Communion Of Dreams


Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

(This is one of my newspaper columns from Columbia Daily Tribune, updated with links. Thought it might be of interest while I am away for a few days.  – JD)

Harry Potter and the Superstring Revolution

One of my favorite String Theory blogs (yeah, I have rather eclectic interests) recently got into a discussion of the new Harry Potter movie. Even hard-core physicists like to discuss movies in addition to the latest research into 11-dimension supergravity and the advantages of D-branes over M-theory. Which is good, because when these people start throwing around the advanced math wizardry needed to really understand these concepts I’m just a Muggle. But if they talk movies or art, I can chime in with the best of them.

Anyway, the discussion of Goblet of Fire turned into a debate of whether or not the Potter books themselves should really be considered literature. And, frankly, it was rather funny to watch a bunch of really smart people try and wrestle with something so completely outside of their field of training. Sure, most of them had taken some lit classes while undergrads, but they were working with tools not really suited to the problem. It’d be like me, with a little bit of math from college 25 years ago, trying to engage one of them on the validity of the Superstring Revolution. I might have a general understanding of the issues involved, but I’m completely unequipped to contribute anything meaningful to the debate in the language of science.

What was really interesting about this, though, was that none of them saw it that way. They were all certain that their opinions of literature, as an intellectual exercise, were completely valid. They had fallen into the trap of thinking that their likes or dislikes in literature was all that was necessary to have an informed debate.

This is a common problem with all the arts. Non-artists usually think that their personal preferences are all that matters. If someone doesn’t like a Pollock drip painting, then it isn’t “art.” If they think that opera is boring, then that’s sufficient to consider it outmoded and useless. And conceptual art . . . well, it’s beyond the conceptual boundary horizon for most folks and so doesn’t even exist. Might as well be magic.

Furthermore, if you challenge these opinions people will get really indignant and defensive. They don’t want to hear that an understanding of the issues involved is necessary to appreciate some art. The old line “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” will pop up in one form or another very quickly.

And on one level, that’s OK. I wouldn’t think of telling someone that they couldn’t form an opinion about what they like or dislike in art any more than I would consider telling them what they liked to eat for breakfast. But if you’ve never even heard of eggs, how can you have an opinion on the proper preparation of a nice quiche? It’d be like having strong feelings about word choice in the translation of Rilke’s Der Schwan when you don’t speak German. Sure, you can have an opinion, but it’s not something I’m going to take particularly seriously.

This isn’t to say that only an ‘expert’ can have a valid opinion about art. Hardly. By its very nature art is designed to elicit a response even in the uninformed. It’s perfectly OK to say “I like that painting.” Or, “I don’t care for opera.” But when someone starts to try and talk about the validity of a particular work of art (or music, literature, et cetera), they need to know what they’re talking about. Otherwise, people will treat you like the guy sitting in the sports bar who keeps yelling “pass the ball” at the TV during the baseball game. Or, perhaps more appropriately, like the guy at the Quidditch match who keeps calling for a relief pitcher.

Jim Downey


1 Comment so far
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True enough, all around. It can be interesting to listen to people try to wrestle their usual vocabulary around a question outside their usual metier, however. You can get some new perspectives on otherwise-mundane matters. I think one of my favourite theatre reviews went something like (with the language cleaned up a bit) that no play that had an act longer than the reviewer’s bladder could tolerate could possibly be any good.

Wish the post was still out there and easy to find. Would be interesting to see just where the conversation went, and why. I’ve seen people argue that something is not good literature because it did not comport to known science, and I’d be interested to know if the string theorists ended up in that direction.

The current discussion on on that blog about science v. religion is interesting enough.

Comment by ML




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