Sunday, November 02, 2008


In today's The Observer:
[The scientific] revolution was very different from the one previously wrought by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton, Locke and Descartes. Those scholars certainly changed our vision of the cosmos, but in a distinctly elitist manner. They used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work and limited their numbers to a small circle of savants. The public were excluded.
There's more.

In 1770, Captain Cook set foot in Botany Bay. The public were excluded.

In 1911, Amundsen reached the South Pole. The public were excluded.

In 1953, Edmund Hillary climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. The public were excluded.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The public (without television) were excluded.

Does anyone else feel diminished, their world deadened by the constant appeal to accessiblity; to the idea of a bright-eyed public fascinated by the farthest shores on the sea of thought?

If Newton, Locke and Descartes were elitists, how did they change "our vision of the cosmos"? Was it against their will? What difference would knowledge of their intentions make to what their work discloses? Descartes was French and he wrote Discourse on Method in his native language (not Latin as suggested by the article), so was he "excluding" the English public? Does it follow that if he had written it in English, every chimney sweep and parlour maid from London to Lindisfarne would have devoured it and discoursed merrily on dualism?

It's clear there's an unwitting eschatological fantasy running deep in the broadsheets' mechanical repetition of the demand for accessibility - whether it is for the paradisiacal destiny of humankind, for the greater glory of God or the Guardian Media Group, I can't say, but it's there.
As Holmes makes clear, 200 years ago, poets, writers and scientists shared a common vision of Nature. There is no reason why they should not do so again.
No reason at all, but why is it considered a necessary good? Why do we not hear as often (if at all) journalists calling on writers to turn instead toward philosophy and for scientists to turn toward literature? It might prompt a question: in what way is writing natural? Could literature in fact oppose or redefine what we perceive nature to be? Maybe it has already passed into us unawares?

The cultural cringe toward rational science might close one cultural gap but it diminishes writing as an explorative medium in itself, though I'm not sure enthusiasts would comprehend "in itself". Some don't even comprehend deviation amongst rationalists.

In a podcast, Richard Holmes himself explains that the ideas he writes about in his new book are accessible to us but, at the time, they were as obscure to the man-in-the-street as string theory is now. With this in mind, how do the John Carey parrots squawking in the press think world-historical artists and thinkers manage to change anyone's vision without interrupting habit?


  1. ALl literary endeavour is itself of course deeply and irredemably elitist, excluding as it does the illiterate.
    That Observer quote...good God. A mathematician is elitist because he uses the language of mathematics.

  2. Latin was then the lingua franca of the academic word. Writing in latin was done in order to reach the widest amount of people possible (albeit all academic persons). The fact that most of the public could not read latin misses the point that most of the public could not read, punkt.
    As for the second part, the usage of mathematical terms to describe mathematical consepts, that is indeed abhorant and elitist.

  3. Funny, if Joyce didn't write Finnegans Wake he would have excluded far more people! But seeing as he did, and definately took his time, are we going to tell him how to write his novel? (Or whatever it is... God knows, I haven't read it!) Be more accessible: that's a crazy demand. Is it not possible that the masses are the ones doing the excluding here?




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