Sept/Oct/Nov 2007


Angus Fletcher describes the scientific revolution’s effect on language

Joan Richardson

When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book of literary criticism or didn’t want it to end? Ever? In Time, Space, and Motion in the Age of Shakespeare, Angus Fletcher, a magically gifted teacher in whose presence we hear what thinking feels like, has given us not only a brilliant study of the early modern period but a handbook for our time as well, a meditation on the extended moment when the “mind . . . discovers the psyche to be an integral part of the world out there.” While Fletcher’s frame is the 110 years between the births of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Galileo in 1564 and the death of Milton in 1674, the consequences of the change in habit of mind necessitated by the New Science of that period continue today to disturb the peace of all of us who wish to be settled in knowing who and where we are. Fletcher’s aim is “to catch the intellectual feel of this transforming scene,” when “a scientific revolution occurred that rivals the Copernican revolution in scope of physical and metaphysical meaning,” the revolution contained in Galileo’s “Eppur si muove”— “And yet it moves”—the realization that there is no center in the universe we inhabit, that all is what Galileo called, interchangeably, “locomotion” or “local motion,” with motion being “the most important [subject] in nature.” From this observation, it was only one step (though a giant one) to Einstein and to the cosmological and ethical problems that so engage our attention in the present, still under pressure as we are “to think of human life and its context in terms, precisely, of its instability.”

Galileo was aware, as Fletcher reminds us, of the epistemological implications of his physical findings: “If, as Galileo argued, our sensations ‘have no real existence except in ourselves,’ the door opened to reveal the inevitably critical role that language would play in all discussions of whatever may be deemed objectively true. Our locutions and ‘vocables,’ as he called them, abandon their earlier scholastic or incantatory roles, making possible a clear resistance to the occult, and . . . thinkers ever more fervently embrace the riddle wrought by this conjunction of mathematics and ordinary language.” The “major question” of Fletcher’s argument, then, is “Shall we claim that the verbal arts are radically separate from mathematics and science, or is there an intellectual and cultural manifold in which they belong together, almost as twin components of the same discoveries?” His answer, borne out by lucid readings of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and Milton, is that “the physics and metaphysics of motion” are, indeed, “paralleled . . . by the moving and momentous role of poetic figurations of speech” and, beginning in the early modern period, particularly by the role of metamorphosis, “the chief analogical process in the highest Renaissance art.”

As Fletcher so beautifully puts it in one of the quietly astounding observations punctuating his volume, “The student of the dream always finds that imagination, when set free of the censorship and commonsense controls of the waking state, functions through metaphor, while this motility of language permits a commanding response to the need for the metaphysics of motion.” Metaphor “itself is as real as breathing” and, as he crucially reminds us, underpins both language and mathematics: “A mathematical reality discovered in the physical world is revealed by mathematics precisely because mathematics is, in its use of variables, metaphoric, for mutatis mutandis the metamorphoses of natural languages share with mathematics a semiotic system with power to discover the similar in the dissimilar.” In contrast to allegory, the form of figuration congenial to the pre-Galilean worldview (and about which Fletcher is arguably the foremost authority), metaphor “is a figure of instant animation, lifts the mind to a fervor of aesthetic activity . . . [and] as structural principle generates restless shift and flexing of sense,” aspects fundamental for communicating “ideas of motion and its human equivalent—action and the symbolic actions of ordinary language”—during our “most anxious . . . transition into modernity.”

The physicist Niels Bohr was also acutely aware of the “crossover between math and ordinary language” within the “cultural manifold” of the early twentieth century. Having found in Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura a clue to cracking the atom, Bohr offered, in describing the situation of the quantum theorist, “What is it that human beings ultimately depend upon? We depend on our words. We are suspended in language. Our task is to communicate . . . without losing the objective or unambiguous character [of what we say],” and called on poets to help scientists in making the invisible visible. Wallace Stevens was one of those who responded, and it is significant that Fletcher centrally incorporates a passage from, as he puts it, “Stevens’ great essay,” “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” into his own argument: “Those of us who may have been thinking of the path of poetry, those who understand that words are thoughts and not only our own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women ignorant of what it is they are thinking, must be conscious of this: that, above everything else, poetry is words; and that words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds.” Fletcher himself, no less than Stevens, Lucretius, and the poets who “constellate [his] discussion,” is astutely attentive to the way in which the sound of words—of his own voice no less than of Shakespeare’s, “of how things are spoken, or ‘spoken out’ so as to convey what Roland Barthes called ‘the grain of the voice . . . the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs’”—expresses our mysterious “bond to all that dust,” to the ongoing process in which we are born out of stars in a “universe . . . of . . . varied orbiting bodies, with endless multiplications of the center . . . producing an expanding system of multiple, moving cynosures.”

We experience Fletcher’s manner of unfolding how “poetry creates a drama from the psychological values attached to new conceptions of the natural world” as we experience slowly opening an exquisitely prepared gift of nesting dolls, each one wrapped in different, equally beautiful paper we are careful not to tear, finding, after the second one is revealed to be alike in shape to the first yet surprisingly unalike in other aspects, that each successive one delightfully repeats for us this scaling of dissimilar similarity. Indeed, Fletcher alerts us in opening that he will “return again and again to [his] theme: the physics and metaphysics of motion,” his recursive method itself miming the process he is describing as he draws into his orbit comparisons and references that revivify the power of the Renaissance texts he discusses.

Here, for example, he glosses Satan’s second appearance in Paradise Lost, when he lands on the surface of earth, as carrying us “directly into the scene of sublime motion . . . an event that permits the poet to describe space travel in magnificent rolling rhythms— the same oceanic effect Stanley Kubrick achieved in 2001, when he suddenly shifted his musical score into Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. Our uncertainty about knowing how to orient our perspective is Milton’s chief interest; and in this passage, as so often in the poem, we are reminded that for Sergei Eisenstein the archetype of film montage was the Miltonic style in Paradise Lost.” Another example: Remarking on Wittgenstein’s observation that Shakespeare was “the inventor of language,” Fletcher goes on to say that “language is . . . virtually the poet’s Nature, a circle from whose enclosure, while we still draw breath, none can escape,” adding that “our most powerful metaphors all come from subtly observed natural processes, as if one were, say, a creature of the cat’s intelligence, the cat’s prowling watchful gait, as he patrols the house at night—as if nature’s images . . . are the icons of all thought, as humans experience thought.” Here is the critic as wizard, making us see what we have always seen but never seen before. And I have not even spoken of his illumination of soliloquy as the emergence of “a simplified version of the basic scientific method” or of “the story of the Fall” after Galileo being described by Milton not as “primal descent from above to below, but—in the far more human context—of a lateral fall, where every single body has its own center of gravity and its own inertial frame, which is the world of . . . relativity.”

Fletcher has already won the Truman Capote Award for A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination (2004), an honor appropriately recognizing an addition to what he had already contributed to our understanding in Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (1967) and Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature (1991). The Japanese designate those whose work illuminates the spirit National Treasures. We should import their designation as well as their cars and electronics.

Joan Richardson is professor of English at the City University of New York and the author of a two-volume biography of Wallace Stevens.