Saintly Resonances

Lorraine Daston

  • Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England by George Levine
    Chicago, 320 pp, £31.50, September 2002, ISBN 0 226 47536 0

‘Objectivity’ is a word at once indispensable and elusive. It can be metaphysical, methodological and moral by turns, occasionally in the same paragraph. Sometimes it refers to the ultimate reality as seen from a God’s-eye point of view, sometimes to methods that replace judgments with algorithms, and sometimes to cool detachment from passions and interests. In one guise it hovers near truth; in another, it approximates disinterestedness. It’s unclear how exactly these various meanings connect to one another: what does bedrock reality have to do, for example, with the suppression of emotion? It’s still more unclear whether objectivity, in whatever guise, is possible, and, if possible, whether it is also desirable. In the past decade or so, a chorus of voices – feminists, environmentalists, cultural critics, politicians – have decried objectivity as arrogant, inhumane or simply quixotic. Since these critiques usually take objectivity (or pretensions thereto) to be part and parcel of modern science, the word has also become a banner (or target) in the revived debate between humanists and scientists about who should and does wield cultural authority and why. Objectivity is not just a word of many meanings; it is also a fighting word.

George Levine’s study of objectivity in Victorian science and literature is an eirenic as well as an interdisciplinary undertaking. It is an attempt, as earnest and highminded as the Victorians he writes about, to show how science and literature shared an ethos of self-annihilation as the price of knowledge – knowledge about nature, society and identity. Charles Darwin and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda in the novel of that title, the aesthete Walter Pater and the statistician Karl Pearson, the political economist Harriet Martineau and Dickens’s John Harmon in Our Mutual Friend – all these Victorians, real and imaginary, deliberately extinguish some aspect of their personality in order to find out a hidden (and often unpleasant) truth. Levine calls these willed acts of self-suppression ‘something like death’, and takes them to be the core of objectivity, which he simultaneously admires as the precondition for altruism, impartiality and other achievements of unselfishness, but abhors as authoritarian, abstract and dangerously detached from human concerns.

This ambivalence, which runs through the book like a scarlet thread, is first and foremost moral; Levine has little to say about its epistemological pros and cons. Whether certain features of the individual self – sensory acuity, say, a probing theoretical imagination, or laser-like powers of concentration – might be a help rather than a hindrance in figuring out how the world works, or whether objectivity might possibly conflict with other epistemological ideals (truth, precision, explanatory scope) are not questions that exercise him. Rather, he is concerned about objectivity – glossed as the dying-to-know narrative – as a form of morality, and with how this morality measures up to current humanistic standards of the Good and the Just. (Levine largely takes it for granted that we all know and endorse those standards, and perhaps this assumption is not far wrong for the bien pensant academic audience at which the book is primarily aimed. But in an age of genetic engineering and extravagant self-advertisement, the presupposition that, for example, eugenics is bad and modesty good may no longer command broad consensus.) Although the book is centred on Victorian England (after a brief excursion into the 17th century), much of its considerable gravitas derives from Levine’s conviction that the dying-to-know narrative still shapes the ethos of contemporary science, if not literature, and that the moral issues it raises remain urgent and unresolved, perhaps even irresolvable. It is a Leavis-like project, but with the most un-Leavis-like goal of treating C.P. Snow’s Second Culture, science, as morally serious, of a piece with the moral seriousness of the First Culture of imaginative literature.

The morality in question is unrelentingly Christian. Levine provocatively suggests that all epistemologies may be moralised, each in its distinctive way, but doesn’t pursue this possibility further. His quarry is the epistemology of dying-to-know in Victorian science and letters, and he shows it to be saturated in Christian tropes of humility, contempt of the body and dying in order to be reborn. Whether it’s Carlyle fretting about his unruly bowels or Beatrice Webb insisting on meagre meals, Darwin protesting that anyone with a modicum of patience could have equalled his achievements, or Pater preaching pure sensation purged of feeling, there is much mortification of flesh and spirit in the texts Levine analyses. And, as in the case of the Christian saints, self-abnegation can very easily tip over into self-aggrandisement: Levine notes, for example, how professed ignorance in Pearson or self-discipline in Galton becomes a title to intellectual authority of the most overbearing sort.

Yet even in the testimonies of the scientists Levine thinks genuinely and endearingly modest in their self-effacement – Darwin, his fellow naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, the mathematician Mary Somerville – there is a sizeable and equally endearing dose of egotism. As Oscar Wilde observed, the personal memoir, even if written for friends and family alone or to satisfy an importunate publisher, is always delightfully self-obsessed. The very genre of the scientific autobiography is a 19th-century invention: we learn about the lives of 18th-century savants from eulogies, not confessions. The point here is that the Christian pattern of moral virtuosity demonstrated by self-abasement thrust the self to centre stage, where it performed for an audience well-prepared to appreciate the saintly resonances of such conduct. The first confessions were, after all, written by St Augustine. In this context, there is nothing paradoxical about the coupling of humility and authority.

But what kind of self-abasement? The Christian model was traditionally corporeal: martyrdom, fasting, flagellation, reception of stigmata, sucking the festering sores of the poor and sick, and on through the calculatedly violent and revolting proofs of sanctity recorded by hagiographers. Levine often invokes ‘embodiment’ as something like the opposite of the aspirations to objectivity in dying-to-know narratives in science and philosophy. Embodiment embraces subjectivity and, by implication, life; disembodiment deals death to the self in order to attain objectivity. Sometimes the equation is literal, as in Descartes’s famous rejection of the eye of the body in favour of that of the mind as guide to truth. More often, though, Levine’s meaning is metaphorical and ample: abstract generalisations are bodied out in concrete particulars; grey theory takes on the colours of lived experience; epistemology becomes narrative. These instances of the word made flesh, both figurative and literal, accorded rather awkwardly with the subjectivity they allegedly redeemed. Ethereal mind and lofty theory could be as subjective as the quirkiest body. Descartes denied the body because it was alien to the true self; 19th-century scientists worried endlessly about the subjectivity of theories. Conversely, the annals of 19th-century science overflow with testimonies to the powers and pleasures of the body: Alexander von Humboldt (echoed by Darwin) exulting over the sublimities of tropical landscapes, James Clerk Maxwell affirming the muscular knowledge derived from experiment, dozens of hardy travellers (including Galton) relishing the sights, sounds and smells of exotic locales. The body of the Victorian scientist was put to work – the long, patient hours in field and laboratory, the rigours of voyages of exploration, the feats of dexterity and attention required for precision measurement – but it was neither denied nor abhorred.

Nor is the self in question just old Adam in frock-coat and mutton chops. It is not notably greedy, slothful, lustful or otherwise burdened with postlapsarian vices, except perhaps pride. According to the sources Levine musters, the abiding sin of the self seemed to be the tautological one of egotism, of too much self. Hence the need to rein it in, even to kill it off. Levine deploys a rich vocabulary to describe the ways in which selves (minds as well as bodies) can in some fashion be made to die: the book’s index contains entries for no fewer than 13 forms of doing in the troublesome self, from self-abasement to self-elimination on through self-surrender. These are nuances that Levine probes with surgical delicacy, revealing the differences between Daniel Deronda’s moment of self-surrender and Carlyle’s dour self-humiliation or John Stuart Mill’s self-effacement. Yet if all are variations on the theme of dying-to-know, who is the self who must die, and why? In some texts, a worse self is sacrificed to a better, or the petty concerns of the individual are dwarfed by the greater good of humanity as a whole. Beatrice Webb, for example, championed the medical officer who saves hundreds from malaria through public health measures over the compassionate mother who nurses a single sick child. But the splinter of the self that consistently emerges as the common enemy of the true and the good alike is the will, always seeking to overleap its own bounds. The will that refuses to submit itself meekly to some indomitable reality, that flinches in the face of facts, that imposes a wished for world on the world as given: this is the self that must be humbled, restrained, surrendered or annihilated in order that things might be seen as they are.

The will was a pivotal faculty in Victorian psychology, ethics and metaphysics. It was the will that shaped and stiffened character, shouldered moral responsibility, and opened up the narrowest chink of freedom in the solid wall of scientific determinism. Above all, it was the will that fused the disparate aspects of subjectivity into a unified self, an ego capable of egotism. It is therefore not so surprising that the will must die in order for us to know. But it is surprising how pervasive the theme is in the broad and varied array of Victorian texts Levine assembles and interprets with subtlety and sympathy. The texts are all familiar, but seldom treated by scholars in the same field, much less juxtaposed in close counterpoint. Although Frankenstein and Middlemarch are mentioned en passant, these warhorses of science-and-literature courses are refreshingly absent from Levine’s sheaf of readings. This catholic approach to sources is not without its difficulties: as a literary historian, Levine is sometimes uncomfortably aware of how the dictates of genre can be mistaken for individual voice, or how inadequate some of the scientific sources (the elderly Darwin’s autobiography, for example, or the young Pearson’s sentimental novel) are as literature. Yet by focusing on autobiographies and memoirs as well as novels and treatises, he reveals striking affinities otherwise invisible to readers too respectful of boundaries of genre and discipline.

Levine believes that obliterating the self in order to know the world is not just a Victorian motif, but the morality of all science since Descartes: ‘The story Descartes tells about himself is the story modern science has told about itself with remarkable consistency since the Renaissance.’ In this respect, the Victorian dying-to-know narrative takes part in the ‘decentring of the human’ which, according to Freud, began with Copernicus, was advanced by Darwin, and culminated with himself. These claims of continuity would have lost much of their plausibility had Levine not leapt over the 18th century, a period in which savants like Linnaeus vaunted their personal authority in science and cultivated larger than life personae as sages, geniuses and public intellectuals. Even comparisons between Descartes and the Victorians, the points of reference between and beyond which Levine extrapolates, falter on closer inspection. Descartes distrusted the senses and the imagination, but the self as res cogitans stands squarely at the centre of his philosophy. It was moreover a self endowed not only with reason but also with passions, and necessarily so, even for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. As Descartes argued in his Passions of the Soul, people deficient in wonder, the first of the passions in his scheme, were usually dull and ignorant. Maladies of the overweening will do not figure among the chief obstacles to knowledge diagnosed by 17th-century epistemologists; Bacon went so far in the opposite direction as to argue that the greatest psychological impediment to a reformed natural philosophy was despair, not arrogance.

To conflate 17th-century sceptical caution with 19th-century fears about subjectivity is to blur the historical specificity of both. The problem here is the tendency, for which traditional accounts in the history of science are largely to blame, to assume that ‘modern science’ is monolithic and that its defining features were set once and for all during the Scientific Revolution in the 17th century. Volumes of scholarship during the past couple of decades have been dedicated to disproving this assumption, but the seductions of the grand old story about modernity emerging full-blown in early modern Europe are still strong. In fact the nature of science changed at least as much in the course of the 19th century as it did between 1543 and 1687, the dates of publication for the major works of Copernicus and Newton that are conventionally taken to bracket the Scientific Revolution. Moral philosophy may not have been as mobile as science, but it did not stand still either, even if it remained broadly Christian in its contours. The peculiar morality Levine documents so persuasively in Victorian texts, enlisting the self in self-restraint, and preoccupied with the will as both problem and solution, has a Kantian, not a Cartesian pedigree.

There is something redolently Kantian as well in Levine’s emphasis on the crabbed, joyless, life-denying aspects of Victorians’ dying to know. He realises that self-denial can all too easily become self-glorification, but he is oddly blind to the hedonistic streak in epistemological narratives of extinguishing the self for the sake of fact. This is doubly curious, since not only did Victorian scientists of all stripes rhapsodise long and loud about the pleasures of losing themselves in the objects of their investigation; so did Victorian novelists. Nor was this always the edifying, cerebral satisfaction of acknowledging a universe more orderly and more permanent than short, messy human lives; it was just as often a visceral gratification in the details of that universe and above all in emancipation from the cramped confines of the self. Beauty as well as truth was at stake. Henry James once chided H.G. Wells for incorporating autobiography into his novels: ‘There is, to my vision, no authentic, & no really interesting & no beautiful, report of things on the novelist’s, the painter’s part unless a particular detachment has operated.’ Levine recognises the zest for brute facts among his Victorian witnesses, but sees it as a reaffirmation of warm-blooded subjectivity against cold objectivity, the self protesting against its obliteration. There is, however, at least as much evidence that the precise source of the pleasures reported, artistic as well as scientific, was the escape from the self and the whole tedious burden of the personal. What made the self monstrous for Victorians was that there was so much of it, and all so tiresomely familiar. The yearning for objectivity may have been almost as much a flight from boredom as a quest for knowledge.

Levine confesses that he began his book as a critique of disinterested knowledge as an impossible ideal, but concluded it as a defence of ‘not only the possibility of objectivity but of the good faith of quests for it’. Characteristically, the argument is more moral than epistemological. Without objectivity, or at least some approximation of it, he sees no hope for altruism and community responsibility. Sociobiology and cultural criticism stand alike condemned, the two converging in extreme individualism. Much as he deplores the disembodiment he finds at the heart of dying-to-know narratives, some kind of self-denial, he decides, is essential for the good, if not the true. This is as dutiful and strong-willed a creed as any Victorian moralist could hope for. But there is another side to objectivity that has little to do with duty and still less with will power. Humanists such as Ranke and Nietzsche have celebrated it as well as scientists. It is the almost mystical immersion in things themselves, the delight of letting the world rush in.