A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Month: December 2015

Pattern-topics, Part 1

The most interesting part (to me) of the UNC class instructions that I mentioned recently was the suggestion of two ways to create a good paper topic:  Patterns and Problems.  I like them both, but I think patterns are better suited to natures born litterati, not me.  I’ll talk about patterns, “the recurrence of certain kinds of imagery or events,” here.  Problem-topics come next.

Some patterns are easy to find: they’re the things that jump out at me. They were noticeable because the author painted them red so I’d see them. Example:  In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction, a character’s height is strongly related to his or her authority.

Aragorn was the tallest of the Company, but Boromir, little less in height…” LotR, II,iii.


Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord…” LotR, II,vii

I’m not even going to look it up — I know someone smarter than me has already written a paper on that.  Re-plowing that ground would be OK for under-grad work. The objective here is to do something original.  Finding and explicating these patterns is mostly a matter of careful reading to make sure I got all the references. This would be useful for a reading group, so everybody’s up to speed, but it is not useful for adding new understanding.

Prof. Olsen frequently talks about patterns as topics that are good for a potential paper. However, like any good teacher, he always leaves the critical element for the student to find.  In this case, that is the answer to the “So what?” problem.  A pattern by itself can’t give you that.

I’m not trying to avoid patterns entirely, of course.  They’re ideal as supporting evidence within a larger topic.  Here’s a great example:  Tom Hillman, in an essay about Gollum’s near brush with repentance, observes that that there was only one time in LotR that the narrator says “Sméagol” instead of “Gollum”, which reinforces the idea that Gollum really was close to redemption in that instant. JRRT constructed a subtle pattern, and then broke it to draw attention. This kind of subtlety is the mark of a real master.  I never even noticed that, until Tom pointed it out.  (Bravo!)

Structure of an Analysis Report

What should this research report look like when I get done?  I last took an English class when Jimmy Carter was president, and didn’t like it much. I only got “A”s because I gamed the grading system. As a consequence of those youthful traumas, I have no desire for this project to generate papers like English teachers assign. But I’d better review those instructions, at least because they contain a list of mistakes not to make, and also because it would be horribly embarrassing to overlook anything that’s in them.

My favorite search engine can find me a million sources that will tell me how to write a literary analysis. What do I find?  Three generic classes of misses, two hits.

I’ll skip all the parts of Prof. Olsen’s lecture that deal with the propensity of students to do the minimum necessary for a grade, since I am a passed master at that now-useless skill. Beyond chasing grades, though, anyone who thinks up his conclusion first and then looks for evidence to support it is an enemy of all true scientists, and not welcome to our fellowship. I have no need for encouragement on that point.

I am definitely going to take Prof. Olsen’s advice about “deductive” versus “inductive” approaches to writing. Inductive papers are the papers I’ve most enjoyed reading.

Tom Hillman tells me that literary analysis should be approached the same way as scientific analysis, which suggests another possibility.  A standard lab report consists of:

  1. The subject under study.
  2. The hypothesis to be investigated.
  3. The method to be used, including apparatus and procedures
  4. Experimental observations
  5. Discussion of results
  6. Conclusion

This has echoes of the dreaded five-paragraph essay, but step #3 is the critical difference.  The idea that a research report would have to define its methods and equipment is fairly new. For example, Sparrow gives credit to the Lexos tool, which is the first time I’ve seen it in print.  As more of us scientists get into the field, though, expect more of it. I don’t imagine that it would get a good reception if we used numbered sections the way we do in a scientific journal, but burying the structure in a narrative flow would work.

This fits in nicely with the inductive structure. The hypothesis can be expressed as a question, where a thesis statement is supposed to sound like a settled fact. Expressing it as a question raises an issue, while neatly solving the problem with induction that Prof. Olsen pointed out — that the reader doesn’t know where the paper is going until the end. Then the experimental-observations section forms the inductive chain, and the discussion section ties it all into a coherent whole. The conclusion section answers the essential “So What?”

Historical Note

This exercise was prompted by a discussion on one of Sorina’s forums:  “I’d like to write a literary analysis, but I’m a scientist.”  She suggested that I get an M.A. in Literature, and then write a book.  Two objections to that: 1) I need a master’s degree like I need a hole in the head; 2) I just finished three years working as the ground crew for my wife as she earned an M.S., and I’m not interested in continuing the experience in the first person.  So I’ll stay an amateur for now, on my good days, and a dilettante otherwise.

Ages of Magic: 2 or 3?

In several Mythgard Academy classes, the distinction between the two types of magic has come up:  magia versus goeteia. Doing magic, through your own knowledge and mastery, versus summoning up a spirit who can help you out.  That’s usually described as “high magic” versus “black magic”, but I prefer to call it thaumaturgy versus conjury.  It looked to me at first like Mr. Norrell’s mission, at the start of JS&MrN, is to replace the latter with the former.

Tom Shippey informs us that C.S. Lewis is all over this. It’s well-trodden ground among the Inklings. There’s a disconnection in JS&MrN, though.  The change from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, which Susanna Clarke delightfully calls “Aureate” and “Argentine”, is contemporaneous with the change from the Plantagenets to the Tudors, and from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  If that transition has already happened, what’s going on in the 19th Century? I see two possibilities:

  1. The original transition was botched.
  2. Norrell is pushing the magical equivalent of the Industrial Revolution.

The argument for the first is that the Argentines don’t seem to have been as powerful as the Aureates. Historical progress in England around that time tended towards increasing control over the physical world.  The change from direct conjury of forces of nature to keeping a fairy servant around the house is a step downward in mastery. (Or maybe it’s because Argentine magicians never got any sleep.)

The argument for the second is that a hundred cues in the surroundings indicate that history in the novel matches ours closely.  They point us, who know what’s coming next, towards the industrial.  So Norrell might be trying to institute an Iron Age of English Magic.  It will be up to those who come long after, to decide if the Age will be Ferrous or Ferric.  After magia and goeteia comes scientia, just not the same way as in our history.

So, for those keeping score:  I found a review by Corey Olsen, of a book that contained an article by Tom Shippey, who was reviewing an obscure book by C.S. Lewis, who was writing about “Drab Age” English literature, which was written about the actual world, real or imagined.  This may turn out to be the hardest part of literary analysis – it’s turtles, a long way down.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Finally got caught up with the Mythgard Academy class on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  There are two things that didn’t get mentioned, so I’ll put my takes on them here.

The Gentleman with the Thistle-down Hair tossed two children out of a tower, and thought it was worthy of commemoration.  I’m pretty sure he did that on behalf of Richard III.

There was a long discussion about how the above-mentioned Gentleman didn’t seem to attach any significance to the color of Stephen Black’s skin apart from the aesthetic. It’s like he didn’t even see the difference between black-skinned people and white-skinned people.  That reminded me of this passage:

To sheep, other sheep no doubt appear different.  Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business. (LotR II.i.311)

I wonder if, even in a book that has nothing to do with Middle-Earth, JRRT’s influence didn’t intrude itself on Susanna Clarke’s writing.

Why am I butting in?

Why should a physicist be sticking his nose into literary analysis, anyway?  Some recent news bumped this up in the queue of things I have to think about.

It’s a fact of life that elderly physicists have a tendency to wander outside their area of expertise. In theoretical physics, all but the most brilliant tend to peak in their 30’s.  So what do you do with the next 4-5 decades of your life? Alas, some of us decide we should do research in some other field, with lamentable results.  So how do I know I’m not That Guy, and about to make a fool of myself?

I think this is the answer:  Literature, like history and unlike science, is not about absolute truths. It’s about the relationship between a reader and a text.  This may be the most profound thing I’ve learned from Mythgard Academy: that the writer doesn’t get to say what the meaning of a work is; the reader does.  I infer that literary analysis doesn’t have a stopping point, because every new reader brings a new relationship along.  (After all, there are still hundreds of universities advertising degrees in Shakespeare Studies.)  So there’s plenty of room for my perspective, as long as I can find something interesting to say.

Scientists have a (possibly unfair) advantage, too.  The spectacular achievements of the sciences over the last couple of centuries have the denizens of the rest of the trees in the Groves of Academe looking on with envy. Example:  Michael Drout talking about how cool it is to be able to say “the prototype is on my desk”.  Another example: all the positive reactions to Sparrow Alden’s statistical analysis of The Hobbit. Bringing quantitative analysis to bear on literature is a wide-open field.  Conclusion:  between a unique perspective and new methods of analysis, I can jump into this field without certainty of disaster.


The Mid-Atlantic Speculative Fiction Symposium, which I attended in October 2015, was a literary conference under the aegis of the Mythgard Institute. Mythgard may be a unique institution.  It’s a school of the liberal arts in which half of the participants are people who know literary scholarship well, and the other half are scientists with no particular knowledge outside our own specialties. We (I count myself among the latter half) just love fantasy and science fiction, and want to talk about it.

By the end of the day, an observation was unavoidable: Talks given by the literati were just plain better than those given by the scientists. That’s not surprising, since a scattering cross-section calculated by a physicist is likely to be better than one calculated by an expert in Anglo-Saxon grammar, but it dampened my plans for contributing a talk myself. I want to give one of the good talks.

Searching the Web for a how-to was (predictably) fruitless. That means I’ll have to figure it out for myself.  This blog will document my attempt to find a way to create valuable literary scholarship, from a starting set of skills that have nothing to do with literature.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén