Thursday, January 05, 2006

What To Do With a Mexican Jumping Bean: Science and Poetry

Jonathan Wonham has a wonderful post on Connaissances about a debate between two famous French writers, Roger Caillois and André Breton.

The debate is over what to do with a Mexican Jumping Bean. For those who don't know, these are beans found in northwestern Mexico, which make little jerking, rolling movements, seemingly of their own accord (see a Flash video). They are apparently pretty easy to get at shops in the southwestern part of the U.S. Here is Jonathan's account of the debate between the two writers:

The incident with André Breton and the Surrealists concerned a Mexican jumping bean and resulted, according to Caillois, in a rift developing between himself and the Surrealists. The question is: given the mystery of Mexican jumping beans, is the more fruitful posture to break them open and dispel the enigma (Caillois' preference) or to respect the enigma and harness whatever imaginative possibilities it appeared to invite (Breton's position)?

I think this question perfectly exemplifies the difficulties I alluded to earlier of the possible oppositional character of science and poetry. In the context above, Caillois places himself as the man of Science, intent on cutting to the core of the problem and finding out what is going on inside the bean. Breton on the other hand is the mystic, the hermit who will watch the bean jumping for hours, formulating in his head an infinite number of ways to explain why the bean is jumping. Is there a tormented soul trapped inside it? Did a woman rub it between her lips and cause it to become excited? Has it become wet with the urine of a wombat and developed paroxysms? All of these questions rapidly come to mind, stimulating the poetic instinct.

Jonathan agrees with Caillois (so do I) that thorough knowledge of natural phenomena need not be the death of poetry. For one thing, as Jonathan points out, even cutting open the bean to find out what is inside wouldn't actually resolve the question of what makes the beans jump by itself. The larvae, freed from the limiting shell of the bean, would likely die -- it certainly wouldn't jump. Moreover, it wouldn't explain at all how the Jumping Bean Moth evolved into a dependant (parasitical) relationship with this particular species of plant, so as to feed on its seeds, metamorphose, and eventually hatch out of the hollowed shell of the same seed. As Jonathan puts it:

Cutting the bean in half like a true scientist reveals that there is something inside making it jump, but poses a new question: why? Why does the larva throw itself around like that? This is very often the way with science. Tearing back the veil of one mystery reveals another, a Russian doll of conundrums, one inside the next, each more mysterious than the one before, deep mysteries, mysteries of time, of evolution. Like the question of how the ear evolved with tiny bones inside it. Or of how eyes developed as orbs of transparent jelly.

In effect, scientific reasoning is no less dependent on acts of the imagination -- and metaphor -- than poetry. Especially with his comments on evolution, Jonathan is here echoing Caillois' arguments in a 1935 essay called "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," where Caillois explores a series of odd natural resemblances that are the result of evolutionary accidents (such as a particular species of South American butterfly that resembles an owl, or the praying mantis). Caillois uses the word "mimicry" to describe this mode of resemblance, but of course it isn't really that at all (the animal has no knowledge of the other animal or natural phenomenon it resembles, nor has it intended to resemble anything).

Incidentally, Jonathan Wonham's post is inspired by Donna Roberts' review of Caillois' The Edge of Surrealism (PDF), which also discusses Caillois' relationship with the writer and analyst Georges Bataille, who was also both a scientist (or at least a philosopher) and a poet. Of the three writers Caillois seems to be the most grounded -- the most methodical, rigorous thinker. And yet, in at least one sample of his work that Jonathan Wonham himself has translated on his blog, one gets a sense of a powerful literary imagination. Here is Wonham's translation of a prose poem by Caillois called "Siliceous Concretions", which describes, in a somewhat clinical way, the beauty in a rock formation in the Ile-de-France. Here I'll only quote a few lines:

Other volumes, more powerfully curved, hold up an efficient shield to invisible pressure. These are the ones which are slow to thin or fold themselves, the opposite of lazy they are fashioned by a long evasiveness.

An underground current filters through the sand to slowly form these great tears of stone fixed in a flight which is forever headlong, forever immobile. For it is the water which flees.

Notice the intriguing anthropomorphizing of the rocks under the water. Obviously Caillois knows as he writes that the objects he's looking at are neither "lazy" nor "evasive" in any proper sense, nor does water "flee." These verbs are all metaphors, which do not deny the truth of science, though they do perhaps move laterally away from its mode of perception. (Read the whole prose-poem here).

There is a danger of launching from here into large generalizations about scientific thinking vs. poetic thinking. At most, I would say that any strong opposition between the two is questionable: even as a more scientific kind of poet, Caillois remained a poet. But do you know of other examples of the interplay between science and literature? Scientists who were creative writers, or people who are primarily writers who've responded directly to scientific ideas or knowledge?

* * * * *
Also see Jonathan Wonham's interview with Ivy Alvarez, discussing science and poetry, here.

And if the only thing that interests you in this post is the Mexican Jumping Bean, see more on that at How Stuff Works, and Wayne's Word.

Update: As with so many things, I find that Scott McLemee has already been there, done that (free link at the Chronicle of Higher Ed).


brimful said...

Ah, Amardeep, this might be my favorite post of yours yet. :)

The one example that always springs to mind for me is that of William Carlos Williams, both an MD and a fine poet.

A poorer example would be Carl Djerassi- long considered the father of birth control, and a respected chemistry professor at Stanford, he has gone on to publish several novels, although I have to admit they are not particularly compelling ones.

For my part, I would say there is just as much poetry to be found in the act of breaking open/dispelling an enigma as there is in leaving it unchallenged.

12:34 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks! I was happy to uncover this quirky little episode in literary history.

William Carlos Williams seems like an interesting track to consider. I'll poke around and see if he said anything about how his relationship to science affected his poetry (or whether there was any poetry in his approach to medicine).

1:32 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Great post and a great question! I am with Amardeep and Caillois on this one.

The common (and mistaken) tendency is to assume that scientists do not or cannot produce lilting prose or even poetry. Reason is not the enemy of imagination by any means - quite the contrary perhaps. The unfolding and solution of scientific conundrums, such as the stucture of atom, the shape of the universe or the workings of the immune system have been the source of some of the best drama - full of awe, unexpected twists and paradigm shifts. What more could we ask from great literature?

Speaking of scientists turned literary geniuses, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was trained as a physician. One of the best Bengali writers of searing wit, sparkling vocabulary and devastating turn of the phrase, was Rajshekhar Bose aka Parashuram. Among his output in the world of literature and language were several books of Wodehousian humor and Swiftian satire, the first modern Bengali dictionary (still in use) and a brilliant translation of the Mahabharat into Bengali prose. Bose was a chemist. And so was Primo Levi of The Periodic Table and Survival In Auschwitz.

3:03 PM  
Jonathan said...

Hello Amardeep, glad you found this interesting. There's a book supposedly coming out later this year edited by Robert Crawford which might be of interest called Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science (OUP 2006).

8:37 PM  

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