Report: 2nd International Conference on Science and Literature,
7-9 September 2016, Pöllau, Austria
On a bright afternoon in September academics from across the world assembled in the pretty town of Pöllau for the second conference organised by the Commission on Science and Literature. Based in a castle room with an ornate door and frescoed ceiling we spent an enjoyable three days engaging with a wide range of international research on the intersections between literature and science.
The first panel focused on scientific and literary motifs. C. Canavas considered the intriguing question ‘Can an eclipse save lives?’, analysing a colonial motif that appears in nineteenth-century texts – Ryder Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – and is cleverly subverted in Augusto Monterosso’s ‘El Eclipse’ (1958). L. Dahan-Gaida then gave a paper on the iconic properties of the visual imagination in ‘Le diagramme entre écriturelittéraire et écrituresavante’, drawing upon critics’ descriptions of the act of imagination in the context of theories of the diagram. I then gave a paper on the concept of analogy, considering its use within the nineteenth-century synthetic philosophies of Herbert Spencer and Constance Naden, and drawing some parallels between this and analogy’s role in contemporary literature and science studies.
There was wonderful evening treat in the form of a one-woman play from Portrait Theatre called ‘Curie_Meitner_Lamarr_indivisible’. It was entertaining and enlightening in equal measure, and made important statements about the representation of women within the history of science.
The following day began with three papers on the theme ‘Metaphors, Models and Concepts in Science and Literature’ from individuals working at the ELINAS Centre at Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. K. Mecke’s paper ‘Narrated Nature: Towards a Narratology of Physics’ focused on the use of metaphors in relation to the measurement narrative that underlies all experiments. M. Sinding spoke about early discourses surrounding electromagnetism, comparing the fictive versus fictional models of Galvani and Mesmer and then reading passages of William Blake’s ‘Milton’ in the context of these. M. Wolff then gave an impressive paper on Paul Celan and magnetism, offering a close reading of his 1967 poem ‘Magnetic Blue’; she has found in this ‘encyclopaedic lyric’ a densely-packed web of references to contemporary physics.
The next session began with D. Gamito Marques, who spoke about Fernando Pessoa’s use of his literary persona ‘Álvero de Campos’ to elaborate upon his Malthusian Laws of sensibility whereby the elimination of Christian dogmas was required for the improvement of society. This was followed by P. Choay-Lescar’s richly-illustrated paper ‘Walt Whitman’s anatomical autobiography’ in which she argued for understanding ‘Leaves of Grass’ as ‘a poetic anatomical treatise’ via the themes of transformation, exhibition, revelation, and reconstruction. J. Hayden then gave a paper titled ‘The Vain Follies of Philosophers: John Lyly and the Copernican Debate in Early Modern England’, through which she drew the unexpected conclusion that Lyly was looking back to an Aristotelian model of perfection rather than engaging with newer models of the universe. Finally, L. Talairach-Vielmas, spoke on medical practice and the gothic novel, focusing on the trope of the dead body on display in ‘The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey’ (1797) in the context of debates surrounding public dissections.
After lunch we were treated to a panel on scientists and literature, which began with W. Abberley’s paper ‘Seeing Things: Protective Mimicry and the Value of Misperception in the Victorian Naturalist’s Memoir’. Abberley focused on the career of Henry Walter Bates and described how accounts of being deceived by natural illusions are fraught with the possibility of scientists vicariously experiencing the perceptions of non-human species. G. Tampakis then spoke about the importance of Katharevousa (‘the clean language’) to Greek intellectual culture in the nineteenth century, arguing that nationalism combined with language served to drive scientific rhetoric. A. Aylward concluded the panel with his paper ‘What’s in a Word?: H. G. Wells and the Identity of the “Scientist” in British Popular Writing, 1895-1925’. He interrogated the current use of the term ‘scientist’ in work on ‘men of science’ in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain by identifying how rarely it actually appears in scientific publications (specifically Nature) and in Wells’ writings.
The day’s final panel focused on science fiction, beginning with R. Meyer-Spasche’s consideration of how ‘Science Fiction Meets Reality’ in Hannes Alfven’s remarkably prescient vision of future computers in the 1966 short story ‘The Great Computer’. V. Schmitt then spoke from Brazil via Skype, giving a paper about hereditary theories and the question of science versus faith in Zola’s last novel ‘Dr. Pascal’, elaborating on the titular character’s scientific credo and the concept of scientific modernity in the late nineteenth century. G. Vlahakis closed the day with his discussion of Jules Verne’s political and ideological views through the lens of his books, asking provocatively whether he and the utopias he described can be best understood as communist or racist. The delegates were then taken to a lovely traditional Austrian restaurant, in which we were treated to many fantastic local dishes and were able to toast the success of the conference.
The next morning we turned to consider the intersections of medicine and literature, beginning with Ji-Eun Kim’s interesting paper on ‘Transatlantic New Woman Doctors and Medical Technologies’. She described three late nineteenth-century novels that took female doctors as their heroines and drew out how these might reflect prevailing anxieties and prejudices surrounding women as medical practitioners. M. Simonin then introduced us to three French memoirs about illness from the past few decades; she illuminated the relationship between medical texts and lived realities, focusing upon writers’ vacillation between internal and external awareness. The closing paper of the conference was ‘Medicine in Arabic Literature: a postcolonial view’, presented by M. Rius-Piniés. By considering pieces of literature that spanned two centuries she offered an illuminating account of the inherently imperial nature of Western medicine, and how Arabic novels and memoirs have engaged with and interrogated the often strained relationship between competing medical discourses.
After this panel, all that was left to do was take some final photos of picturesque Pöllau, exchange contact details with fellow scholars, thank once again the fantastic organisers and hosts, and spend a bus journey back to Vienna airport ruminating on new ideas sparked and new connections made.
University of Birmingham