14 January 11 | Chad W. Post

The new issue of World Literature Today is now available, and the focus is on one of my favorite topics: “The Crosstalk between Science and Literature.” (Did I mention that I have a Thomas Pynchon related tattoo? And that I rushed out of MLA to see Jonah Lehrer speak about neuroscience and creativity? Anyway.)

Here’s an excerpt from the intro essay by Pireeni Sundaralingam:

The meeting ground between science and literature has never been so busy. Not only have the last few years seen a proliferation of anthologies such as Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory and Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine, but there has also been a blossoming of conferences, research centers, and foundations dedicated to examining the common space shared by the two disciplines. The U.S. Modern Language Association’s discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature currently has more than 1,200 members, while last year in Europe alone there were over a dozen conferences and symposia attempting to bridge both literature and science.

Nevertheless, as with any pioneering age, there is a certain level of braggadocio, a tendency to jump on the loudest and most lucrative bandwagon rolling by. An article in last year’s New York Times (March 31, 2010) announced “The Next Big Thing in English,” interviewing a series of literary scholars who seem to have found their own Philosopher’s Stone sitting on the benches of the neuroscience laboratory. Their claims were as diverse as creating a scientific method for quantifying the complexity of literature to unearthing the evolutionary basis for the preponderance of love triangles in fiction. It has fallen to scholars such as neurologist–poet Raymond Tallis to caution us against blindly adopting reductionist analyses of literature (“The Neuroscience Delusion,” TLS, April 9, 2008). All too often, the finer details of the rigor to be found in each discipline are glossed over in an attempt to precipitate swift partnerships, and, unfortunately, those reporting for the mainstream media are rarely qualified enough in the technicalities of both disciplines to point out these slips.

As we strive to demarcate the nature of these new territories, it becomes vital to consider the thoughts and work of those who have lived and worked in both worlds. In the following pages, award-winning writers share their personal experiences of the strengths and the weaknesses to be found in the cross-fertilization between the two disciplines: Welsh poet and memoirist Dannie Abse examines how his own creative writing has both benefited from and remained at odds with his medical training; playwright Kenneth Lin, trained as a psychologist at Cornell, delineates the ways in which the intersection of scientific theory and the physical framework of the theater may or may not co-create a system of moral beliefs; physicist Alan Lightman and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein discuss why they each turned to fiction to add a further dimension to their own scholarly research.

This issue also includes a number of other interesting sounding pieces, including an interview with Juan Villoro:

Juan Villoro: In El testigo, yes, I was very interested in asking, Who is the best literary witness of an event? From a judicial point of view, there are conditions determining what one can say in a courtroom. But from a moral, psychological, and literary point of view, the subjective process that makes someone a good witness is much more complex. So El testigo is about the formation of the figure of the witness and to what extent the witness influences what he sees. I do not believe that any witness is completely passive or apathetic. Inevitably, the witness participates in the experiment of looking. But the attitude of the protagonist in El testigo is very different from the one I have when I watch soccer, which is a much noisier, celebratory, and unrestrained attitude.

Ryan Long: So, it’s a question of distance, too.

Juan Villoro: Exactly. And when I write a novel in which the characters are unique and a little distanced from the reality in which they find themselves, when they’re actually uncomfortable in that reality, what I am looking for is a personal, individual voice. By contrast, in soccer I look for the voice of the tribe, the collective voice, the contemporary Greek chorus that expresses itself in a stadium.

Ryan Long: How does the relationship between the collective and the individual function in El testigo? I’m thinking, for example, of a particularly striking scene in that novel in which the protagonist looks over the “battalion of the fallen,” which is a place in the middle of nowhere populated by the shirts of dead Cristeros. Clearly this novel is about national identity, a nearly exhausted but important theme. In the novel, is there an image of the collective that still works?

Juan Villoro: Well, it’s a broken collective, whose ruptured nature is explained by its relationship to a very specific moment of Mexico’s history: the end of the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which was in power for seventy-one years. This moment also coincides with the end of my protagonist’s exile. The Mexican in my novel, for a very personal reason, has lived in Paris for twenty-four years before returning to Mexico. So the novel tells the story of the end of an era in personal terms—the character who returns to his country—and the end of an era in national terms—the first democratic alternation of power. But this alternation is more of a rupture than a continuity, because a conservative party comes to power with a spirit of vindication defined by Catholic conservative ideas that predate even the Revolution of 1910–20. My protagonist finds himself in a country that is at once his and not his. This is why he becomes a witness, because it’s so hard for him to participate in public life, to reintegrate himself with his people, his family, and his society. He realizes that the so-called step forward for Mexico is in reality the opportunity to settle old scores. All sorts of skeletons start coming out of the closet, and he finds himself in a country that he fails to understand.

(Quarterly Conversation did an interesting feature on Villoro a while back, where you can find an excerpt from El testigo and a piece on El testigo by Mauro Javier Cardenas.)

And this issue’s WLT Book Club focuses on The Good Novel by Laurence Cosse, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, and published by Europa Editions. If you’re interested in joining in (or simply reading the book), you should definitely check out this interview Alison Anderson did with Laurence Cosse.


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