Saturday, July 4, 2015

Arts & Humanities & Sciences

Some people will tell you that in the Renaissance in Europe, there were some people who were both artists and scientists, and that these glorious individuals were what we now call "Renaissance men." But the truth is even more delicious than that: up until the Renaissance, in Western "civilization," it never even occurred to anyone to separate the arts from the sciences. People thought it was only natural for someone gifted in one area to be gifted in the other. And of course, it only is. Only after the Renaissance did this ugly and unnatural separation and antagonism between the arts and the science begin to grow and fester. I want no part of that split, and I'm hardly the first to reject it.

As long as I can remember I've been artistically-inclined. As a small child, unfortunately, I shared an attitude toward science which was widespread among artists and ranged from indifference to hostility. Then in the 1970's I read Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow, which helped me to several big breakthroughs, mentally. It greatly eased my paranoia, for one thing, by explaining to me what paranoia is: namely, a great over-estimation of one's own importance to others. More than 9 times out of 10 they're not only not out to get you, they rarely give you a thought one way or another.

For another thing, the novel made me interested in science and technology, and refuted my notion that these were in opposition to the arts & humanities. Gravity's Rainbow's author, Thomas Pynchon, had studied engineering physics at Cornell from 1953 to 1955, then dropped out and spent 2 years in the Navy, then returned to Cornell and switched his major to English and for the most part concentrated (for the next 58 years so far) on writing fiction -- fiction which refers to scientific and technical topics as well as to poetry and music and the visual arts and so forth, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

Which of course it is. Pynchon is not the only one who behaves as if there were no rules against liking both the sciences and the arts. Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso come to mind, each a great admirer of and great influence upon the other. It seems that for nearly 4 decades, ever since first encountering Gravity's Rainbow, I had been living in a state of grace, removed from that stupid, ignorant opposition between art & science of which I had been a part as a child. Somehow managing to not to pay a lot of attention to how many scientists continued to be abysmally ignorant of the arts and how many artists continued to be abysmally ignorant of the sciences.

To be sure, I had noticed for a few years already that there was an entire group of scientists ignorant of the arts & humanities: the New Atheists. But then just very recently it came home to me that there had been an abysmally equivalent counterpart to the New Atheists infesting the humanities departments of many universities for decades before the New Atheists were so called. I'm talking about the postmodernists. And I don't think that many of them have ever been able to get any sort of jobs outside of the humanities departments of universities. (Nota bene, humanities departments are far from entirely Postmodernist and there have always been many academic historians, philosophers and critics who couldn't stand this PoMo crap in the slightest.) The Postmodernists despise what they think is the entire group of scientists, but which is actually only the group of New Atheists -- who should be despised for their ignorance of art and history and philosophy. Conversely, the New Atheists look with contempt at the dopey postmodernists, worthy of contempt with their contempt for science -- except that the New Atheists mistake the postmodernists for the whole of the arts & humanities.

They walk among us to this very day: New Atheists who think that "modern art is a fraud," and Postmodernists who think that all scientists are right-wing reactionaries. If that were not enough, and it certainly would be, it seems that Postmodernists also tend to claim as their own all sorts of perfectly sensible people who would've wanted nothing to do with them, from the Dadaists to Heidegger to the Abstract Expressionists to Borges to Nabokov to Gaddis and, yes, even Pynchon.

So it seems that all we need to do is to get all of the New Atheists together with all of the Postmodernists. (New Atheists very often reject that label, but that's okay, they're still easy enough to spot. On the other hand, only someone who describes him- or herself as a Postmodernist, is a Postmodernist.) Then they can expend all of their energy against one another, and leave the rest of us much more free to accomplish things and hopefully even enjoy life now and then.

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