But Hamlet does not like matter. He wants it to melt, resolve into a dew—even the matter of spirits should do so—and yet that dew is matter too. He likes nothing, absence, zero, vacancy, all of which “Nature” abhors and her Law forbids—as we still believe. The word “O,” newly ambiguous with the importation of “𝚘” from Arab mathematics, is uttered more in Hamlet than in any play but Othello. And Hamlet says “no” more than any character in Shakespeare. This hatred of matter on Hamlet’s part is shocking: it measures the greatest imaginable despair. For even the dead are matter. (Is this what generates a ghost in place of the corpse of his father?)
✧ Mary Baine Campbell, “Shakespeare and Modern Science”
Matter is the remnants of a bright occasion stashed in the basement. Bits and pieces of something so promising and full of unfettered expectation have been packed up and sealed into crates, boxes that are only moved by the forces of necessity. From one end of a darkened chasm to the other: rearranged perhaps, reorganized, recombined; but still, there will never be tinsel in the hot furnace of any anticipated revelation for these tired things again. Nor a gasp to accompany any connection and release that might fire out from a sudden compression so intimate that it has made new beginnings possible.
This often feels like what I suspect lies at the end of what I return to so often: the terrible renunciation of the illusion of freedom that comes from existing in a world defined by limits, but motivated by a spurious injunction to imagine a life absolutely unfettered. By boundaries. By facts, organized around principles, that say: most of what we think we know is composed of space. That being is lonely in the sense that nothing is really in contact. That we cannot be anywhere doing anything at any moment. Space and time are coincidences that determine where, when, and how we can go next. But there is so little of either available from the start.
Hamlet says “no” so much because he voices the denial that begs to be vocalized when you encounter a hard “no” yourself. Or a “yes” that means “no” when you hear it. Assertions and negations are flying about us all the time; and these answers that ring in the ear beg to be denied from something deep and steadfast within. When something is not possible, when something is asserted in the world and we are forced to contend with it; and that thing amounts to being a being, which we can’t avoid—and maybe do not accept no matter how reasonable or graceful it might be to do—”no” is sometimes the only sane thing to say. The matter of articulating the rejection of matter, or some matter, makes everything that much harder. What do you want to say, without deception or equivocation, when the options are worse or worst?
We are confined. These atoms do not prevaricate the way we would like them to. We are packed up. You can say “no” to any matter, but at its most fundamental, it does not hear—it only moves.
The moderns confused products with processes. They believed that the production of bureaucratic rationalization presupposed rational bureaucrats; that the production of universal science depended on universalist scientists; that the production of effective technologies led to the effectiveness of engineers; that the production of abstraction was itself abstract; that the production of formalism was itself formal. We might just as well say that a refinery produces oil in a refined manner, or that a dairy produces butter in a butterly way! The words ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘organization’, ‘economy’, ‘abstraction’, ‘formalism’, and ‘universality’ designate many real effects that we must indeed respect and for which we have to account. But in no case do they designate the causes of these same effects. These words are good nouns, but they make lousy adjectives and terrible adverbs. Science does not produce itself scientifically any more than technology produces itself technologically or economy economically.
Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!
✧ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
Amanda’s frivolous banter not only insinuates but also declaims a persistent reality, one that springs tenaciously from a devision of knowledges that springs from a modern bias. The conviction that comprehension and control of nature is a kind of revelation which remains unrelated to the understanding of human life, especially as it unfolds in day-to-day routines, obscures our imbrication with the very forces which have threatened us, and forced us to adapt, whinge, and pray to be delivered from for most of our frenetic history. To be sure electromagnetism is mysterious, as all action at a distance is mysterious; as light is mysterious, and the energy which drives all the motors of action. More, the mysteries of our universe do not collapse in the face of modelling and control, but multiply, and present new questions to replace the ones predictably answered. As a flippant toss of phrase isn’t what she’s saying eerily apropos? To point out that there is an outside and an inside to human experience—that the world continues to threaten and bamboozle us despite our research and inventions—is an indisputable truism; but is it not also something that genuinely needs to be contended with, not just when the lights burn out, but when we feel complacent and at ease with the idea of a “safely” manufactured environment, even though there is nothing to mediate between any bit of matter or energy, anywhere, that is not natural. Mystery remains nature’s default.
If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.
♦ William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads“
There must be a sense of play for poetry to work. There must be room amongst the litter of factive objects to dart; to squirm; to roll. After all, the empirical world was pulling at a similar cord to that of literary creativity in Wordsworth’s day. The science of oxygen and revolution were eerily contemporaneous: both materialized out of the same age of investigation and irrepressibility. A similar boldness as that which enabled Lavoisier to isolate molecules of air also led to the regime that would eventually sever his innovative head. The poets and the scientists were both treading uncertain ground, and asking daring questions, about what made the world the way it appeared, what moved and drove it in diurnal course. How exciting that we live now, when both still work towards that end, but we simply know more; and how disquieting to know that what we know, now, privileges us to much the same sum total of practical insight, as then.
How we imagine is the key. Poets sleep in the spaces between galaxies now; between an electron and a nucleus; climbing the ladder of DNA between proteins. The implications of vision are conjoined with physical enterprise in a way that inspires both the writer and the lab technician. There is poetry in everything, just as science can be brought to bear on every iota of phenomena. Where do we come from? This question signatures every project of inquiry. Let’s all play.