The Horrid Voice of Science!?

Subtle, he wasn’t! This is the title of a poem by the American Vachel Lindsay, one of my daily electronic gifts from the Academy of American Poets. Sometimes, the day’s package of words overwhelms me – again? More tangled texts to unravel? – or just irritates me. Poetry at its best is wonderfully irritating, like the grit in a clam shell. I was glad to greet Mr. Lindsay. (And sometimes it just ticks me off, especially some contemporary stuff, so aggressively obscure that it’s no surprise most people have given up on “serious” poetry. But the words don’t give up on us, and they keep returning: in popular song, in gangsta rap, in comics and graffiti, like twitch grass sprouting between the patio bricks.)

Vachel Lindsay killed himself in 1931, victim of another era’s financial meltdown and the desperate clash between his oppressive material circumstances and the romantic call of his spiritual yearning. (Not-so-famous last words: “They tried to get me — I got them first!”) He was a troubadour, a road-beating poet long before Kerouac and Ginsberg. Imagine: he abandoned medicine so he could draw and paint, most notably with words. He made a living, of a sort, and significant acclaim by walking across America and shouting and singing his poems. (One of them, “The Leaden-Eyed”, is one of my sad favourites.) In “The Horrid Voice of Science”, he is first playful in quoting the voice of the scientist, the rationalist, and the words amuse and dance. But he hates the reductionism, the tendency to take the glories of creation and strip away their mystery, to minimize their sweetness and importance by explaining them. It’s not just explanation that angers him, but the arrogance that suggests we can fully comprehend and therefore dismiss everything that he finds wondrous. The poem then takes an ugly turn, finishing on a grim, clunking note that hammers home his distaste. Here it is.

The Horrid Voice of Science

“There’s machinery in the
There’s a mainspring to the
There’s hydraulics to a daisy,
And contraptions to a tree.”If we could see the birdie
That makes the chirping sound
With x-ray, scientific eyes,
We could see the wheels go round.”

And I hope all men
Who think like this
Will soon lie

Well! His position is clear, but this is not a simple antagonism to science. Many scientists — especially in astrophysics, it seems — find that their deepest investigations only serve to “increase my wonder and amazement at Thee”.  (Some, including Frances Collins of the quite incredible Human Genome Project, are openly and unapologetically religious, but the preceding was no scientist. It was the Prophet Muhammad.) Lindsay hated hubris and haughtiness toward the physical creation. He hated people reducing a great natural world to one that seemed to him limited and fully-accounted-for.

What would he think of the modern science wars (in the United States, particularly)? They are the opposite of the phenomenon that he ranted against.

Today, it is fundamentalist religion that is reductionistic, that seeks to seal up the marvels of creation into a narrow narrative box. It is a modern irony that has scientists proclaiming wonders, and urging enriched public education about them, while the forces of a certain stripe of religious power-seeking advocate closing those doors in favour of comforting, unthinking orthodoxy. China, where I live, is almost completely free of this wasteful and dispiriting argument; it proceeds, with a unity of purpose that North Americans can only dimly imagine, to build an educational system that, though highly imperfect, is nevertheless raising up millions of scientifically skilled and knowledgeable people.  Americans, in this and other ways, seem stuck in a bog of useless debate.

This paralysis also makes its way into my Inbox. Yesterday, two comics in my daily giggle subscription sounded satiric alarms about the anti-scientific, polarizing debasement of American educational and political life. Wiley Miller’s clever and opinionated strip Non Sequitur is now following Danae, the cynical primary school demagogue, who has started her own religion. She figures that she can sell selfishness and utterly justify her avoidance of thought. It is too pointed to be funny, but it cuts. Another periodic one-panel cartoon , Keith Knight’s (th)ink, also ran a truly nasty visual comment on the American political process yesterday (“Due to popular demand, each remaining G.O.P. Presidential debate will conclude with the on-stage execution of the most reasonable candidate!”)

Religion? Science? Once upon a future time, this false opposition will be exposed for the fruitless strife it is. We will learn, collectively, how to promote knowledge and understanding without debunking loveliness and grace, awe and reverence. And humility. And the horrid voices of arrogant and mechanistic science, and of ignorant and endarkened religion, will be quieted. The wonders of material Creation and of mystical Revelation will make beautiful music together. And Vachel Lindsay will nod and hum and sing his approval.

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