(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Imagination of Einstein, Darwin….and the “Experimentally Acquainted” Jane Austen!

I sometimes do the double acrostic in the Sunday paper, to wake my brain up, and this morning I _loved_ the quotation which was revealed upon my solving the puzzle, and decided to write about it:

“I believe in intuition and inspiration. … At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason….Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

You might be surprised to learn that the famous author of these words was not an artist, but was one of the greatest scientists of all time, Albert Einstein. My point in bringing it forward here today in a Jane Austen venue is that I continue to strongly believe that Jane Austen was 100% in agreement with Einstein on this crucial, fundamental point, i.e., that imagination is the supreme gift.

All of my literary sleuthing during the past decade has shown me, a thousand times over, that Jane Austen spent her all-too-short life accumulating a staggering quantity of knowledge in a wide variety of subjects. Time and time again, I have been astonished to learn that she had a sophisticated understanding not only of a multitude of literary sources, but also of the humanities and natural sciences as well. I believe that she never missed a chance, when in the presence of a new library, to make extracts of passages which would be meaningful to her for her writing.

However, as knowledgeable as I believe JA to have been, I am also certain that she herself fervently believed that having all the knowledge in the world--born of extensive reading, as Darcy recommended-would be a sterile useless accomplishment unless it was harnessed and subjugated to a strong, fertile and free imagination, and was used for the betterment of humankind.

And so that is one reason why I argue so vigorously and tirelessly against the conventional Janeite interpretations of the dangers of over-imagination in _Emma_ and _Northanger Abbey_. Yes, on the surface, it does appear that JA is telling cautionary tales, in which Emma Woodhouse and Catherine Morland allow their imaginations to run away with themselves, and harm results therefrom.

But...beneath the apparent parody of imagination gone amok, there is a much deeper and truer _anti_-parody, i.e., an inversion of that apparent satire of Emma and Catherine, which carries the very serious warning that JA was implicitly sending to all her readers, especially her female readers---and that dire warning is that it is ten times _more_ dangerous to have too _little_ imagination than to have too _much_ imagination. In a nutshell, one can learn to ignore part of what one has already perceived, but one cannot learn to see what one cannot see in the first place!
So, I think JA and Einstein would have each considered the other to be the very best of company, and I conclude by reiterating a claim I have been making the past 6 years, ever since I first learned that _another_ of history’s greatest scientists was a lifetime Janeite---I refer to Charles Darwin, originator of the theory which Einstein referred to in his above quotation—evolution.

My claim is that Charles Darwin imbibed Jane Austen as a child at the knee of Mrs. Pole, his stepmother and the widow of his famous biological and intellectual ancestor, Erasmus Darwin...

...but, far more important, I believe that Charles Darwin’s lifelong devotion to Jane Austen’s fiction resulted in the intense cultivation of his own scientific _imagination_, as applied to the complex adaptive systems of nature, with all their intertwined feedback loops of cause and effect, which can never be reduced to simple linear analysis. Darwin’s theory of evolution, updated and validated as it has been by his many scientific successors over the past century and a half, is a theory that can be used to grasp the complexity of the origins and development of life on Earth, and to discern the secrets of nature, whom Einstein referred to as the secrets of “the Old One”.

And I assert that, in addition to all the scientific knowledge that Charles Darwin accumulate during his career from the realm of science, none of that knowledge was more important to the development of his own scientific imagination than the lifelong rereading of Jane Austen’s novels, each of which is itself a remarkable representation of the complex adaptive system of _human_ nature and society, with intertwined feedback loops of cause and effect which can never be reduced to simple linear analysis.

And so, however paradoxical it might at first seem, I say that Einstein was right---all great scientists are also artists, and all great artists are also scientists, and it is no accident that Mrs. Pole, Charles Darwin’s step grandmother, wrote the following opinion about Mansfield Park:

“"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman -- most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not _experimentally acquainted_ with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to /belong/ to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates." Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly. -- "

Indeed, JA was “experimentally acquainted” with the social world she described in her novels, and she deployed the full measure of her own boundless imagination in order to give all of her readers full access to those same worlds.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: