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.