Dying To Know – “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice.”

It’s worth considering that T. S. Eliot’s task, in “Tradition and The Individual Talent,” is nothing less than an attempt to transfer epistemology, the conditions of the possibility of objective (scientific) knowledge, as they were understood in the 19th century, into the realm of artistic and aesthetic experience. Here, Eliot’s primary interest in the authority and integrity, or ‘truth’ of the art object. This focus separates Eliot from the late-Romantic Oscar Wilde, who, like his predecessor John Keats, cared principally, indeed solely, for ideal Beauty. Thus, critical judgment, for Eliot, would no longer be merely subjective, as it was for Wilde (“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”), and subject to arbitrary personal whim, but rather genuinely objective and demonstrable. Culture, then, would be not simply whatever the general mass of persons tended to prefer at any given moment, for whatever pathological reason, but an established body of paradigmatic artifacts exampling human endeavor and achievement. If we talk seriously Eliot’s description of artistic production as a form of self-sacrifice, art objects might then be viewed the equivalent of war memorials – though without any need for destroying actual human bodies.

August Rodin
Walking Man (1878)

Along these same lines, William James, Harvard psychologist and philosopher, argued that, historically, nothing has brought forth unknown and untapped reserves of human greatness quite so effectively as combat. Nevertheless, the survival of civilization, James continues, has come to depend on finding a “moral equivalent of war” – a form of adventure and character building which does not require setting humans against one another in mortal conflict. James suggests the necessary alternative to war is the struggle with Nature.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite, 1903

Eliot’s argument may well imply many of James’s premises, though his conclusion would be quite different, that human achievement is best advanced through the production of lasting cultural artifacts of genuine objective merit. Art, Eliot might well argue, is the moral, or aesthetic, equivalent of war. Precisely the opposite, however, would have been argued by a near contemporaries of Eliot, the Futurist poet Emelio Marinetti and the Vorticist author and painter Wyndham Lewis, who notoriously argued that war is the technological equivalent, indeed the only truly modern form, of art. Art, these writers contend, should not replace war, but rather war should replace art.

• • •

1. The Narrative of Scientific Epistemology
2. Dying to Know Descartes
3. Carlyle, Descartes, and Objectivity: Lessen Thy Denominator
4. Autobiography As Epistemology: The Effacement of Self
5. My Life As a Machine: Francis Galton, with Some Reflections on A. R. Wallace
6. Self-Effacement Revisited: Women and Scientific Autobiography
7. The Test of Truth: Our Mutual Friend
8. Daniel Deronda: A New Epistemology
9. The Cartesian Hardy: I Think, Therefore I’m Doomed
10. Daring to Know: Karl Pearson and the Romance of Science
11. The Epistemology of Science and Art: Pearson and Pater
Epilogue: Objectivity and Altruism

“Dying to Know is the work of a distinguished scholar, at the peak of his powers, who is intimately familiar with his materials, and whose knowledge of Victorian fiction and scientific thought is remarkable. This elegant and evocative look at the move toward objectivity first pioneered by Descartes sheds new light on some old and still perplexing problems in modern science.” Bernard Lightman, York University, Canada

In Dying to Know, eminent critic George Levine makes a landmark contribution to the history and theory of scientific knowledge. This long-awaited book explores the paradoxes of our modern ideal of objectivity, in particular its emphasis on the impersonality and disinterestedness of truth. How, asks Levine, did this idea of selfless knowledge come to be established and moralized in the nineteenth century?

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