Saturday, September 7, 2013

Loren Eiseley: the unpredictable, pt. 2

This quotation follows directly after the quotation included in the earlier post titled "Loren Eiseley: the unpredictable."  I had planned on a series of sequential posts from this section of Eiseley's The Night Country, but it didn't work out that way.  Reality sometimes barges in and upsets "the best laid plans of mice and me."

"It is through the individual brain alone that there passes the momentary illumination in which a whole human countryside may be transmuted in an instant.  'A steep and unaccountable transition,' Thoreau has described it, 'from what it called a common sense view of things, to an infinitely expanded and liberating one, from seeing things as men describe them, to seeing them as men can not describe them.'   Man's mind, like the expanding universe itself, is engaged in pouring over limitless horizons.  At its heights of genius it betrays all the miraculous unexpectedness which we try vainly to eliminate from the universe.  The great artist, whether he be musician, painter, or poet, is known for this absolute unexpectedness.  One does not see, one does not hear, until he speaks to us out of that limitless creativity which is his gift."

I find this startling and illuminating.  I have heard many scientists defend what they do to be as beautiful and stirring as as any work of art--that science is not the enemy of the arts.  But now I read Eiseley's comment here:

"At its heights of genius it betrays all the miraculous unexpectedness which we try vainly to eliminate from the universe."

Isn't that the task of science--to remove the unexpectedness and unpredictability of the universe?  I am reminded of Poe's "Sonnet--to Science."

Science!  true daughter of Old Time thou art!
    Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
     Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee?  or how deem thee wise,
     Who wouldst  not leave him in his wandering
To seek for resurrect in the jewelled skies,
     Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
     And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
     Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

I think Poe and Eiseley would agree here.  After all, what is science about--it is an attempt to explain all things and reduce it to predictability, to do away with surprises and the unexpected.  What happens when scientists stumble across something unexpected?  They greet it with joy and then go about trying to eliminate it.  Scientists, some day, may be able to tell us from what parts of the brain a poem or a symphony emerges, but they will never be able to predict the next poem or symphony that emerges.

The next paragraph in Eiseley's essay:

"The flash of lightning in a single brain also flickers along the horizon of our more ordinary brains.  Without that single lightning stroke in a solitary mind, however, the rest of us would never have known the fairyland of The Tempest, the midnight world of Dostoevsky, or the blackbirds on the yellow harvest fields of Van Gogh.  We would have seen blackbirds and endured the depravity of our own hearts, but it would not be the same landscape that the act of genius transformed.  The world without Shakespeare's insights is a lesser world, our griefs shut more inarticulately in upon themselves.  We grow mute at the thought--just as an element seems to disappear from sunlight without Van Gogh.  Yet these creations we might call particle episodes in the human universe--acts without precedent, a kind of disobedience of normality, unprophesiable by science, unduplicable by other individuals on demand.  They are part of that unpredictable newness which keeps the universe from being fully explored by man."

all quotations:
-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Night Country

This is probably one of the clearest and most succinct comments on the value and importance of the arts that I have ever read.  And, as I read it, what Eiseley says about the flash of genius that illuminates others, is equally true of what he writes here, for he has changed my thinking about the value of the arts and also about the value of science and their roles in human culture.  The arts can not  do nor should they be expected to do that which science can, but on the other hand, science can not do what the arts do for humanity--transport us out of mundane reality into a new unexpected and unpredictable world.  Science attempts to reduce all to a  mathematical formula--The Grand Theory of Everything--while the arts seek to maintain the sense of wonder, of surprise, of unpredictability that makes us human.


  1. To me, both arts and science help me better understand my world. Art gives me insights I might never have had by myself, lets me see things from a perspective not my own, and allows me to emotionally experience things I might never get the chance to in real life.

  2. Cheryl,

    No argument there. Science for the hows, and art for the rest of the questions. Religion plays an important role here also for many others.