had strong reactions (both positive and negative) to both sides of the presentation.

What follows are notes I took during the talks; any errors in how I might represent the speakers’ positions are entirely my own. For more clarity and depth, I’d recommend reading, by Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience; by Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.

G. Gabrielle Starr, Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science at NYU and Professor of English, was the first to speak. On its most basic level in response to the debate question, her claim is that neuroscience can indeed help us engage with the arts. (In fact, Starr might use the word arts broadly, since some of her recent work deals with the neuroscience of aesthetic response to poetics and music.) Starr says her approach is probabilistic and therefore not necessarily focusing on one work of art or an individual. She gives us, instead, the story of art about individuals and cultures. What neuroscience can tell us about art deals with perception, emotion, and imagery. Especially with imagery, neurons associated with movement are activated, and Starr quoted William Empson who rightly says that poetry is a kinetic art.

Important for a neuroscientist would be delineating what neurons can tell us about art and an aesthetic experience versus an everyday experience. In art, we value what is unpredictable, Starr says. The aesthetic response is beyond preference or pleasure, a complex experience, and “often mixed in valence.” So what neuroscience tries to do is answer the question about whether or not there is something in common about experiences of art or what might unify aesthetic experience. Starr emphasizes that her work it is less about “special qualities” in art and more about “approaches.” So in lab/research work she does with a team subjects are asked not only what is liked but how much agreement there is about any object or perception. For example, most people will agree (in descending order) about facial expressions, followed by natural scenes, abstract images, paintings, and finally haiku. The conclusion is that “all visual beauty doesn’t get the same treatment” in the brain. Visual systems in the brain prioritize consistently, but higher order processes differentiate later.

Emotions play a part in the perceptual experience, but there is a difference between perception and feeling, where we can separate representation from feeling. Both routine and aesthetic emotions overlap in neural reference space. Concerning individual differences, there is much disagreement among aesthetic responders and, moreover, the agreement on art might be more about “the status of the liking” and less about the object itself. Starr spent some time talking about the brain’s default mode network, a resting state with few distractions or the focus on a task where the undertaking need not be specific, such as engagement with the arts. Similarly, the default mode network is implicated in theory of mind, self-reflection, and spontaneous cognition.

For Starr, an aesthetic experience is not necessarily first order and there is no single profile (a position shared with Noë). Neuroscience gives us information about the aesthetic experience so that we can move forward. Contrary to what some might suggest, the work of art does not disappear in any neuroscientific study – the participant does indeed experience the art. There is no natural space to appreciate art – that space can shift. Even with representations of art in books, we can still appreciate the images and have some type of aesthetic experience.  

Alva Noë is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë opened with a joke about how people mispronounce his name as “No” and how he does not like to be on the no-side of any debate, including this one. In other words, he does not epitomize “no” to the investigations of neuroscience in aesthetic experience, but more emphatically he is on the yes side of art.

Noë began with a selection from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (“I hear the trained soprano”). He used this poem, with a nice reading of it, to demonstrate how his focus is less about the neuroscientific explanation of art (the nuts-and-bolts of what happens where in the brain) and more about the complex experience of art. In this particular poem, for example, Whitman’s art is engaged with music so that art is engaged with other art. We need ideas, information, values, and beliefs to experience art. As another instance, Noë showed a slide of a Rodin sculpture. He followed this quickly with a slide of a Brâncuşi sculpture. Early in his career, Brâncuşi worked with Rodin, so the point is that art is in dialogue with art. It just so happens that these two sculptures were in close proximity in a Texas museum Noë visited. Noë admits that art has roots in our biology, but “not exclusively and not exhaustively.” Rather, there is a “cultural space” of practice and appreciation.

The reading and the sculptures brought Noë to philosophy and the puzzle of our being. Art or aesthetic experience is not just a stimulus to a response but affords us a wide array of experiences. The aesthetic experience is not fixed data points (as Starr agrees). Instead, an aesthetic experience is changeable and can wane, as part of the dialogue influenced by cultural experiences and biases. We can engage in a “dispute” about our disagreements, but the aesthetic experience has “no clear temporal boundaries.” Noë says that in the aesthetic experience there is no first order response; the aesthetic experience is consequent to the art (reflective) and more like an activity or process dependent on species and individual neural differences. At this point, Noë tried to make an analogy between the engagement of art and having a good meal, dependent more on reflection than on ingredients. (In the group discussion, this analogy, however, was questioned.)

Like philosophy, Noë says that “art unveils us to ourselves.” He is critical of any strategy to look for aesthetic experience in neural correlates. That is, he positions (akin to Starr) thought, intelligence, and understanding over perception (as in Semir Zeki). What is distinctive about art lies less in the object and more in the experience, says Noë. While neuroscience seems to hover over the trigger responses, art represents states like sympathy and empathy. In other words, the emphasis should not be on the trigger response but what we make of art and the aesthetic experience – how it helps us understand ourselves.

As an example, Noë recounted his experience of fully engaging with Andy Warhol’s soup cans in a museum – being confronted with true art – where others simply took selfies of themselves with the art as background. Noë was emphatic that there was a huge difference between standing with the art and years of having seen those same images represented in books. In this setting, says Noë , “works of art are problematic for viewers” since they do not know what to expect. He is therefore critical of neuroscience as “idealistic” in how it suggests that the world is made in one’s brain. Noë insists that we are looking for art in the wrong place. Art is not necessarily the object; it has more to do with the character of the experience (not really addressed by neuroscience). One does not “get it” just by looking.

All in all, there was an abundance of ideas and reactions, almost too much for me to have recorded in these few notes. Someone was filming the event, but I am not sure where (if at all) that tape might appear. The website for the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness is Here – and I do see video links for some past events.

-- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English at St. Francis College and editor of ASEBL. [Information about my book, Art and Adaptation (noted among books in brief in the December 2015 Art in America) can be found Here, available from Amazon.]

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Drama of Evolution

Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. NY: Columbia UP 2015. ISBN: 978-0-231-16470-2. Hardcover; Illustrated. 400 pgs. $50U.S.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr offers a fascinating and sweeping study of the impact of evolutionary ideas on the dramatic arts. She says that theatre and evolution ask similar questions and have similar aims in terms of probing the nature of being human. She says that the immediate directness of theatre and its emphasis on the action of human form provide an apt venue for scientific ideas. Theatre especially has the capacity to present history in real time. Shepherd-Barr says that the purpose of her book is twofold: to enumerate references to evolution in the playwrights under discussion and to examine how the writers engage, directly or not, with evolutionary ideas.

Her book is not precisely about any intersection between evolution and literary influence, and she specifically criticizes literary Darwinism (which examines human behavior, principally in its narrative form, in terms of evolved adaptations). Her concern is that the literary Darwinists try to justify art by characterizing it as an evolved behavior (and not as a byproduct of some other adaptation). Additionally, she makes it clear that she will not address any How or Why questions concerning the adaptive functions of the arts. Nor do we get, with all the emphasis on the moving human body, any ideas concerning mirror or motor neurons or theory of mind. This is not a book about the science of evolution. Rather, it is a demonstration of how the arts borrow (and at times twist) scientific ideas.

Shepherd-Barr is skillful in showing how playwrights actively employ, whether in agreement or not, scientific ideas of their time.  The scope and depth of her dramatic knowledge is impressive, and while much discussion of the plays can tend to summary rather than analysis, such information is quite helpful. This book is not only beneficial to students and scholars who study the interrelation of drama and science, but I’d venture to say that the book could be quite useful to playwrights who are writing in this area. From a historical perspective concerning modern drama, the book is invaluable and provides a social history about how theatre gives voice to evolutionary ideas of science, eugenics, male/female relationships and marriage, women’s issues, sex and birth control, motherhood, and parenthood.

Shepherd-Barr declares that in contrast to how a novelist (such as Thomas Hardy) can utilize the length of a novel to unravel evolutionary ideas, the playwright has to use the human body on stage as a symbolic text to address and question the audience. And this stage-to-audience dialogue worked well for the Victorians, since they were engaged with evolutionary ideas not only because of Charles Darwin (the conversation started much earlier) but because of the popularizing (and sometimes distortion) of Darwinian ideas by thinkers such as T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Haeckel. Shepherd-Barr’s understanding of evolutionary ideas and processes, from Lamarck to Lyell through Haeckel, is sound. She does an exceptional job explaining these often differing ideas concerning evolution (as she has written other books on theatre and science). For instance, there is Haeckel’s incorrect theory of recapitulation where the development of the embryo mimics the evolutionary process. While this idea turns out to be bad biology it works well on stage and was picked up by G.B. Shaw in Back to Methuselah. And that’s the point she makes and the core around which she hovers in the book – not the question of how perfectly imaginative writers understand evolutionary ideas but how imaginative writers contextualize any of these ideas (accurately or not) in their plays.

The Victorians were curious people who valued spectacle as a means of learning, evidenced in the growth and popularity of zoos, museums, lectures, and public experiments. There was a sense of the theatrical in how knowledge is thus acquired, and the Victorians were quite concerned with the implications of science, and especially evolution, on the notion of the individual and the meaning of life. Shepherd-Barr offers a thorough historical perspective with detail concerning Victorian attitudes, values, and beliefs, particularly in how discoveries in the biological sciences, geology, and anthropology filtered into the theatrical arts. For example, freak shows became popular as do exhibits of indigenous people from far-off lands, such as the Fuegians. Animals, too, became the subject of dramatic interest. Shaw in Man and Superman anthropomorphizes nonhuman creatures with human characteristics.

Likewise, there would be elaborate shows such as Birds, Beasts and Fishes (1854) where people mimic animals. In fact, in the nineteenth century there are many instances of animals appearing on stage. One of Darwin’s important books is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) which features strange and nearly grotesque photographs of human faces. An actor such as Henry Irving in The Bells was expert in wild facial expressions that denote atavism (54). In light of evolution, Shepherd-Barr notes, many taboo subjects, such as sex, violence, and insanity are open to public discussion. At the same time, any survey of the scientific literature of the time will demonstrate that some thinkers questioned any aspects of evolution or simply misunderstood the processes of evolution.

Early attempts to integrate evolutionary ideas in drama examined how the natural environment offstage would impact the human action on stage. Examples of this, notes Shepherd-Barr can be seen in James A. Herne who was influenced by Henrik Ibsen where there is, echoing Darwin, a struggle for existence. One needs to adapt to his or her environment. The American realist, Hamlin Garland, like Herne, was familiar with evolutionary ideas, mostly via Herbert Spencer, and also demonstrated how the environment could determine aspects of an individual’s life.

Spencer popularized though often distorted Darwin’s ideas. It was Spencer who coined the expression “survival of the fittest.” Fitness, as a biological term, can be ambiguous. Traits and characteristics enhance fitness; the traits that contribute to better survival and reproduction survive. Spencer also promulgated a quasi teleological vision of evolution. He imagined that, especially for human beings, we are evolving up a ladder of progress. Nothing could be further from biological truth. Spencer is responsible for firing up the public imagination and dramatic writing in terms of eugenics and so-called social Darwinism. Henry Arthur Jones actually referred to Spencer in plays, but Shepherd-Barr notes that the Lord Chamberlain (i.e., licensor/censor) removed any such references, though the published version includes them.

Shepherd-Barr underscores how the reality of extinction fascinated Victorians and playwrights. Of course extinction had been known and talked about long before, but after Darwin there was a human connection. Dramatists symbolically built off what Victorians would have witnessed in museum fossil exhibits – the termination of a family line or a whole class of people, such as aristocrats. Moreover, another popularizer of Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, vexed Victorians with the question of where morality would fit into the picture of evolution. Huxley too misrepresents Darwin, claiming that there is progress in human morality.

Fundamental to evolution by natural selection are random variations, adaptations, and inheritance. To see moral progress in humanity is akin to Spencer’s eugenics. In line with Steven Pinker, to be more precise, societies can improve and individuals can exercise more care, concern, and self-control. But the elements of morality, still evident in our living, non-human primate cousins (viz work by Frans de Waal) do not progress teleologically. They can only evolve according to selection pressures. Certainly cultural evolution has an enormous impact on human behavior. Shepherd-Barr is familiar with all of these applications and explains them well. In chapter two, she presents an excellent discussion of acting/emotions and psychological realism in light of Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. George Henry Lewes, commenting on actors, says that rather than a more traditional, stylized acting, one needs to act naturally so as to capture nature. This would be, as Shepherd-Barr suggests, especially epitomized in a woman like the actress Eleonora Duse. The human body and especially the face is a container of primitive emotions. Rather than a grand gesture there would be emphasis on individual body parts and movements.

After the opening, introductory chapters, Shepherd-Barr begins to focus on specific playwrights. For chapter three, it is Ibsen, who touches on breeding, sexual selection, heredity and women, and adaptation. Beyond exploring evolutionary themes, Shepherd-Barr is good at discussing theatrical elements, dramaturgy, and staging. In order to show how evolutionary elements, sometimes perverted, end up in plays, she need to rely on plot summary. In an 1887 speech Ibsen essentially declares himself a Darwinist; but there are other ideas mixed in the speech, such as synthesis, which is not Darwinian since natural selection culls out.  Shepherd-Barr’s repeated point is that many of the playwrights, because their work is an artistic representation of reality, will take ideas from science and manipulate them in new ways. In other words, writers who work within the span of staging action within a few hours mainly look to the “broader implications” of Darwinian thought and not minute, biological details (71).

Shepherd-Barr credits Ross Shideler with noting how August Strindberg and Ibsen question patriarchy and the family so that there is a Darwinian struggle for existence seen in social, familial, and especially spousal conflicts. Men as much as women struggle against traditional roles; women often reject a weak husband (68-69). In spite of his emphasis on families and close human interactions, there are many references in Ibsen to laws of nature. In fact, Shepherd-Barr says that long before Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme, Ibsen clearly hints at the power of ideas to thrive, spread, or die. It is not clear how much or how carefully Ibsen read Darwin. Ideas might have come from other sources, and Ibsen might have been more influenced by Haeckel. At any rate, early plays such as Ghosts and The Lady of the Sea seem to express some Darwinian ideas such as origin and descent and our compelling connection to the sea (77).  Ibsen seems turned against any notion of human progress and sees, rather, hereditary degeneration and extinction as more likely. Similarly, eugenics, says Shepherd-Barr, comes up in Doll’s House and Enemy of the People. But Ibsen’s engagement with these ideas from Galton might be satirical. Or he is simply engaging with the ideas of the times, such as so-called social Darwinism.

In chapter four Shepherd-Barr notes how many plays at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century address gender issues, especially the supposed call to motherhood. What is a woman’s role in life, in marriage, in society? Is motherhood “inevitable” for the progression of the species (92)? Theatre became a battleground of ideas related to the women’s movement, gender biology, male/female parenting, and male/female socialization and education. Near the end of The Descent of Man, according to Shepherd-Barr, Darwin suggests an essential mental difference between men and women, and surely this is the conventional and popular perception. Some Feminist thinkers, however, seized on Darwin’s notion of evolutionary change and how woman are adaptable; i.e., how women need not only be made for motherhood according to nature (95).

Shepherd-Barr then goes off on a long but interesting tangent about James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, perhaps the only play to stage breast feeding. The big question for the Victorians was how breast feeding, so motherly, could also be so atavistic. The Victorians were overly concerned with regression, the pulling away from their civilization to the primitive, and any instincts portrayed in women heightened those fears. Shepherd-Barr explains how by 1879 babies were pretty much outlawed on the U.S. stage. Glass milk bottles with rubber nipples were manufactured mid nineteenth century, with milk sterilization later on, so people might have been surprised by breast feeding. Of course there would be class issues as well. Families and women of means would use wet nurses. The play hits directly the question of motherhood and especially for women any “instinctual, biologically driven behavior” (113).  In later Victorian times women would be criticized for neglecting the family and motherhood if they chose to work. (See for instance George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women.)

Yet, as Margaret Fleming demonstrates, women are criticized because of their devotion to their children. Margaret Fleming nurses at the opening of the play her own child; later, she nurses the bastard baby of a dying, poor woman with whom her husband had an affair. Margaret is clearly middle class, so there is a question about “what is natural” for a mother (120). Popular Victorian culture showed indigenous people naked, with women bare-breasted near children, suggesting for Europeans something savage in their own, natural tendencies. So there are very complex emotions concerning motherhood in breast feeding, which becomes sanitized and less prevalent with advances in science and technology. 

In chapter five Shepherd-Barr says that Strindberg’s interest in evolution and science influenced later playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to Susan Glaspell. Contrary to Ibsen, Strindberg’s evolutionary interest was more academic and Darwinian; however, as a creative writer he was also captivated by Haeckel’s mysticism (128). Strindberg went through several phases. In the 1880s he was naturalistic and fashioned characters according to survival. See, e.g., Miss Julie. Then there was an “inferno phase” from about 1892-98 where emphasis was placed on the importance of science. By 1907 Strindberg is religious and rejects evolutionary thinking with an unfounded fear of regression since he was under the mistaken notion that human beings descended directly from apes. In contrast to Strindberg and Shaw who skirt with Intelligent Design, Ibsen did not see any agency in nature. At the same time, says Shepherd-Barr, it is Anton Chekov who completely and unequivocally embraces the science of evolution.

In spite of his intellectual affinity to Ibsen, Shaw, from his preface to Back to Methuselah, opposed the science of natural selection, viewed it as inhumane, and accused Darwin of presenting life as random and sporadic. Shepherd-Barr emphasizes how Shaw is, however, not a determinist. For Shaw, it is the power of the human will (from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) that is paramount, as in Man and Superman. Shaw’s worldview, embracing Lamarck and Spencer, was more self-organizing – which is contrary to evolution by natural selection with its reliance on random variation. Shaw did, however, prefer sexual selection since it affords a sense of agency. In this way Shaw is a Lamarckian where acquired characteristics are inherited or not by use and disuse. Biologically this is not possible, because then there would be a blending of traits, and ultimately there would be a continuum of only a few traits and no spectrum.

But as Shepherd-Barr points out, in discussing Shaw and feminism, nothing can take away from Shaw’s comic genius or the fact that he engages in vital moral questions (though, like many of his day, on the wrong side of science). By the end of Man and Superman, Shaw rejects the Victorian idea (perhaps from Spencer) of a woman marrying a man to ennoble him.

Compared with the Victorians, the Edwardians are even more concerned about inheritance and try to find genetics as “malleable and mutable rather than fixed” (156). Perhaps this explains Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that character changed somewhere around 1910. Not coincidental to an almost negative obsession about inheriting bad characteristics, eugenics peaks in 1918 with Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Freaks, which postulates a question about how we can alter human genes. With a focus on aristocrats and “freaks” on stage, Pinero used real-life giants, contortionists, and diminutive people, related in some way to the devastation of WWI and how human actions can change humanity (157). Shepherd-Barr tells us that The Freaks is eugenic since the naturally distorted people (as opposed to war victims) are not allowed to marry.

Chapter six deals with issues of reproduction. For instance, around 1904 there are concerns from women about how much childbirth they should endure, and this unease plays out on stage. In fact, Shepherd-Barr asserts that sex and reproduction are, across theatrical history, prime subjects. She provides many examples from Ibsen to Shaw and notes how in 1922 Eugene O’Neill’s First Man featured the offstage screams of a woman dying in childbirth. There were no scenes of childbirth on any stage. By 1918, from the aftermath of WWI, a play such as Maternity by Eugene Brieux was not licensed since the English wanted to focus on repopulation (169). Only by the 1930s were hospital births more usual. For the Victorians and Edwardians, Shepherd-Barr reminds us, husbands were often present during childbirth since there was often a chance of maternal death.

Shepherd-Barr notes how some plays, with an emphasis on women’s concerns, mark a sharp distinction between marriage and motherhood. There of course was sex outside of wedlock, and this could be referred to theatrically. Sexual selection according to Darwin is dramatic by virtue of the male antics, colors, songs, and displays. But consider the patriarchal Victorian/Edwardian positon concerning all of this. They were immensely repelled by Darwin’s notion that sexual selection is the result of female choice. There are, then, many attacks on traditional notions of marriage in the early twentieth century, such as Shaw’s Misalliance or H.M. Harwood’s Supplanters. From 1904 onward with more women in the workforce, there was open-minded thinking about premarital and extramarital sex. Shepherd-Barr recounts how Darwin, in The Descent of Man, discusses male and female individuals who mate and then depart, a random act after a female choice.

Certainly, in the context of reproduction, eugenics comes up again, says Shepherd-Barr. Take for instance the play by Elizabeth Robins, Alan’s Wife, which includes infanticide by a woman consumed not by motherhood but by her marriage. Contraception and abortion, topics that came into direct conflict with the censors, were also subjects of plays. For example, Susan Glaspell in Chains of Dew argued to legalize contraception, and Harley Granville-Barker in Waste tackles illegal abortion that leads to death. In 1907 Edward Garnett’s The Breaking Point, which argued for easier abortions, was banned. These subjects are relevant to evolution since they touch on female sexual desire and choice. We see this especially in Votes for Women! By Elizabeth Robins where the female character acknowledges her physical needs that lead to her pregnancy and abortion. Of course there is Eugene O’Neill’s 1914 one-act play, Abortion, where the woman never appears since she’s dead from a botched abortion before the action of the play. The play is about the upper class young man who faces status disgrace from his family and subsequently commits suicide.

In chapter seven Shepherd-Barr focuses on Susan Glaspell and Thornton Wilder. Glaspell engages with biology and evolutionary thinking but does not evince a deep or complete understanding. She mixes and matches, according to Shepherd-Barr, elements of Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin. In plays such as The Verge and Inheritors there is a preference for a type of punctuated leap, saltation, rather than the gradualism of natural selection. This is a dramatic device that permits for the sudden development of an individual. A more serious poetic liberty is Glaspell’s leaning toward “human destiny” (205). There is no destiny in the natural world, only cause and effect. From about 1909-10 Glaspell worked for the U.S. Forest Service and so we can see “the unspoiled earth throughout her work...” in different and at times incompatible environments, such as the edge between sea and forest (208).

Shepherd-Barr says Glaspell’s liberties and focus on physical nature enable her to create metaphors of humanity. In Close the Book from 1917 Glaspell suggests that the strength of the future of a family line is not in purity but in the blending of new blood. Glaspell sees agency in nature and expresses a creative evolution leading to human perfection, as in The Verge (210). Glaspell tries to encompass ideas about evolution through the individual, how a single person’s conversion can represent the much larger social or environmental change (220). In The Verge we have a woman scientist who rejects her proscribed social and professional roles; there is mutation theory of plants as a metaphor of women’s issues (211).

Thornton Wilder seems to accept Darwinism in The Skin of Our Teeth, but at the same time, like Shaw, his idealism forces him to reject the random blindness of natural forces. In Skin of Our Teeth, says Shepherd-Barr, there is an “almost mystical invocation of women...” as pivotal to human evolution, hearkening back to Ibsen seeing women as the salvation of the human race. This is “progressive” thinking that runs counter to the “ambivalence” we find in Robins and Glaspell (229). On the other hand we have Eugene O’Neill’s anthropological The Hairy Ape about a coal stoker in a ship’s engine room. He is dark and muscular with strong arms. By the end of the play he is killed by a gorilla. The play touches on life’s origins and how atavism lingers in more advanced civilization (232).

In her final chapter Shepherd-Barr discusses Samuel Beckett, whose highlights how human beings in their misdirected concerns about god (as in Waiting for Godot) have become alienated from the natural world. Like the other playwrights Shepherd-Barr discusses, Beckett also does not report evolutionary science; instead, he takes what he needs and fashions those ideas to line up to his own. We don’t know how much of Darwin Beckett read, though he does quote Darwin’s Origin of Species in his notebooks and in a letter writes dismissively of Darwin (244). Similar to Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth and J.B. Priestly in Summer Day’s Dream, Beckett’s Happy Days provides a scathing assessment of environmental devastation dramatizing how we are destroying the planet.

Clearly Beckett echoes Darwin’s geological concerns, Shepherd-Barr stresses. As with Darwin, Beckett emphasizes variation, not fixity; see, e.g., how the tree in Godot changes during the course of the play. In All That Fall Beckett touches on reproduction, hysterectomy, menopause, and abortion. In Breath we witness an entire life in a matter of seconds. In Rough for Theatre I and Endgame there is a sense of human end-time and the destruction of earth or human extinction and universal entropy (253). As Shepherd-Barr says, Beckett is “a dramatist of the end of nature, of our great alienation from our natural surroundings...” (254). He embraces primitive characters, their biological needs, and even “anti-creation” (267).

In her epilogue, Shepherd-Barr mentions some contemporary playwrights who also deal with retro-Victorian themes of genetics, eugenics, reproduction, and climate change. The difference with contemporary productions is that they implicate the audience in our evolutionary concerns and environmental problems. I’d venture to say that the contemporaries might try to be more true to the science. But we cannot expect a playwright to offer a scientific paper; the wisdom and entertainment of drama is in how ideas from the scientific community are reinvented on stage.

- Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2015. St. Francis College (NY). Thanks to Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, for permission to cross-post.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dialectical Tradition: The Quintessence of India

Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal

Article 19 (1) (a) of Indian Constitution lays down the right to freedom of speech and expression. This fundamental right permits an individual to hold an opinion which might be diametrically opposed to the prevalent and popularly dominant world view. This democratic and liberal right guaranteed to us by the founding fathers of the Constitution is built on the premises of Indian cultural tradition, marked by the dialectical spirit of discursive dialogue, loquacious discussions, erudite arguments and counter arguments.

The Upanishadic dialogical tradition of debate is continued through the mazes of Indian history.  The conceptualization of 'Neti Neti' as enshrined in our ancient philosophical texts denies any limiting definition of Timeless and infinite Truth. It is beyond the limited periphery of time and space. Human endeavour to define/depict the ultimate reality only presents the half truth. Jains have advanced the theoretical formulations of 'Syadvada' or 'Anekantavada' through the example of some blind men touching a giant sized elephant. The perception of the blind men is partially true; in Indian system there is always the scope for the alternative dissenting perspective or the multiple exposition of the truth.

It is the liberal ethos of dialecticism that allowed the co-existence of six theist philosophical systems (Samkhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Meemansa and Vedanta that believed in the existence of the Vedas and formulated the concept of the transmigration and rebirth of the soul) along with the atheist ideological group of Charvaka, who rejected the profound sublimity of the other sects and propagated the materialistic Epicurean pleasure. Perhaps it is the only country which provides enough room even for the atheists and infidels like the followers of materialistic Charvaka school of philosophy.

In this cauldron of ancient Indian thought system, Jainsim and Buddhism (further divided into sub-sects of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana) also challenged the monolithic ritualistic traditions of the Brahminical order. With the passage of time, numerous other faiths (including Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Jainism along with their sub-branches) joined Indian mainstream and in this process of blending, mixing and juxtaposition of varying streams, ideal of composite culture evolved and became the focal point of India. During the medieval period, melodious songs of the Sufi and Bhakti saints indicate this evolution of the cultural confluence. The tolerance towards different religions is best seen in the Religious Parliaments held on various occasions in the past. Special mention may be made of such conferences organized during the regime of two great kings Ashoka and Akbar, where differing percepts of multiple religions were intellectually discussed and debated without any ill-will, prejudice and bias. The dynamism of Indian civilization is seen in this growth and development of different religious sects.

On account of this dialectical spirit of accepting, accumulating and assimilating the arguments and counter-arguments of 'the significant other', Indian civilizational ethos has always been ready to accept the social and cultural evolution and given ample space to the ideology opposed to the dominant worldview of the day. Syncretic Indian culture has never been static but dynamic and on account of its kinetic nature, it has accepted all without the considerations of class, creed or regions. (However, the caste based discriminations have existed since the ages and have been legally, socially and divinely sanctified. The youth of contemporary India should come forward to eradicate this highly stratified hierarchy of the endogamous caste-system.)

India, being a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, diverse cultural traditions and radically different social customs along with varying intellectual arguments collide, converge and create a new order. Out of the convergence of thesis and anti-thesis, a dialectical synthesis emerges. It is only by awakened questioning of the established order and not by stooping low to the tantrums of traditional orthodoxy that new ideas come to the fore.

No idea can claim absolute, objective, categorical and universalized form of certainty. Rather, all social/cultural values, customs and mores are relative to time and space. This formulation of relative truth is the very praxis on which the foundations of Indian society and culture exist. What is ideal or perfect for one group of people can be substantially counter-productive for the persons belonging to different social background.

Besides, India has been considered to be the cradle of pious Oriental mysticism and this Eastern brand of pantheistic ideological stand, as enshrined in the holy texts like the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagwadgita, advocates the renunciation of temporal, transitory and ephemeral worldly joys for the seekers of divine bliss and extra-sensory salvation. The other side of the coin is the fact that we also have the marvels of architectural aesthetics displayed at the temples of Khajuraho, emancipatory Ghotul (tribal dormitories where adolescent boys and girls come and meet) practices amongst various tribes, revolutionary and eclectically vigorous Kamasutra by Vatsyayana and elaborate application of Shringar Rasa in the oeuvre of Kalidas, Jaidev and Bihari. Metaphysically transcendental asceticism and liberating aesthetics of arts have found equal recognition here in India. Clearly, multiple world-views have co-existed in our system and there had been no effort to impose one's understanding of the truth on the other. We have been a very tolerant and liberal country and hence may be likened to 'a salad bowl' of differing ideologies.

The Preamble of the Constitution too declares this country to be 'a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic'. Any attempt by the cultural/religious fanatics, fundamentalists and lunatics to disturb this syncretic social fabric and to impose the obscurantist, irrational, illogical, dogmatic and non-scientific agenda or absurd theatrics of extremely tabooed orthodoxy must be resisted by all and sundry. It is only by respecting the thoughts of all that we can provide 'Justice, Liberty and Equality' to the citizens. Come, let us build a nation shorn of all animosity towards the dissenting voices and spread the rigours of empirical, reasoned, dispassionate, objective, judicious, unbiased, unprejudiced, logical, rational and scientific approach to life. In place of relying heavily on superstitious dogmas, let us promote the ideals based on free will and the message relating to 'the unity of all religions'.

- Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Associate Professor of English at Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli.

Copyright ©2015 Nilanshu K. Agarwal – All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 11, 2015

Science and Literature Commission / DHST
Fall 2015 Newsletter
Dear friends and colleagues,
I hope this emails finds you well. As summer passed fast and fall is already here I would like to communicate with you sending some information about the current and future activities of CoSciLit.
a) 25th  International Conference of History of Science and Technology ,  Division of History of Science and Technology, International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, Rio, Brazil 2017.
The Commission of Science and Literature was established in 2013 in Manchester during the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Therefore our participation in one or  more symposia  in the 25th International Congress, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 23 to 29 July 2017,  ( )  will be the first “appearance” of our Commission in such a great event for the community of the historians of science and technology.
We welcome proposals for thematic symposia and/or stand-alone papers to incorporate in our symposia until 31st March 2016. Each symposium has to secure at least three presenters. Please have in mind that according to the policy of the Congress only one paper can be given by each individual participating in the Conference.
b) Workshop on “Science  Fiction. Jules Verne and 19th century science”, Athens 17-18 December 2015.

In connection with several activities concerning the celebration of 2015 as international  year  of Light Coscilit organizes a two-days’ workshop on “Science Fiction. Jules Verne and 19th century science”.
We welcome papers for oral presentations of about 20-30 minutes on subjects (indicatively)  related with Jules Verne, his scientific knowledge, the scientific innovations of his time that inspired him, other futuristic novels of that time which had a scientific background, and the influence of Jules Verne for the development of science and technology.  Papers which will discuss other subjects and dimensions of science fiction are also welcome.
Deadline for the submission of the papers: 30 October 2015
Registration fees: 80 Euros
Registration fees for young scholars, postgraduate and graduate students: 30 Euros
c) Special issue of Almagest on science fiction.

We have arranged that the next issue of Almagest (published by Brepols) will be a special issue on science fiction in the framework of science and literature studies.
Guest editors will be John Holmes, Valerie Stienon, George N. Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis.
We welcome papers on the subject from 6000 to 8000 words following the Almagest guidelines. (
Deadline for the submission of the papers 15th December 2015.
d) Elections for the Commission on Science and Literature Council Board.

Members of the Commission willing to serve in the Council Board may submit their nominations until October 30th. Elections will take place electronically until 15th November and the results will be announced officially during the workshop about Jules Verne and 19th century science in Athens in 19th November.
Nominations are welcome for the following positions:
Regional officers for Asia, Australia, North America, South America, Africa and Europe
Young scholar – Ph.D. candidate Member of the Council
We accept nominations for the Council Board submitted by two members of the Commission, including self-nominations. A short CV (200 words max.) and a photo if possible have to be submitted as well in order to inform the members of the Society for the academic activities of the candidates.   Nominations may be submitted  to Prof. John R. Holmes
Elections will take place through emails to a Committee of three members who are not canditates for the Council Board.
e) The site of the Commission will be gradually transferred to as the Hellenic Open University kindly agreed to host it in its server. 

f) New publications.

New book about science and literature published in Catalan by Xavier Duran:
"La ciència en la literatura. Un viatge per la història de la ciència vista per escriptors de tots els temps"
Universitat de Barcelona Publicacions i Edicions
Collecció Catàlisi
363 pàges.
ISBN 978-84-475-4233-8
g) Forthcoming events.
BSLS Winter Symposium
Museum of English Rural Life and University of Reading’s Special Collections, Saturday 14th November 2015
Archival research has long been a mainstay of literature and science as a discipline, challenging the boundaries of what can be read as text and excavating long-submerged concepts and connections. The recent growth in collaborative doctoral awards and collections-based PhDs, alongside research strands such as the AHRC’s Science in Culture, however, demonstrate a need to consider more fully the implications of this kind of investigation. The BSLS’s Winter Symposium therefore provides an opportunity for literature and science researchers, at all points in their career, to reflect and build upon the successes and challenges of finding ‘Science in the Archives’.
The majority of us use special collections and archival materials in the course of our literature and science research, but we are not always encouraged to reflect upon the ramifications of doing so. This symposium will provide an important opportunity to stimulate and facilitate much needed discussion of the challenges as well as successes of finding science in the archives.For this event, we have adopted a different format from the standard academic twenty-minute conference paper, and will ask speakers to present in a more informal tone and for different lengths of time depending on the session. These shorter, less formal presentations will minimise preparation time for speakers as well as increasing discussion time for all participants. The organisers warmly seek a limited number of 10 minute position papers about methodologies and approaches to literature and science in the archives, from a range of time periods and from speakers at all stages of research or career.

h) For any further information  and application for membership  please send an email to  and