Richard Powers Visits Davidson With Insights on Intersection of Science and Liberal Arts
By Emily Drew '04
November 6, 2001
November 6, 2001
"Shared bewilderment is the nearest thing we have to a universal language," author Richard Powers addressed Davidson College during the Reynolds Lecture on October 24, 2001. His public lecture, "The Gauges of Knowledge," was presented in Love Auditorium and focused on the intersection of academic disciplines in the world of fiction and in everyday life.
The lecture concluded what Powers called an "extraordinarily pleasant" three-day visit to Davidson, which included a presentation for the Senior English Colloquium, a panel discussion with Davidson professors, and "unbelievable fall weather."
Powers, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, has written seven novels, and is a Lannan Literary Fellow and a genius grant recipient from the MacArthur Foundation. His writing often couples creative technological insights with powerful ideas of liberal disciplines, creating what Powers termed, "a shotgun marriage of the wildest miscegenation."
Powers published his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in 1985 while working in Boston as a freelance computer programmer. He published Prisoner's Dilemma in 1988, and in 1993 published Operation Wandering Soul, a grim novel that concerns abused and neglected children. Galatea 2.2, published in 1995, is the most popular of Powers' novels, perhaps because it best captures his ability to blend hard science with narrative fable. His 1998 novel, Gain, concerns a legal corporation whose far-reaching enterprises lead the reader to question the profit motive. True again to a writing style described as "contrapuntal, with a double helix," Plowing the Dark evolves in two distinct and seemingly unrelated environments: the land of the Shi'ite Muslims in Beirut and the world of virtual reality. His pieces have appeared in Harpers, The Yale Review, The New Yorker, and the New York Times.
His fiction offers discussion to what Powers called, "the full inscrutable text of the world." Among the "erotics of knowledge," disciplines should not try to trump one another, Powers said at the Reynolds Lecture. Instead, we should recognize that no discipline can alone describe any one thing. "Be accepting of other disciplines and share the richness to the best ability," he said.
English Professor Elizabeth Mills introduced Powers at the English Colloquium on October 23, declaring that his novels possess a "magical, creative combination of opposites, whose words rescue us and call us to consciousness, awareness, and hope." The following evening, at the Reynolds Lecture, Mills introduced Powers again, this time noting that she was immensely impressed by his "intellectual, lyrical, and stylistic genius" but was additionally floored by his teaching ability and profound personality.
In the little unscheduled time that Powers had while at Davidson, he agreed to two personal interviews, one with Kim D'Ardenne, a senior whose interests sway between science and literature, and one with me, a student reporter for College Communications.
I met Powers at the Carnegie Guest House on Wednesday morning, before that evening's panel discussion and Reynolds Lecture. He had already addressed the Senior English Colloquium, however, and had been meeting and dining with faculty from several departments.
Among other things, he and I discussed his novels and some of his ideas. Later, he also talked about his new book, The Time of Our Singing, which will be published in January, 2003, by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Powers said that he was inspired after watching the footage of a 1939 concert of African-American singer Marian Anderson. Although European conductor Arturo Toscanini dubbed her "The Voice of the Century," she was not allowed to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington simply because of her race. Instead, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, outside, in front of a crowd of 75,000.
RP: ...The first song that she sang was "My country 'Tis of Thee." When I saw the film of this, I thought, I've got to do something with this. And so 20 years later, I've put together my response. The Time of Our Singing explores the intersection of race, music, and time, and comes up with a way of seeing each of them as a function of the others.
ED: It's very interesting that each individual is a creature of variety, and that we often reject that diversity.
RP: In the question of self-formation, we're always going to be haunted by the distance between ourselves and any other point of reference. Am I an individual unlike anyone who ever lived? Well, I don't want to emphasize the difference to the point where I am different from everyone in the universe. But am I exactly the same as my people, as my tribe? No, I can't be that either. We're constantly negotiating that distance, and it seems to me that one of our tasks is to be always resetting that boundary and reaching out at any one moment of definition to other distances, acknowledging how negotiable that self-definition is. In my book on race, I certainly explore the notion that the anxiety of racism, as it's written into this country's history, is indeed driven by an enormous fear of difference. But at the same time, given all the efforts that we as a society have expended to keep cultures separate, to prevent intermarriage, and to enforce difference, racism must also be driven by an anxiety over similarity, right? In a sense, we're struggling to build identities out of forced separation, afraid that the closeness between us might strip us of self and belonging.
ED: So, as in your other novels, you're dealing with the relationship between seeming opposites?
RP: Yes. To see a complimentary anxiety inside its opposite is part of telling any full story....
Powers' Reynolds Lecture emerged from his opening description of a colossal library, filled from the basement to the clouds with information from the most basic and precise scientific disciplines to "disciplines so nebulous as sociology." Powers described the search of one person in the library, who traveled every floor of the building and finally sought help at the circulation desk. After an unsatisfying search for understanding, the person asked, "Where do I find fiction?"
Powers threw questions to the audience, and challenged listeners to ponder the relationship between story and fact. "Can a novel lay claim to fact in the same way that empirical science can?" "Can a novel's goal be to provide knowledge?" "Can narrative assert knowledge; can we have knowledge without narrative?" "How do we know when fiction is wrong?"
Powers continued to challenge the accepted definitions of words like fiction, fact, knowledge, understanding, right, and wrong. He warned that, "All the factual accuracy in the world will not guarantee the truth of a novelist's story." Yet, he also recognized that our world can be framed in an infinite number of contexts, and that "fiction is not about exposing the limits of our latest theories, but about casting a wider, subtler net for what those theories say about their makers."
"As we create, we discover," he said, recognizing another gift of fiction. However, "For everything we choose to make, there are a million things that we choose not to make."
RP: Our lives seem to be these random and different episodes, but we somehow live them into a continuous narrative. That's a motive in my fifth novel G2.2, and the refrain is from Psalms: "We live our lives as a tale told." I guess in some ways, the book also circles back along that line and winds up declaring that the tale that we tell is the life that we lead.
ED: Did you plan on leading this life?
RP: Not at all. I don't think anybody can say at any time that they planned on leading the story that they've led. After things have happened to us, we ratify them by saying, "This is the story of my life."
ED: What did you think you were going to do?
RP: I thought I was going to be a physicist. Actually, as I was growing up, I went through a whole smorgasbord of sciences that I thought I was going to pursue. And I guess, in a way, I have pursued them. I guess the beauty of being a writer is that you get to pursue, vicariously, all these other careers. For a short period of time, you get to immerse yourself in a particular field, to try to find out what it looks like from that discipline's point of view.
At Tuesday's English Colloquium, open to Senior English majors, Powers spoke of the Goldberg Variations, otherwise known as Bach's 1742 creation Aria with 30 Variations. These variations intertwined with ideas about the genetic code in Powers' novel The Gold Bug Variations (1991). This novel was read by the Colloquium as part of their semester's studies: Literary Encounters with Science.
Powers' lecture described the musical variations of Bach's work using audio and visual accompaniments. He described how the music's variations stem from a common harmony and a fixed progression of bass notes. The Goldberg Variations, like the genetic code, represent "simplicity bent open to reveal its richness." As a simple two-note step sequence develops into larger systems, "sameness becomes difference" and "simplicity becomes complex."
RP: "What could be simpler?" Those are the first lines of The Gold Bug Variations and from that first line, you get this very long and involved story of people getting their first glimpse of how staggeringly unlikely and complicated and immense any one individual is, their first sense of the impossible steps that bring a person along the tangled way to the present moment.
ED: Do you think complexity derives from simplicity or do you think that simplicity is really complex, and therefore, cannot be anything else but complex?
RP: That's a question that has preoccupied a lot of mathematicians and fundamental physical scientists in the last twenty years or so. Re-conceiving levels of order, finding order in chaos and chaos in order, rethinking the relation between simplicity and complexity has been one of the chief intellectual excitements of the last couple of decades. There is a real school within the field of chaos and complexity theory adhering around this notion of complex adaptive systems. Much work has gone into showing how the laws of physics and biology can yield self-creating complex systems, in other words, order from chaos. The old vocabularies that we have for simplicity and complexity have undergone a kind of inversion. This subject is dear to my heart because literature operates by that same kind of revelation. Where there seems to be nothing but intractable, chaotic interactions between incredibly complicated and irreducible agents, you can sometimes find very simple, generating motives.
ED: So, in a sense, even the simplest things can't help but become something else in time.
RP: That's the complex adaptive theory: we fall into complexity, we don't climb up into it.
ED: Do you think that Bach's composition is just an extension of the order that resulted in Bach the man?
RP: In Bach's music, I hear the absolute unlikelihood--the unthinkable odds--that went into making that temperament, with that gift, at that moment in history, writing itself forward and singing itself into the sound of his work. Even more unlikely is Bach's omnivorous research, his attempt to grasp the pattern of musical harmony, to break and to make new musical codes.
ED: Yesterday, at the English Colloquium, you asked why we have a desire to do research. I wondered if that's just another way of desiring more variation. The more that we know, the more variation we can create in our thought processes, or for you, in what you write.
RP: Yes. What's interesting is that there's no immediate survival benefit to doing research. And yet we have this pattern-making desire that's somehow coded into us, that we need to extend, that we need to realize and identify.
ED: Do you believe that a god establishes the order amid our complexity?
RP: In my new book, a woman asks her fiancé if he believes in God. "It's bigger than our name for it," he answers. "Better."
On Wednesday, Powers also shared his interdisciplinary ideas during a panel discussion in the Smith 900 Room of the College Union. The panel was entitled "The Intersections of Science with Other Disciplines" and began at 4:30. Powers was joined by professors Karen Hales of the biology department, Mauro Botelho of the music department, and Gregory Snyder of the religion department. The four panelists each gave an opening statement and eventually guided their discussion by the questions of the audience.
Hales noted the integration of visual art and science in contemporary works of those fields, and said that, "All disciplines are trying to figure out human identity." Botelho said that "Music's locus of existence is the human mind," and spoke of the relationship between science and music. Snyder focused on the intersection with wonder in any discipline. He asked, "What is it when you learn to pray and make a friend of silence, when you see that this world is charged and quivering with an energy?"
Near the end of the discussion, Powers remarked on "the central mystery of verbal representation: the paradox of predication." He suggested that science and literature are joined in something like the inscrutable bond of nouns to verbs in any declarative sentence. At the Reynolds Lecture, later that night, Powers noted, quoting Walter Benjamin, "Interpretation is to objects as constellations are to stars."
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