Virginia Woolf famously observed that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Her main example was the “character of one’s cook. Whereas the Victorian cook had lived in the lower depths, modern cooks were coming out of the kitchen to borrow the Daily News and ask “advice about a hat.”

Woolf chose December 1910 as a watershed as it was the month of the first post-impressionist exhibition, organized by her friend Roger Fry in collaboration with her brother-in-law, Clive Bell. It should also be noted that King Edward the VII died in May of 1910, marking the end of Edwardian England, an after glow of the Victorian age of optimism and stability.

In 1910 Sigmund Freud published “The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis” as a series of lectures in the American Journal of Psychology. He had published books earlier at the dawn of the 20th Century. Rapid advances in physics in the last decade of the 19th Century spilled over into the 20th Century. The nature of radiation and the architecture of the atom were sketched out. In 1905 Albert Einstein published a series of important papers in physics.

Friedrich Engles, along with Karl Marx, had announced scientific socialism to the world in mid-19th Century. Writers like William Dean Howells, in his 1882 novel A Modern Instance, had sketched out the modern character (devious and undesirable, in this instance). So that what Virginia Woolf had observed was not quite the newest of the new, but it hit with some force in 1910 because most everyone could see how the world was changing.

The scale on which technology had transformed industry and warfare became apparent when the Great War began in 1914, when the youth of Europe massacred one another on an industrial scale at far greater distances than in past wars. This was the brutal Shock of the New. Out of this trauma came two basic strands of thought and action. One was represented by the Dadaists, a whimsical anti-war movement that announced its messages in news flashes and slogans. Their message was that the center had collapsed and the artist needed to take to the street to proclaim his message by any means possible. The Dadaists represented the fragmentation of Western consciousness.

The other was exemplified in the poems of Wilfred Owen, a young Romantic enamored of Keats, who wrote his mature poems in the mud and fire of the Western Front. His witness was that the center held, the conventions of poetry held, but the message was terrible. Better men would come along and fight greater wars. Owen had written in a letter, in 1914, “I believe in Science more wholeheartedly than in Art, but what good could I do in that way?” Killed in 1918, he accomplished rather little. But he had saved the core conventions of poetry for future poets, such as W.H. Auden, in the 1930s. (See my essay The Cult of Ugliness in Art and Literature).

But modernism would out. T.S. Eliot had published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. Seven years later “The Wasteland” was published.

The shaping influence of “The Wasteland,” Ezra Pound, a fellow American who had traveled to Europe, would lead the modernist charge in poetry with his pronouncements rather more than poems themselves. Pound said, “Make it new, make it modern, make it like science.” To Pound, the scientific equivalent in poetry was Imagism, whereby a specific concrete image correlated to a discrete experience.

Born in 1885, Pound had already formed his artistic sensibility, though not his rhetoric, by the time of “The Wasteland.” Idiomatically, Pound was much more comfortable in the 19th Century. He had little love or understanding of science. Owen, who attended a technical school, certainly knew the subject better. What Pound picked up on was the vibe, the zeitgeist. Science was a new force in the world. It changed things, invented things. It gave artists new tools to play with.

What Pound, and those who thought like him saw, was that science was difficult, and scientists experimented. Therefore, artists should experiment and create an equal level of difficulty. For Pound, this difficulty veered off into the riddles and perplexities of the Cantos. The role that best suited Ezra Pound was that of gadfly and would-be seer. After the death of God in the 19th Century, as proclaimed by Nietzsche and evolution, the artist stepped into the role of prophet, actually, an ancient function, but one now complicated by science and the misapprehension of it. There is no such thing as “scientific poetry.”

What these artists-as-scientists have never understood or accepted is that the results of science come from the rigor of the scientific method. Scientists, like artists, seek inspiration, see answers to questions in dreams. But then they experiment, and most experiments fail to produce any basic knowledge or practical result. In art, one announces an experiment that ipso facto is a success. Who says? Is such an experiment repeatable? Of course, one can copy a Jackson Pollock drip painting, but so what? Pollock was an artistic personality who seized the moment and created an identifiable body of work, quite valuable today in monetary terms, but contributing no real knowledge to the world.

This is not to say that artists should not experiment, try something different. But that “something different” should not be confused with science. Einstein’s equations should not be mixed up with avant-garde riddles and fragments. There are numerous theater labs in the world. The actors, playwrights and directors who produce in them strive for some bold, original result. That result will eventually be compared with prior plays in earlier periods of drama and comedy going back to the ancient Greeks. Greek science, on the other hand, is merely a curiosity to the modern scientist; it does not limit or inform his forward progress.

When something is easy to do these days, we say: “It’s not rocket science.” We understand that putting a rocket into space is not the same thing as launching the new Off Off Broadway season. The rocket, say, drops a rover onto Mars that successfully deploys and sends back photos of its travels of the surface of the planet, which I can view on TV or my computer screen. It’s all quite remarkable, and I watch in fascination for awhile. I too believe in Science, its rigor and rational thinking.

But, alas, no Green Man appears to take a bow. Mars is pretty much dust and rock, with a murmur of ancient water. Science fiction has filled my imagination with countless dramas, forging far ahead of actual discovery, the better of which curve back toward mythology. I am a storyteller. I believe in the power of art and language to tell the story of the tribe. Science and technology enrich our lives, make them more interesting. But they are only part of the tale. And stories we must tell, whether by cell phone, computer, pen and paper, or the unaided human voice.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

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