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Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality

Wednesday, July 4, 2001 - 06:58
Mark S. Lussier, Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality. Romanticism in Perspective Series. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000. ix + 220pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-312-22671-3).

Reviewed by
Alan Bewell
University of Toronto

In this book, Mark S. Lussier announces "physical criticism," a theoretical perspective that seeks to illuminate the productive interchange between literature and science, particularly the ways in which physical theory and poetic expression share similar models in their representation of the mind and physical world. Lussier's goal is to take criticism beyond the mechanistic and dualistic models of mind and universe that continue to influence contemporary thought—the world of Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Newton—toward a theoretical perspective that responds to the far more complex and dynamic models of the mind in relation to the physical world that emerged with Romanticism and are now being renewed in contemporary science, especially in biology, ecology, and theoretical physics. Quantum theory has undercut the Newtonian absolutes of space and time. The stabilities of matter in the Newtonian cosmos have been replaced by indeterminacies and relativity, and the meaning of time, always a flexible concept, has been transformed. Since Heisenberg it has been difficult for scientists to employ naively the Lockean model of experience, in which the mind passively registers the sensory data supplied to it by the outside world. Scientists can no longer be said to be removed what from they observe, something that has not been lost on social constructivists. Ecological criticism has insisted even more powerfully upon the crucial necessity for human beings to recognize that they exist in nature and that they need to develop new, less destructive ways of interacting with it. Lussier's "physical criticism" synthesizes ecology and physics in order to provide an alternative to the cultural legacy of mechanistic philosophy. He uses the term "dynamics" to describe this more complex and holistic conception of the interaction of the mind and the physical world. In his view, Romantic poetry not only anticipates these developments, but has played an important role in providing "physical criticism" with the language and metaphors needed for representing this new world.

Romantic Dynamics does not seek to establish Romantic sources for contemporary science, nor to draw out influences or suggest causal relationships. Instead, Lussier wants to establish deep connections and to open up a dialogic interchange between science and literature. In contrast to more analytical methods that divide and differentiate their subject matters, Lussier is interested in the interplay of thought across disciplines. This is a book about seeing connections, about establishing unities built upon exchange and interdependency, and about synthesizing wholes by drawing out the vital relations between the mind and the physical world. The extraordinary range of this book is indicated by the epigraphs that introduce each chapter. Highlighting an important commitment of Lussier to the confluence of Buddhism and contemporary science, the first is by the fifteenth-century Tibetan Buddhist Tsongkapa: "Make efforts in ways then to perceive interdependence." The next chapter has an epigraph from the Dalai Lama that appeared in Mind/Science: "Buddhist thinkers . . . find it extremely beneficial to incorporate into their thinking the insights of various scientific fields such as quantum mechanics and neurobiology, where there are also equally strong elements of uncertainty and essencelessness" (13). The third chapter provides a comment on the social and ecological dimensions of Buddhism by the scholar and social activist Chatsumam Kabilsingh, and another from a collection on ecology edited by John Seed et al: "Deep ecology recognizes that nothing short of a total revolution in consciousness will be of lasting use in preserving the life-support systems of our planet" (47). These are followed by epigraphs from the Compassionate Buddha; the quantum theorist Max Planck; the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington; the physicist Henryk Skolimowski; the historian of science Arthur Zajonc; Paul de Man; Blake; and Shelley. The epigraphs give only a slight idea of Lussier's range of citation. In keeping with a methodology that seeks to synthesize thought across disciplines, he also generously cites the work of others.

Since the medium is the message, it may not be surprising that Lussier does not follow in lock step the conventional procedures of an academic study, in which primary and secondary evidence are rigorously marshaled in support of a thesis. Instead of a preface, he writes a "preludium," emphasizing both its Blakean sources and its etymology, which means "to play beforehand." Science, however, is never very far off, for Lussier also cites Johan Huizinga, who argued that "the advance guard of Science" is a kind of "intellectual play" (2). Theory requires position statements, and Lussier provides one. In an introductory discussion of the importance of "synchronicity" in the recognition of "a deeper structure of experience based on wholeness" that eludes "rational dissection" (11), it turns out that the book itself is the product of a series of intellectual coincidences whose meaning Lussier has sought to make clear. "Each chapter in this book," he notes, "either resulted or benefited from some synchronistic event or moment—for example, an acausal coincidence of reading materials—with such events and moments seemingly woven out of random connections of diverse threads of experience and perception rather than emerging from a purely rational research agenda (although one was in place)" (10). Each chapter is conceived as a "thought experiment," a creative interplay across disciplines, aimed at clarifying ideas. Lussier draws this notion partly from the "thought experiments" (Gedankenexperiments) of Einstein who tried as a child to imagine "what the world would look like if he could travel astride a speeding light beam" (120). Yet it is typical of the interdisciplinary range of Lussier's work and its continual movement between science and literature, that he also links the "thought experiment" to the imaginative process at work in the Lyrical Ballads, which were advertised "as experiments," and later described by Coleridge as an exploration from different perspectives of the relationship between the "supernatural" and "ordinary life."

Lussier seeks to revise a prevailing opinion that the Romantics were anti-scientific by demonstrating that their criticism was aimed at the limitations of mechanistic science—its reduction of the world to a machine and of human beings to outside observers of the natural world: "The disinterest of Romantic poets is not to science per se, but towards a science incapable of envisioning the type of events they perceive recurring in the mind's engagement with and emergence within material reality" (18). The case is nicely made in a chapter on Blake as a "deep ecologist." Revising the conventional view that Blake was hostile to nature, Lussier brings out how much Blake's criticism of Newton was a form of ecocriticism, based on a dialogical conception of nature: "Everything that lives is Holy." In the subsequent chapter, Lussier makes good use of recent interpretations of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a narrative that has undergone multiple redactions over time in order to suggest that it is a "quantum text," which "fragments into as many 'worlds' as those that observe it" (80). Instead of seeing the elements of chance, indeterminacy, and uncertainty that pervade the poem and warp its narrative line as aspects of its ballad structure or its supernaturalism, Lussier reads them as an effort to question the absolutes of mechanistic philosophy and to recover a more participatory model of the relationship of mind to nature. The Ancient Mariner's ability to bless the water snakes reflects an extraordinary transformation in his understanding of his relation to the universe, a change partly produced by the narrative's quantum uncertainties, which illuminate the world not as a "uni-verse" but as "a multi-verse of potentiality" (79). Lussier's chapter on Blake's Milton nicely complements Donald Ault's arguments in Visionary Physics. He reads the poem as Blake's attempt to provide an alternative to Newtonian and Cartesian cosmology, a new synthesis that anticipates the "new physics" in its rethinking of time and space, "a cosmology of contraction and expansion where one must tunnel through density in moving from one 'infinite' plane to another while avoiding collapse into singularity" (91). The subsequent chapter returns to some of the ground developed in the Coleridge chapter, suggesting how time and memory are fractured in Byron's Giaour.

New ways of understanding the world require new languages, and Lussier stresses the important role that Romantic poets have played in providing science and "physical criticism" with the metaphors, images, and forms of this new synthesis. A chapter on the "spatiality of thought" in Percy Shelley is outstanding in its recognition that metaphor and rhythm are the fundamental means by which Romantic poets sought to articulate a fully interactive relationship to the universe. Developing Amittai Aviram's theory in Telling Rhythm that "in poetry, music, and dance, the physical sensation of rhythm is an insistent manifestation of the physical world" (20), Lussier suggests that "Shelley's best poetry describes a universal cohesion created through waves, a vast network of matter woven from energy, and the particular individual, in this case Shelley as poet, functions as the discrete particle, the complementary node of consciousness that interacts with the waves of the world at the boundaries of knowledge, an interference within and without through which 'rhythm or order' emerges" (142). A similar point could be made about Wordsworth's insistence on the rhythm that structures all thoughts and all things ("A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things" ["Tintern Abbey"]), or the role of music in Coleridge's apprehension of the

                      one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,

Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every  where
                                      ("The Eolian Harp")

Passages such as these have been read as displaced religion or "natural supernaturalism," but one might just as easily see "pantheism" as a popular catchword that has obscured the Romantic tendency to dress deep ecology in sacramental garments, a "supernatural naturalism." Interestingly, one sign of Lussier's willingness to think across established disciplinary norms is that he does not conform to the secularist bias of contemporary criticism and scientific thought, but also, like the Romantics, draws upon religion, in this case, Buddhism, in order to convey the ecological idea of a deep order that is both "within us and abroad."

This is a very fine book, indeed, which makes a real contribution to our understanding of Romanticism, science, and ecological thought. Lussier's focus is on reading Romanticism across contemporary science, so it is somewhat unfair to complain that he does not attend enough to Romantic science. However, some aspects of his argument would have benefited from some attention to this work. Though it is true that Romantic poetry has been seen as having an irrational, anti-scientific bias, much of this viewpoint emerged later, during the Victorian period, when more positivistic, mathematical, and empirical modes of scientific inquiry were displacing the ambitions of earlier Romantic science. The thoroughgoing dynamism of Romantic science, particularly German Naturphilosophie, is well-known, and the naturphilosophen were explicit about poetry, and aesthetics as a whole, being the ideal medium for the representation of a dynamic universe, constantly undergoing change and transformation. They too sought to link the mind to nature, often by materializing mind or by seeing nature as having its own teleology. Many, in fact, turned to Eastern philosophy as an alternative to the dualisms of Western science and Christianity. The appeal to organic metaphors, in an attempt to establish continuities between human beings, plants, animals, and minerals, has recently been broadly attacked, particularly by Marxist critics, yet this kind of metaphoric would seem to have much in common with Lussier's goals. An attempt to position himself in regard to an earlier attempt at producing a "physical criticism" would have added a further dimension to this book. Even more importantly, it might have provided a historical vantage point on the difficulties that this conjunction of science and poetry has faced, perhaps with a view to elucidating the difficulties that "physical criticism" faces in the present.