Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century
by Frédérique Aït-Touati

Reviewed by Jay Jin


Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2011   |   272 pages

In his book Between Science and Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2006), Ira Livingston gives an anecdote of when the cultural theory journal Social Text unwittingly published an article submitted by physicist Alan Sokal parodying and mocking “science studies,” a field at the intersection of sociology and critical theory that examines the social, political, and historical constructions of scientific ideas and principles. As Livingston recounts, for Sokal the article, “full of extreme claims and bad science, showed that science studies was itself a bogus field with no real standards.” “The editors,” Livingston continues, “said they’d included his article in spite of its overstatements and theoretical naïveté…in their eagerness to encourage practicing scientists to join the discussion.”

The sometimes hostile tension between the disciplines of, broadly speaking, the sciences and the humanities—what C.P. Snow famously termed “the two cultures”—has led to various attempts to bridge the chasm, resulting in the emergence of “the history of science,” “science studies,” and other related fields. However, as Livingston’s account demonstrates, these interdisciplinary fields, arising from humanities departments, remain subject to varying degrees of legitimate scientific critique. Scholars who formed “the history of science” in the mid-twentieth century, for example, ceded epistemological ground to scientific principles and concepts, and were accordingly less susceptible to critique. Those who formed “science studies” in the 1970s, on the other hand, were, as Lawrence Kipling puts it, “less respectful…explicitly challeng[ing] the notion that any ‘pure science’ could be exempt from social, cultural, and historical forces.”

Academics are not so naïve as to believe in a neutral, uninflected mode of scholarship that will perfectly reconcile the two disciplines, or to believe that total reconciliation is even a desirable goal. Nevertheless, a strong push towards opening channels of communication between the two disciplines remains. The question, then, remains: how to pursue an interdisciplinary middle way. Given the numerous question marks that persist in such interdisciplinary work, Frédérique Aït-Touati’s Fictions of the Cosmos presents a deftly nuanced and finely controlled methodological realization of this goal, one that makes an important step toward better navigating this particular intellectual Scylla and Charybdis.

Aït-Touati lays out her approach at the very beginning of the book. Rather than tracing the influence of literature on science, or vice versa, she will instead weave

together the threads of these two histories [by] being attentive to shared motifs, whether they derive from a common source (classical literature and philosophy, rhetorical and poetic concepts inherited by the revival of humanism and taken up or transformed at the start of the seventeenth century), or else come from exchanges between the two fields during this period.

To accomplish this goal, Fictions of the Cosmos examines a set of astronomical and cosmological texts geographically representing writers from England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands and dating from the seventeenth century, one that saw the publication of numerous landmark scientific texts. Galileo’s 1610 Siderius Nuncius, Kepler’s 1619 Harmonices Mundi, Descartes’s 1637 Discours de la méthode, and Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica were just some of the many works that effected the “scientific revolution.”

For Aït-Touati, the mid to late seventeenth century is particularly insightful as a period during which the two discourses – today clearly distinguished as science and literature – began to diverge. The texts under discussion, described by Aït-Touati as “cosmopoetic”—representing “the structure of the universe and of matter in written form”—were composed in that privileged moment when poetry and prose occupied positions of equal prestige. Accordingly, debates during the period over astronomy, optics, and the various branches of natural philosophy were also “poetic debates.” At the time, Aït-Touati stresses, the distinct “two cultures” of Western thought had not yet fundamentally diverged. To the contrary, there was a high degree of ideological, rhetorical, and imaginative exchange. Investigating the paradox of a disciplinary bifurcation premised on ideological, epistemological, and textual exchange thus becomes the guiding thread through the book’s six chapters, further split into three two-chapter sections.

Part one, entitled “Cosmic Imagination,” looks at Kepler’s 1634 Dream, Francis Godwin’s 1638 The Man in the Moone, John Wilkins’s 1638 The Discovery of a World in the Moone, and Cyrano de Bergerac’s 1657 and 1662 The States and Empires of the Moon and the Sun. Part two then discusses the “Conjectural Machines” of Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds and Christiaan Huygens’s 1698 Cosmotheoros. The book concludes with part three, turning to Robert Hooke and Margaret Cavendish “Observing Monsters” in his 1665 Micrographia, 1674 An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth, and in her 1666 The Blazing World. Aït-Touati does not aim to create a linear narrative of scientific and literary development, but instead aims to reveal sets of shared literary and scientific concerns and strategies.

Kepler, Godwin, Wilkins, and Cyrano all articulated the possibility of lunar voyage in the context of the new astronomy, and in doing so looked to travel narratives and the philosophical dream for aid. Kepler’s imaginary trip to the Moon, narrated by a demon in a dream, becomes a heuristic fiction—a precursor to the physicist’s thought experiment—accompanied by copious notes that detail his own lunar observations and calculations. Conversely, for Cyrano it is not fiction that enables a trip to the Moon (consequently allowing the reader to see the Earth in motion), but rather astronomical knowledge that enables one to produce a “destabilizing and iconoclastic” fiction.

Godwin and Wilkins’s works, published in the same year, are on the surface clearly distinguished as, respectively, fiction and nonfiction. Godwin’s tale follows the adventures of a Domingo Gonsales as he travels from Salamanca to the Indies, the Indies to the Moon, and the Moon to China, with many more stops in between. Conversely, Wilkins gives not a fantastical narrative but sets down thirteen astronomical propositions based on “probable arguments.” Aït-Touati compelling argues, however, that both texts rewrite Aristotle’s mandate that “credible impossibilities are to be preferred to incredible possibilities” as a chiastic structure: the incredible yet possible, and the credible yet impossible—Godwins and Wilkins re-encode the imaginary lunar trip into an emerging epistemology of probability.

Hooke transforms the “poetics of the plausible” into a “poetics of proof” to put on full display the “demonstrative power of experimental philosophy,” and Cavendish’s utopian fiction condemns what she sees as the epistemological and political distortions produced by Hooke’s optics-based logic. Huygens and Fontenelle both “privilege[e] the category (both poetic and epistemological) of the plausible,” using it as a foundation on which to construct their respective cosmological models. Yet, where Fontenelle finds “playful skepticism” Huygens seeks “stable conjectural edifices.” Accordingly, Huygens’s use of narrative in the Cosmotheoros takes “the place of an inadequate diagrammatic representation,” allowing the reader to mentally visualize complex spatial configurations and cosmic motions that became irregular after Kepler replaced Copernicus’s circular orbits with elliptical ones.

Relinquishing any claims of one-sided influence, Aït-Touati’s Fictions of the Cosmos convincingly traces the constant stitching and unstitching that occurred between scientific and literary discourses, just as they were beginning to differentiate themselves during the seventeenth century. The strength of Aït-Touati’s methodology comes from her close, adroit engagement with the texts at hand, discursively and historically situating them, without assigning primacy or centrality to any. Fictions of the Cosmos is a model work for future interdisciplinary scholarship and a fascinating look into a period when scientific and literary imaginations formatively drew inspiration from the same sources as well as from each other.

Jay Jin is an English PhD candidate at the University of California Los Angeles.  He specializes in 20th century literature and poetry, with an interest in interdisciplinary research on the hard sciences.

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