Friday, May 8, 2009

Keats's "Lamia"; Part II, lines 231-38

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture — she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine,
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade.

This passage in particular—and Keats's Lamia more generally—expresses a troubling philosophical and aesthetic problem involving a kind of side-effect of rational, scientific understanding.

As the narrative goes, the gullible adolescent Lycius is seduced by Lamia, a serpentine immortal who, to accomplish her purpose, adopts the outward form of a beautiful young woman. Lamia does not apparently have evil designs in mind. Her deception of Lycius seems intended solely to make it possible for the two to live in the easeful joy of one another's company. And it is undeniable that Lycius is delighted in his "prize."

But it is also undeniable that Lamia has deceived Lycius. She is pretending to be something she is not, and for that reason the love between the two is founded on utterly false pretenses. Lycius's tutor Apollonius, of course, instantly sees through Lamia's beautiful deception, and, staring through her, causes her to vanish "with a frightful scream" (ii,306). Lycius himself then collapses and dies, apparently suffering mightily for the loss of his beloved.

The narrative as a whole, then, poses a difficult dilemma. Is it better to live happily and in love even if that life is founded on a lie? Or is it better to acknowledge the "truth," even if that truth destroys one's happiness?

The specific passage quoted above expands on this dilemma, presenting it not in the ethical context of characters in a narrative but rather as a question of scientific understanding. The central idea is something like this: Try to imagine what a rainbow must have looked like—what it "meant"—in a world before we understood the physics and optics that we now know causes this beautiful natural phenomenon. In such a pre-scientific world, it is easy to see how a rainbow might be understood as a divine gift perhaps, or the "awful" sign of some other divine intention, or at the very least some inexplicable marvel that is all the more beautiful for its mystery. There are numerous other similarly inexplicable phenomena (comets and earthquakes come to mind), and a person in such a world might well imagine these phenomena to be the workings of spirits in the air or gnomes working in mines underground. Some such logic may well be the inspiration of whole pantheons of spirits—the gods that people Olympus, for example.

But now imagine the same rainbow, seen with a full understanding of the optical principles that produce it. Now, instead of some semi-sacred mystery, the rainbow is simply another item in the "dull catalogue of common things." "Philosophy"—by which Keats here refers to what we would call Science—has solved the mystery, seen through the appearance to its cause, but in so doing it also "clip[s] an angel's wings" and dispels as irrational any notion of spirits hovering in the air or gnomes working their subterranean mines. All mysteries have been conquered by "rule and line," and the rainbow has been unwoven.

The question, of course, is whether seeing this scientific truth is ultimately beneficial. Is it better to live in a world of mystery and romance and immediate human connection to the phenomena of the world? Or is it better to approach such phenomena with the instruments of science and replace mystery with knowledge, even if that knowledge causes us to see the world as a spiritless, empty, and mechanistic Other?

These are challenging questions, and they were very much at the forefront of romantic-era thinking. Consider, for example, Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us...." sonnet where the speaker longs for a less "forlorn" and empty relationship with the natural world. Or consider Thomas Love Peacock's essay called "The Four Ages of Poetry" (which argued that imaginative writing had served its cultural purpose and that now we should turn to science and technology) and Shelley's "Defence of Poetry" (which rebuts Peacock's claim with a sustained argument about the supreme value of poetry).

1 comment:

elizabeth said...

thank you for helping me to understand.