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Romantic Science

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books and culture

Romantic Science

Dr. Frankenstein wasn’t just a literary conceit. December 4, 2009

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes (Pantheon, 576 pp., $40)

Richard Holmes’s books on Coleridge were engrossing, and his Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage was continuously interesting; I have only dipped into his Shelley. His most recent book, The Age of Wonder—full of insight, but oddly put together—tells the story of “Romantic science,” which Holmes says transformed the rational and mechanistic science of the Enlightenment into something richer and stranger. His Romantic scientists have a “reckless” love of discovery, a Faustian desire for knowledge “at any cost,” and an urge to “experience the Sublime.” They have an “almost mystical” conception of their vocation and powers of intuition allied “very closely to poetic inspiration and creativity.” A familiar character, then, the Romantic scientist, a diabolic genius after the fashion of Manfred and Heathcliff: the daring flights of his “Eureka” moments are touched with the imagination of “Frankenstein nightmare.”

Holmes is surely onto something. Romanticism is too often thought of as primarily an artistic phenomenon. It was also, if Holmes is right, a scientific one, as it was almost certainly a political one (witness Disraeli, Lincoln, and Bismarck, who attained power in the Victorian age but were taught by Romantics).

Holmes builds his book around a gallery of portraits. His heroes are Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook on the Endeavour and developed an early form of anthropology; William Herschel, the astronomer who, among other things, discovered Uranus; Mungo Park, the explorer of the Niger; the chemist Humphry Davy; the early balloonists; and Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Frankenstein. The difficulty is that Holmes has arranged the portraits with too little art, and they lapse at times into mere biography. Herschel occupies nearly a quarter of the book, but his daily comings and goings are not sufficiently interesting to justify the sort of minute treatment Holmes used to bring Coleridge to life. The story of Davy, too, comes to weary the reader, who amid the accumulation of detail loses sight of the author’s larger purposes.

A certain interest attaches, to be sure, to the Romantic scientists’ early glimpses of things to which we have since become accustomed: laughing gas, Alessandro Volta’s first battery, the carbon cycle, the theory of evolution, the placebo effect, infrared radiation, the incomprehensibly gigantic universe that modern astronomy has revealed. “I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me,” Herschel said. “I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must have taken millions of years to reach the earth.”

But Holmes is concerned less with particular discoveries than with the mentality of the discoverers. The wonder revealed by science is not, finally, severable from the mind of the wonderer. Holmes cites Richard Feynman’s belief that science is “driven by a continual dialogue between skeptical enquiry and the sense of inexplicable mystery,” and that if either is permitted to get the upper hand, “true science” will be “destroyed.”

Even as he studies the outer world, the Romantic scientist is preoccupied with the secret of his inward existence. Banks observing the customs of the Tahitians, Davy on laughing gas, Mary Shelley wondering “in what sense Frankenstein’s ‘Creature’ would be human”: all remained perplexed by the mysteriousness of man. What laws govern his being? How do changing conditions affect his nature? Is he a creature created on purpose or a mere material accident?

If Enlightenment thinkers built on the metaphor of the well-ordered machine, the Romantics sought to understand the spark that makes a thing live, whether it be a human being, a work of art, or a nation-state. The framers of the American Constitution were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and labored to perfect a republican mechanics of checks and balances. Bismarck and Lincoln, by contrast, grew up reading the Romantic poets and conceived of their nations as organic growths. The German nation was for Bismarck a living thing, with a right “to exist, to breathe, to be united.” Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, described the foundation of the United States as a species of live birth: the republic was “conceived in liberty” and “brought forth” by the “fathers.” Like a human being, the nation was capable of undergoing a second, spiritual birth, “a new birth of freedom.”

The organic vitalism of the Romantics did something to correct what Cardinal Newman called the “dry and superficial” thinking of the eighteenth century. But the Romantic approach held its own dangers. It is one thing to seek the secret of life, another to dabble in diablerie. Romantic wonder is closely connected to Romantic nightmare. The literary monsters of Byron, Beckford, and Mary Shelley find a political counterpart in the monstrous qualities of Bismarck’s German Reich, and perhaps a scientific one in the temptations of today’s genetic technology. It’s easy to play God, but difficult to keep hold of one’s beast.

The Romantic vitalists reacted against a science and an art that, in Wordsworth’s words, were so many “barren leaves,” a habit of soul that taught the “meddling intellect” to misshape “the beauteous forms of things,” to “murder to dissect.” Yet wittingly or not, the Romantics prepared the way for new forms of murderous hubris. If The Age of Wonder teaches a lesson, it is that genius is greatest when it is most humble. Holmes quotes the famous peroration of Newton: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” The words could serve as the epigraph for this provocative if at times frustrating book.

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