We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.
Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.
In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”
What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.
Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.
In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?
The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space (Garfinkel again, but see here for another awesome citation controversy, although oddly enough a different Garfinkel) against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.