Involving “Involution,” a book by Philippa Rees

For years, science was an argument that believed nothing on faith. These days, anything might be believed, as long as adequate funding materializes. Matthew Arnold’s receding “Sea of Faith” may be replenished with research dollars. What the sea might be replenished with is up in the air, and anyone’s guess.

In “Spooked: What do we learn about science from a controversy in physics?,” Adam Gopnik (30 Nov New Yorker) explains: “The seemingly neutral order of the natural world becomes the sounding board for every passionate feeling the physicist possesses.” The subject is non-locality, or locality, depending on your point of view: the idea that we might eschew working at home and go into the office but without a commute. Gopnik is reviewing George Musser’s “Spooky Action at a Distance.” “One of Musser’s themes,” Gopnik says, “is that the boundary between inexplicable-seeming magical actions and explicable physical phenomena is a fuzzy one.” Gopnik looks at two other books, David Wootton’s “The Invention of Science,” and Thomas Levenson’s “The Hunt for Vulcan,” and concludes that scientists who suggest nature is wilder than we ever imagined “widen our respect for what we might be capable of imagining.”

Imagining extreme life made possible by large doses of alien DNA, for example, such as the recent genome sequencing of the tardigrade makes apparent. Or of imagining a thinking both qualitatively and quantitatively different than Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind’s facts based knowledge. In a delightful essay test-like answer, Mary Midgley said, “The Enlightenment has done a magnificent job of increasing our knowledge. The further job – which its original prophets glimpsed very clearly – of putting that knowledge in its wider context hasn’t been done so well. It is not a job for science but for wisdom. It needs more work” (“You may now turn over your papers,” 24 Sep 2010, Guardian). If you doubt that it needs more work or that funding must be involved, consider this, from Sabine Hossenfelder’s “Does the Scientific Method Need Revision?”: “I cringe every time a string theorist starts talking about beauty and elegance. Whatever made them think that the human sense for beauty has any relevance for the fundamental laws of nature?” Not that I’m a fan of string theory. As I said in a prior post, if Christo were a physicist, he would have enough string theory to wrap the universe. Beauty and elegance point to metaphor; what does physics point to? Without some extra-dose of alien DNA, it seems we’re trapped in the human.

Imagining more work for the imagination is the lure of Philippa Rees’s erudite tome, “Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God.” “Creation has paid a high price for science’s limited certainties,” Rees says in her Introduction. Like Mary Midgley, Rees challenges Dawkins, who, Rees surmises, would call her work “bad poetry,” where metaphor is the culprit. And the Gradgrind school of physicists like Hossenfelder might also ask metaphor to leave the room. Can metaphor be tested? Is beauty falsifiable?

The electronic copy of “Involution” is 947 pages, cover to cover, including copious notes, scholarly references, introduction, appendix, and afterword that bookend nine long cantos of free verse. If you’re looking for the gift that keeps on giving for someone who likes to read, consider P. A. Rees’s “Involution.” The paperback copy is only 444 pages (CollaborArt Books, 4 Jul 2013), but with the many references and notes, the e-copy might be a better choice because it’s efficient and effective to navigate.

A synopsis of “Involution,” or a paraphrase of its argument, for purposes of this blog post, might best be substituted with Rees’s opening quote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience” (attributed to Père Teilhard de Chardin). The stylistic treatment of such themes often results in alternatives to standard forms of non-fiction. This is true of McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man”; of Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body”; and of much of Joseph Campbell’s work; and of Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space.” These are works replete with references, written in a mosaic form, non-lineal. Their form challenges the status quo as much as their content. The poetry is not what makes “Involution” difficult. Involution’s poetry is not a post-modern puzzle. In many places we find a piece of the mosaic that alone is worth the price of entry:

“It was all I had to bring
For words must pull against the grain
Shackled to their past
Employed in other houses, poorly trained…
Blacking scuttles, shining brass…
All marred like aprons with old stains
Or rigid in a tail and bow.
Unable to use a common tongue…”

But “Involution” is not an easy read. The seemingly protean nature of its narrator, moving in and out of italics; the mosaic history of science where each new discovery does little to complete the mosaic; the ambiguity of both protagonist and antagonist; the encyclopedic setting; the essential mystical nature of poetry; the science specialties – these all point to a work that is not meant simply to be read but to be lived with. At the same time, the book is carefully constructed, the layout accessible, the erudition softened in accessible notes and explanations. I remain perplexed by most of the figures, but they are helpful in the sense of being contributions to a new language form. I was initially a bit put off by the title, feeling no particular need or want for any kind of reconciliation, too cynical, I guess, but the title is true to the content; still, it gives little clue to the enjoyment of the reading experience.

Sometimes, books are discovered by an unintended audience. How we say something is every bit as important as what we say, maybe more important. And it takes a staunch realist to speak to every audience in the same voice. Likewise, we should read difficult books. I’ve been working on Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” forever, and he cunningly made it a circle, so I’ll never be able to finish it. The occasion of reading is also important, as important as the occasion of writing. The occasion of “Involution” may be now for both Philippa Rees and her reader: “From whence comes this recognition of beauty, economy, and elegance if not from our internal experience of being part of it?” (“Involution,” e-copy, p. 492).

4 Comments Add yours

  1. philipparees says:

    Invited to leave a ‘note’? How can any author limit appreciation and gratitude to a note? The honour of this appreciation, its honesty, its caveats, only make the gift of it doubly precious. Nothing could be more accolade, than ‘a book to be lived with’. Nor more in tune with its hopes. It was never intended as definitive, or explication, but a companion to be dipped into, read occasionally, some lines good enough to be shared, inviting a journey of self exploration, or just satisfactory snacking. As an author one cannot ever express the gratitude of being understood, not for anything more than a willing participation. ‘In it together’.I am overwhelmed with joy. Thank you is inadequate.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      It’s a major work, Philippa, the blending of scholarship with creative writing astounding, its attempts to reach a diverse audience while persuasively appealing to the social network that science has become (see Gopnik) clear. In short, it’s a keeper.


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