TIA Tuesday: Natural wonders

When I was a teen, one of my chores was carrying the garbage cans down to the curbside every Tuesday and Friday so the trash collectors could pick it up. I’m not sure why I’m reminded of that when it’s time for another TIA Tuesday, but it’s probably just a coincidence. For today’s installment, we rejoin Vox Day as he attempts to prove that Richard Dawkins is wrong—wrong, I tell you—to suggest the opinion that Keats “might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science for some of his inspiration.”

Of course, this speculation is as improbable as it is untestable, given the centuries of evidence demonstrating that science is totally incapable of providing the inspiration for passable poetry, much less the sort of great art that religion has reliably inspired for millennia.

Well, ok, it’s true that, say, the ancient Greek myths have inspired more poetry, sculpture, and art than quantum physics has. And this proves…?

Dawkins, naturally, is not suggesting that science ought to inspire poets to write scientific treatises in rhymed couplets, or that scientists ought to write poetry. He’s agreeing with Carl Sagan and many others that a scientific exploration of the natural world reveals such wondrous splendors as ought to inspire the praises of poets and musicians and artists of all kinds for generations to come. But no, Vox wouldn’t address such a reasonable and obvious observation directly. He prefers instead to mock the whole idea that science could be in any way poetic or beautiful, for anyone.

While one can, with some effort, envision Byronesque epics dedicated to the tortile beauties of the DNA helix or dolorous quatrains lamenting the darker aspects of apoptosis, it would require Oscar Wilde’s proverbial heart of stone to do so with a straight face. Consider an actual example of science-inspired poetry: Edmund Halley’s unforgettable “Ode on This Splended Ornament of Our Time and Our Nation, the Mathematico-Physical Treatise by the Eminent Isaac Newton”

I’ll spare you—it’s the kind of poetry only a Vogon could love. Instead, let’s look at the poem with which Vox opens:

Looking for art in science
Is a peculiar aspiration,
For there is little wonder
Once Man denies Creation.
And his reduction to mere numbers
O’er the passing of the years,
Leaves us with naught but the aesthetics
Of damned chess club pamphleteers.

Is this Vox’s own composition? He doesn’t say, but let’s consider the ideas that it expresses. No possibility of aesthetics, once you realize that the Christian God did not create the universe? No Giuseppe Verdi? No Voltaire? No George Bernard Shaw? No beauty in the Horsehead Nebula, or in fractals, or in the sea? Hardly. Vox can sit and pout and refuse to acknowledge natural beauty if he wants, but he’s going to have a heck of a time convincing anyone besides his own cheerleaders that Dawkins is wrong about the wonders of nature being inspirational.

Consider evolution. Using only a relatively simple set of natural laws (natural variation, and the feedback effect of environmental conditions on the perpetuation of individual characteristics), evolution manages to be endlessly innovative and diverse. How much of human art is merely copied, more or less directly, from the designs and patterns and forms that evolution has generated? Creativity flows from nature, as do beauty and form and proportion. Yes, speculation and fantasies have lead to lots of human creativity, and Dawkins does not deny that. All he’s saying is, “Look over here! Isn’t this cool too? And it’s real!” Truth is not only stranger than fiction, sometimes it’s more beautiful as well. And that’s way more cool, because it’s beautiful and real.

Ironically, Vox invokes Camille Paglia, a columnist at Salon.com, as supporting his claim that only religion can inspire art.

The inadequacy of science and other secular replacements for religion has not escaped the notice of one of the more enthusiastic champions of the arts, Camille Paglia, who despite her atheism insists that religion is an artistic necessity. She explains that whereas the first generation of secular artists, such as James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Proust, achieved greatness through their rebellion against religious tradition, it is their very success that has crippled their successors. She complains that “today, anything goes, and nothing lasts” before declaring that secular humanism has reached a dead end and that religion must be taught in every school.

This is ironic because Paglia’s original column is about how the iconic modernists like Bergman achieved their artistic successes by rebelling against the “authoritarian traditions” in which they were raised.

The premier modernists — from James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf to Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Martha Graham — were rebelling against a hierarchical, authoritarian tradition that suffocated their youth but whose very power energized their work. They became larger from what they opposed and overcame. Today, anything goes, and nothing lasts.

Paglia wants all world religions (notice, not just Christianity, or “religion” in general) to be taught in public schools, not so that artists will become more superstitious, but so that artists will get a deeper understanding of the human experience, and thus be enabled to produce more perceptive and probing art films. Indeed, one of the consequences of God’s absence from real life is that religion necessarily ends up telling us more about man than it does about god(s), since it becomes man’s responsibility to make up for God’s deficit. The study of religion, and especially the study of comparative religion, is a study of man, and is indeed a good curriculum for a humanistic course of study in the film arts.

This, of course, is pretty much the opposite of the point Vox would like Paglia to make. Vox wants to say that all truth and beauty come from one and the same God—that one religion gets all the good art because it alone has the divine Source of inspiration. But neither in Paglia’s commentary nor in real life do we find this to be so. Art is the fruit, not of an exclusive Holy Spirit, but of the human spirit, springing from our appreciation for the things that give pleasant stimulation to our minds and senses. And the original source of our inspiration is the natural beauty that scientists encounter all the time in their exploration of nature.

As Dawkins observes (and Vox petulantly refuses to observe), the natural world offers such unexpected splendors as to provide the human spirit with endless inspiration—if, of course, the artist has eyes to see. Vox doesn’t, and therefore he completely misses (or avoids) the point Dawkins was actually trying to make.

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Posted in TIA, Unapologetics. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: Natural wonders”

  1. Bacopa Says:

    Feynman weiged in on this issue:
    ” Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

  2. Nemo Says:

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To know that for destruction ice
    Is also great
    And would suffice.

    — “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost
    Inspired by science

  3. heliobates Says:

    No Wallace Stevens? No Tom Gunn? No Anna Akhmatova? No Robert Frost…

  4. Sarah Dettwiler Says:

    I’m so tired of the argument that we would have no art without religion. Yes, some artists are inspired by it, but the same can be said of LSD. Does this mean we should be feeding it to our children?

  5. Arthur Says:

    The neatest part of art history, to me, is the part where painters started trying to figure out ways to represent the real world around them more accurately. This appears (to an untutored layperson like myself) to have been such an interesting enterprise that, before you knew it, nobody was painting floaty religious icon arrangements anymore. And nobody ever looked back either.

    We’re apparently heavily beholden to those painters for the development of the notion, first, of perspective, and later of all that neat projective geometry stuff that I still don’t understand. It seems odd to me that this chapter in art history doesn’t show up in more conversations about religious versus secular influences on great art.

  6. Common Sense Atheism » The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, index) Says:

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