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The World Through the Prism of Poetry and Science

TOY MEDIUM; Materialism and Modern Lyric By Daniel Tiffany; University of California Press: 352 pp., $19.95 paper

May 07, 2000|MARINA WARNER

In his subterranean forge, the god Hephaestus makes the arms of Achilles, and he's helped at his work by "golden handmaidens, who looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs but were endowed with intelligence. . . ." How did these metallic automata, skilled and sentient, differ from human beings? Already, here in the "Iliad," the blurring of distinction between fabricated and organic life provokes shivers of the poetic uncanny. In the "Odyssey," by contrast, when Odysseus meets his mother in the Underworld and tries to embrace her, he finds that his arms pass through thin air: She, who was once a person, who is now standing before him, has become a phantom, a shade, an illusion.

Which is more real: the robot or the ghost? And what kind of existence does Homer confer upon them through making their pictures in words? What are the bodies of gods and angels made of? When a lover kisses the image of a beloved in a portrait or a photograph, what kind of materiality does the picture possess? When figures haunt you in your dreams, what are these thoughts made of? Is "picture-flesh"--Merleau-Ponty's phrase for images--real? When viewers write in to soaps to complain about the actors' behavior, in what dimension of reality do they think the characters live? These are the kinds of puzzles about existence that Daniel Tiffany's "Toy Medium," a complex, remarkably original and challenging study, sets stirring.

Tiffany does not set out to answer them by recourse to the usual distinctions between dream and reality, between subjective and objective experience. Instead, he introduces the reader to a vertiginous and dazzling realm, inaugurated by the ancient philosophers--Democritus and Epicurus--continued in the poetic science of Lucretius, further developed by Leibniz and Descartes and profoundly inflected in the 20th century by the discoveries of the new physics.

At one level, he is putting forward bold claims for the truth-telling of lyric poetry; at another, he has undertaken a history of scientific materialist thought, carefully and insistently exposing the vulgar error of mistaking it for realism. The search for the nature of matter, and its early postulation of the invisible atom at its core, broke the links with empirical methods: In this territory of the sphinx, the limits of sensory experience are breached, and the world dissolves into radiance and flux, bodies turn into clouds and blazes of particles. As Bertrand Russell put it, in the physics of relativity, "a piece of matter has become, not a persistent thing with varying states, but a system of interrelated events . . . the prejudice that the real is permanent must be abandoned." Neither the eyes nor the other senses can offer any guarantees of presence or existence, for in the hidden recesses of quantum theory, nothing is apprehensible.

Materialism's enduring narrative, Tiffany argues, paradoxically renders matter itself immaterial, and this has the profoundly unsettling consequence of closing the gap between phenomena that do not possess corporeality or substance or mass or gravity and entities that do: For Lucretius, a dream, a thought, a hallucination, an image exist and, possessing being, can affect reality. But that reality can be expressed only through metaphor. As Yeats so famously exclaimed in his poem "Byzantium," "Spirit after spirit! . . . Those images that yet / Fresh images beget." This is where poetic language, Tiffany suggests, can play "a more substantial role . . . in the institution of material substance."

Some contemporary critics, such as Jean-Paul Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek, inveigh against the phantasmagoric character that global media have cast on experience and hanker for a revolt against simulacra, virtual realities, and the flux of images that contribute to the general destabilization of the real. Tiffany does not join these Jeremiahs, for he sees the enhanced status of the virtual and the fantastic as rooted in prophetic science and its reconfiguration of the conditions of existence. "Toy Medium" offers not so much an apologia for the materialist vision as a manifesto for the part that poets and the forging of poetic language has played and can play in the new atomic order of reality. He wants to persuade us against accepting a divide between art's truth and science's facts. "The view that poetry and scientific materialism are essentially at odds," he writes, "rests on a superficial knowledge of the history of materialism. This view is not only mistaken, I want to insist; it is dangerously misleading, because it implies that poetry can recover a place in public discourse only as a radical alternative to science, a position inevitably construed as anti-realist--and unrealistic."

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