The March of Intellect – London March for Science

At the dawn of the Victorian age, change on the horizon, a time of “faith and doubt” (as Elizabeth Jay writes) emerged from one of disease, classism, and scientific guesswork — marked progress in some ways and many great detriments in others. This birth, and those to follow from generations to come, stirred imaginable controversy among citizens of Victorian Britain, who, afraid of change, were not always welcoming of its risks and benefits.


The March of Intellect, as it was referred, saw a divisive culture emerge from a climate of educational and scientific progress, with much of the British populous either fearing or embracing change in social standards, scientific progress, and educational reform. That same age saw revolutionary riots surge in England (the Spa Field and Peterloo Riots killing and injuring many) in the wake of the end of the Napoleonic wars which left the country bereft of sufficient resources. With the industrial revolution in full effect, a need for educational change fueled the division, and debate ensued, peaking the public’s interest through satire and bitter division around 1820.


In 2017, some two hundred years later, echoes of the past repeat themselves as though we have learned nothing from the fear they harbour still but this: that humanity will repeat its sins again and again until the lesson is learned, and even then, human nature will be of consistent trouble to ‘rein in’.
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I have watched the United Kingdom react to Trump’s election, inauguration, and subsequent executive orders and politico-social faux pas. There is a consensus among the people of the United Kingdom’s educational centres (Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, etc) that Trump and his elected appointees are doing no good for the march of intellect.


Digitally, I watched as citisens of the digital age posted their preparatory motivation to march (this is to say, to heed the call to political action) to the “March for Science” Facebook group and event — ‘I march because I need a cure for cancer‘, ‘I march for my daughter‘, ‘I march for my students‘ — all reasons deserving of applause, all encouraging of a feeling of emotional and intellectual solidarity in a time of great need of such for the scientific and academic communities facing detriments to funding, acceptance, and educational value to their work as propaganda circulates the web and their physical mailboxes.


I watched London march with boots on the ground, photographing the English protesting in the most English way possible — politely, often quietly, and with pun-laden signs contingent on the dialect of the region (one sign of particular interest: “data scientist, don’t hate a scientist“) — wondering whether the climate was a bit more raucous back in Scotland. And so, with the introverted masses yearning to secure funding and a healthier future for our environment, debating verbal annotations to the popular chants including “what do we want?”“climate change!”“when do we want it?”“on an appropriate geological timescale!” and “what do we want?”“science!” — “when do we want it?” — “after peer review!” in murmurs, we marched on Parliament: children of all ages, men, women, and everyone who finds themselves in between left their beakers and books at home and took to the streets.

My personal ties to the scientific community are no secret, but as a researcher in English Literature (specifically, Victorian) and a student journalist, my own reasons were more general, as I again hear the academic call to arms of some two centuries ago sounding sickening, clearly:

I march for intellect.

I will march for the freedom of progress, for the ability to remain faithful to whatever faith I choose, and for law that will dictate that that faith shall not intercept the progress for which I advocate. I will march for art, for education, for women, for men, and for every pivotal point of intellectual intersectionality which harkens the need for more research, more thought, and more accessibility to both.
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And yes, I march because I, too, need a cure for cancer. Because while you are free to place your faith in the fact that God guides the hands of the Doctors, researchers, and chemists who treat your loved one’s ailments, God also ‘helps he who helps himself’ — and no God, should you choose to believe in one, will not do the work for you — because magic is not found at the crux of faith. I march because I, too, would like to feel safe bringing a daughter into the world if and when the occasion ever strikes me, and because I, too, should like to say to her when she asks me ‘why‘ I marched: “I will show you a thousand reasons why“, and so explain to her in any tiny piece of the world she points to (perhaps I hope, her reflection) why science matters. I, too, march for my students — so that they may enter a world in which they fear no truth.

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“By Yon Bonnie Banks” – Flowers on the Bank of Loch Lomond (On Victorian Love, Lost)

While everyone back in the United States is talking about St. Patrick’s Day, Scotland is fairly quiet. One of the most iconic emblems of the holiday, choruses of “Danny Boy” will probably float from the corner pubs across the country, invariably, at one point or another. But as a Scottish-American kid, I didn’t feel that same surge of emotion which accompanies a cultural connection to a piece of music — beautiful and as perfect as Danny Boy seemed, he just wasn’t for me.

Instead, I had “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, another iconic piece of folk music from the British Isles centering around themes of profound loss and departure, and this seems to fit the bill in producing the requisite overflow of tears when played at an emotional time (for best results, pair with a twelve-year Scotch, building stress from academic research, and a litany of questionable life choices).

I visited Loch Lomond in recent weeks, and despite the freezing cold weather which usually deters tourists at this time of year, it was, expectedly, as beautiful as the song suggests, and suddenly it became clear why everyone goes into a tizzy of romantic daydreams at the sight of it.

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I have to imagine that the fury of emotion associated with the triumphantly tragic tune and romantic setting is partly due to the older generations’ propensity for holding in emotions and a cultural pride in the ability to sequester them to the unaccessible depths of the psyche. It is something of an unspoken rule, particularly among men of a certain age, from certain parts of Scotland, that emotions are to be kept largely under-expressed lest weakness be shown, building pressure and tension until they are forced outward, typically by negative stimuli. The classic melody of a tender song has the ability to prod at those feelings in a different way, and on this I base my theory as to, partly, why the piece is still so incredibly popular here.

I expected to do the shoot, explore, enjoy the day, take in some lunch from a local place, chat with locals, and head back to Partick. In many ways, this is what I did. I hadn’t planned any invasive measures given the cold, and expected some generic shots as I was getting a feel for the place. Then I saw it.

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On one of the more accessible banks, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed carefully, quietly  — wrapped in celophane as they had been purchased, untouched — a gift for an unknown lost lover, lost life, or lost moment in time, placed by the hands of someone ultimately, intimately familiar with the feelings “Loch Lomond” evokes. It stopped me in my tracks and suddenly, this piece of litter, by definition, became the focus of my mind for weeks to come.

The simple image produces a thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, all never to be answered, and suddenly all the research in the world is useless. Was the person who placed the flowers young, or old? Were they mourning, or celebrating? Were they angry, or at peace? Are they still in pain? Are they still in love? Did they do it for others to see, or for themselves to enjoy — or was it for both purposes?

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But the burning question underlying any and all endeavours to understand photography, from an artist point of view, was the unpleasant rhetorical question: ‘Well. Who does this remind you of?’

I am a researcher of Victorian literature. I have read Kate Greenaway’s “Language of Flowers”, released in 1884, which captivated the attention of the people by providing significance to floral arrangements — sometimes used to express emotions which otherwise may have been sequestered just in the way I have described above. By the definition of that book, white lilies are emblems of purity, of sweetness.

I have read, of course, the origins of the song, published in the 1840s, author unknown. I have read essays on the significance of Victorian photography as an avenue by which to better understand and contextualise Victorian literature. Importantly, as noted by Jennifer Green-Lewis in her paper “Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography” for the Victorian Review in 2008:

Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.


I have only ever learned, in all I have learned, that in many cases, there just are no words. Sometimes, there are just reminders, signs, and things which prod at that ever-heightening emotional tension. No analyses from which to base an understanding. No discussion needing to be had. No broader context. No benefit to any of it. Sometimes it’s not a song that makes you remember.

Sometimes it’s just the privilege of imagining and empathising with the shared struggles of another human being, gifting flowers to the banks of a landmark long associated with patriotism, lost love…

And to the sustenance, in my case, of a fuzzy memory of a bus ride home, singing the chorus under my breath.

‘Floral’ Prose: Latent Victoriana in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens

Many parts of Glasgow are a step back in time, and an academic immersion in literature produced between 1800 and 1900 is of little help to the time warp feel of the old tenement buildings with their stained glass windows and decorative ironwork. Architectural details bring on the Victorian vibe, the weather, the gothic.

A visit to the Botanic Gardens of Glasgow, located in close proximity to the University, provide a tempting escape [from class…] and a temple in which to regard a confluence of that very iron and glass which wreaks havoc upon a student’s ability to understand time and place after reading for eight hours without stopping. It is possible in this to lose emotion, feeling, and forget their presence, particularly when considering oneself a welcome visitor in a land before technology. So I cut class and visited the gardens in the hope of a solitary reprieve devoid of my academic woes and research concerns, only to reach an unfortunate, if beautiful conclusion.

The “Language of Flowers”, distributed in one of its most popular incarnations with the version by Kate Greenaway in 1884, allowed for a commonly-believed ‘faithless’ era to regain some backing to the femininity so underscored by descriptive writing of the time. Poetry of the Victorian era, from Swinburne and Rossetti to the reflections of Victorian-born expatriate T.S. Eliot, allowed for a reprieve from the darkness of society and the gray streets and skies of the United Kingdom. The meaning of floral communication is deeply rooted in Victorian representations of love, affection, and betrayal. Imagery of nature abounds during times of industrial and technological accomplishment, and today’s world, with its romanticisation of windblown, poetic commentary in the most widely-received contemporary poetry and prose is no different.

Stepping into the gardens is a step back in time and provides a reprieve from the world analogous to the poetry and prose of the era which created it. Therein, the novelty of global travel is embodied and captured for display, authentically showcased in private and behind iron like so many Victorian treasures, and a walk from one room to the next will allow for an around-the-world-in-eighty-minutes style survey of the best of the best.

Academics, when of great interest, are inescapable, and walking through the gardens only succeeded in reminding me not only of the intensity of natural, floral imagery in Victorian fiction, poetry, and even critical writing, but of my own heart and emotions underlying the austerity necessary for a devotion to research and critical analysis. It is a duality of focus, a confluence of critical thought and emotional understanding, and my mind gravitated ever-more towards Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ as each viewpoint and perspective provided due compositional quality:

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A refuge of warmth in a bitingly cold city, the gardens are worth a visit even if not for reflection, but for a brand of peace which focuses more heavily on a redirection of thought towards ones original interests. Macro photography not only captures the essence of floral being, but the feeling of the setting under which the subject is photographed by providing an obscured abstraction of the background. For all intents and purposes, the botanic gardens offer a refocusing on the critical and a release of the severe.

Confluence and Consilience: Nouveau-Disparity Between Research and the Liberal Arts as Echoed by Victorian Literature and Analysis Thereof

Literature and art fall under the discipline, jurisdiction, and care of the humanities, and in all aspects of this (appropriate) jurisdiction in the world of academia, there they find themselves duly criticized, examined, and pulled to pieces in the name of the advancement of the fields and subfields to which they owe their allegiance. This fraternization amongst themselves over the course of many centuries is a well-established and unbreakable bond, the survival of which both as practiced art and as debate fodder has long been critical to the advancement of the humanities, and of academics – this is to say, of proper academics.

A great majority of the faculty of the world’s contemporary universities and colleges take great care to educate their students as thoroughly as possible – but there are certain elements of education which are left as responsibility of the student to find for themselves: lessons to arrive at after the choice to enter further study, beyond those four years of work towards an undergraduate degree, marked typically by the entrance into a masters or doctoral program of study. Generally speaking, there is an unspoken division between the liberal arts and humanities and the “hard” sciences – engineering, medicine, and mathematics – which is rarely regarded but which finds a voice when approached as an analogy to the study of Victorian literature and academic rhetoric in particular. This division is heightened and defined almost exclusively by a critical and obvious difference: manner, employment of, and methodology of research. Here we find an analogy which relates back to the division between the sciences and humanities of Victorian times.

In examining excerpts of writings by Corinna Wagner, Matthew Arnold, and Charles Baudelaire in particular under the microscopy of collegiate analysis (as was recently necessary for the completion of reading for the first seminars of my graduate career), it is clear to see interconnection between these fields, as always – but the meaning behind this connectivity is heightened due to the particular subject matter in which one is immersed when presented with their underlying combination of ideas. With a great focus on Victorian-era literature and medicine for the materials of one course (hence the writings of Wagner), and a great focus on modernity and decadence for the other (the writings of Arnold, Baudelaire), the urgency of the need for further unification is noticeable in the context of contemporary academic disparity.

Consilience, per the use of the term in the context in which it is introduced in Corinna Wagner’s work, A Body Of Work: An Anthology Of Poetry And Medicine, implies in this case a call – (even an urgency) for consideration of unity between poetry and science. It calls for a greater understanding that a marriage of the sciences and arts is necessary for the development and evolution of both – and for an historic comprehension of the implications of the division between the sciences and the arts at the turn of the 19th century CE. Resurfacing throughout readings by the other authors mentioned are synonyms of this same word which exist to perpetuate the same meaning in the same general context – specifically, this theme is supported by the writings of both Arnold and Baudelaire heartily. Where Wagner’s work provides a contemporary analysis of the historic implications of the division between art and science, Arnold and Baudelaire give way to academic introspection by giving us the opportunity to look back from our future points – realizing that not much ever changes.

Modernity, again, per the use of the term contextually in Arnold’s work in particular, On The Modern Element in Literature, is described best by verse itself through his illustration of the broader spans of its potential application to the advancement of human thought and society:

 

“And everywhere there is connexion, everywhere there is illustration: no single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures” … “to know how others stand; that we may know how we ourselves stand; and to know how we ourselves stand, that we may correct our mistakes and achieve our deliverance – that is our problem” (p.21: paraphrasing in second part the then-Chancellor of Cambridge).

 

Those in pursuit of the intellectual deliverance, a term Arnold uses to describe the academic equivalent of moral deliverance, will find it being “demanded less universally” (p.19), to examine the ‘collective life of humanity’ – relating again back to the consilience so necessary to properly do so. The connectivity between the aims of the works – though from two different time periods – is undeniable.

Arnold is so fervently committed to expressing the danger posed to the greater good of academics in his expression of the need for unity in the field of literature that, at one point, he asserts an opinion highly insightful for his time – that a lack of “profitableness” posed a challenge to the advancement of the field of literature (20). Research universities and their departments are notoriously focused on the acquisition and maintenance of funding – at times, a detriment to their students. Likewise, liberal arts universities and their departments can be notoriously bad at getting funding – also to the detriment of their students. The ever-clearer disparity between the umbrella disciplines presents a certain, and again-growing potential division between the arts and the sciences – a task of those who seek ‘intellectual deliverance’ to moderate – and a problem which is largely unspoken as neither type of University seems to acknowledge the potential existence of, or solution to its respective shortcomings.

Wagner places a great many poets at the forefront of her anthology, whose presence in their respective medical fields were also profound and critical, many thus exemplifying the connective quality between the two fields, per the purposes of the anthology’s publication. Among those gracing the pages of the anthology’s introduction are the words of Sir Humphry Davy, a renaissance man whose publication of the 1805 essay “Parallels Between Art and Science” includes these profound lines which offer such critical, poetic support Wagner’s central ideology: “A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery” ([1805] 1840: 308). Wagner’s inclusion of these words, penned at the hands of one who was so intrinsically tied to the pursuit of both the advancement of the sciences and the arts exists as the embodiment of the character detailed by Arnold – that is, the personal character required to truly serve the advancement of not just academia, but knowledge as an institution – believed to hold the ability to remove the sword from the proverbial stone. Arnold’s implication that one who understands, communicates well with others of his age, and interprets the value of the information he is receiving will be “one of his age’s intellectual deliverers” (21) stands as powerful, prophetic, poetic ponderance for the contemporary academic.

In an ironic, cross-disciplinary crossing of stars, Charles Baudelaire includes a passage which details a well-described subject who Baudelaire finds to be in the ideal image of one who is, by Arnold’s definition, truly capable of, and who frequently contributes to, the intellectual deliverance of his age: “Sometimes he is a poet; more often he comes closer to the novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of the eternity that it contains. Every country, to its pleasure and glory, has possessed a few men of this stamp.” (5)

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The unique, correlative quality not only of the underlying thematic warnings of these writings, but of their greater sense of hope for the condition of the intellectual human being and all he is capable of speaks not only to the steadfast and unchanging quarrels, splendors, and solidarity of the human condition, but harkens our attention to the presence of these situations in our continuing, contemporary life. Here, we are called by the correlative value of these works into service to humankind – and thus we call into question within ourselves whether we are truly capable of being that great, multidisciplinary artist, philosopher, and scientist – whether we are truly capable of contributing in any small way with our pitiful pondering to the intellectual deliverance of our age… Whether we are capable of preventing the re-rupture of research and the liberal arts. And, lastly, whether we are capable of allowing their confluence for the greater benefit of today in an attempt to allow the tenets of modernity to exist to their fullest capacity if only as historic iconography with the rapid and daily transformation of the classroom.

These readings provided insight into two distinct areas, interrelating at different historic, literary, sociological, and artistic junctures: for analytical purposes in this circumstance, specifically both the attempts to define modernity and to seek its benefits with the implied intent of the furtherance of intercommunication between the arts and humanities – and the existence of this initial division, often with the arts portrayed as the jilted lover, pining and retaliating with even more abundant, prosaic, absurdist expression than usual, unchecked, while the sciences closed themselves off into their work, holding up in a windowless laboratory, building internally upon itself, but both with no balance to their impressive and all-consuming natures due to this division.

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It is a tale of heartbreak – of love lost whose resurgence and tentative reappearance in the challenges faced by research universities versus those with central or exclusive focus on the liberal arts too often prevent collaborative structures to be built together. There, their sandcastles fall with no balanced ratio of water to sand at the mercy of the tide: as a diplomatic and powerless observer in love with both sides, I too am at its mercy and have only the contributive efforts of my work, little as they are.

When I find the origin of thought that I may be in over my head as a native of the liberal arts in a research environment, I instead discover both the boldness and the desire to inhale the salty brine which consumes my minutes and files the alveoli of my lungs until there is no place left for air, and in so doing, find also that, all along, I have possessed the ability to breathe underwater – and that, thusly, the separation between the liberal arts and research may in fact be the new-age division between science and the humanities may in fact be fallacy, preventable through the thought, analysis, and artistic reflection – all of which captured and embodied by the writings of Wagner, Arnold, and Bauledaire.

In no longer fearing the decomposition of my person in this foreign but so loved and familiar environment, I embrace thoroughly that which is my new element and seek its entrance into my body entirety, wrapping within the fibres of my tissues and within the intricacies of my exterior anatomy – here I find both the wont and addictive need to continue, and the grace to survive what to the world may present as danger or potential academic death, but to me seems the opportunity for a new birth.

Consilience echoes waves through a sea of academics, vying for spaces in the top tiers of the ivory tower – plunging into our ears with vast recourse as the waters rise as reminder of the critical nature not only of consilience, but of confluence: and under the weight of such water, we must at the shore wait for the tide.