Monday, August 27, 2007

One vision, one knowledge, one love

(What follows is from the introductory notes I made for a reading at the Dingle Bookshop last Saturday evening.)

Susan Sontag, the essayist, once said (I rely on memory): "The great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant." Writing is all about making connections, tracing the threads that hold the world together. Some of those threads are physical: the gravity, for example, that holds your foot to the sod. Some of the threads are metaphorical: "Under the black weight of their own breathing," says Seamus Heaney in a poem about the Gallarus Oratory, tying breath to other elements of his poem, peat and stone. Scientific connections are communal -- public knowledge, the philosopher John Ziman calls it. Scientific metaphors are taut and resilient, so much so that they might not be recognized as metaphors at all. The writer's connections are more idiosyncratic (although no less exact), and depend for their effectiveness upon an unspoken alliance between author and reader. "The sea a censer," writes Heaney in the same poem; the metaphor works in the religious context of the poem, but finds its full usefulness only if the reader has experienced the glittering gold of the swinging liturgical vessel in a darkened sanctuary.

For thirty-seven years, I have lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Four books have emerged from this landscape -- two non-fiction, two fiction -- and more essays than I can count. All of them have begun in the landscape itself: the rock, the wet, the flora and fauna, the wind, the stars, the layers upon layers of human habitation. To this topography I have brought my own concerns, most especially this one: Learning to stand astonished in a world without miracles. I have tried to take the best of my religious heritage -- Roman Catholicism -- and marry it to the skeptical empiricism of my scientific education. "Nothing is too wonderful to be true," wrote the early 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday. I would turn the phrase on its ear: Nothing is too true to be wonderful. In my writing I have sought to show how the reliable, communal truths of science infuse the world with wonder. How? By making connections.

Like many of you, I suppose, I was raised in a tradition that makes distinctions between natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, body and soul, law and miracle. If I have learned anything from my lifelong study of science, it is that these distinctions are not only artificial, they serve to fragment a world that might be more usefully viewed entire. As a writer, I try to cast a net of metaphors -- scientific and writerly -- that catches up the world as one. In that task, as Susan Sontag said, nothing is irrelevant.