Saturday, December 13, 2008

Monstrous Certainty

Janice Harayda has given her 'Gusher Award' for hyperbole in reviewing to Clive James for a recent essay in Poetry. She points out sentences, such as “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” Interestingly, James can spot a similar tendency in others: "Though Grigson was an excellent editor and an unrivalled anthologist, his own poetry, nervously echoing Auden's oratorical verve, was never distinctive enough to establish his credentials for such an ex cathedra confidence."

In his wonderfully wide-ranging, entertaining, and enlightening Cultural Amnesia James maintains a tough line on intellectuals who failed to stand up against the totalitarianism of the 20th century - Sartre and Borges for example get the treatment; Camus gets a commendation. But James' tone is ex cathedra - more so than Camus' at times whose doubts and uncertainties show through his pronouncements - and it was Camus who said the only party he'd belong to is the one that's not sure that it is in the right. I'm rather vague as to the source of this pseudo-quote of Camus' - but then James remarks that Borges was often very approximate about the details of his enthusiasms, as if to score a point, although James himself elsewhere writes: "Listening on the same day to the Lester Young quintet and a string quintet by Ravel ... " A wonderfully eclectic playlist no doubt, but is there a string quintet by Ravel???? I am reminded of some lines from Geoffrey Hill "I tell myself don't wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense."

Camus is on the money - certainty and ex cathedra judgement is where the danger lives. I'll leave the final words to that great polymath & humanist Jacob Bronowski, in his 'Knowledge and Certainty' episode of The Ascent of Man:
The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science--or outside of it--we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense--science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge--all information between human beings--can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It's a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance--and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair.

The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty.

Bronowski concludes the episode by wading in his suit into the mud and slime of a pool of water at Auschwitz into which the ashes of the slaughtered were flushed, his final imploration that we must 'touch people' made as he reaches down and drags up a fistful of the greasy mud:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality--this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken." I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leó Szilárd, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

No comments: