Last week, The New Yorker ran a piece by Jonah Lehrer called “The Eureka Hunt,” about attempts by scientists to explain “the insight experience,” those “moments of insight” that lead to problem-solving breakthroughs. The story is mostly set inside the brain, tracing the efforts by various neuroscientists and others to pinpoint what happens in the brain during these epiphanies. In the end, Lehrer writes, “it remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot….” Lehrer quotes one researcher: “This mental process will always be a little unknowable…. At a certain point, you just have to admit that your brain knows more than you do.” I was surprised that the story didn’t examine the ways in which creative breakthroughs resemble scientific insights.
My thinking about the intersection of scientific and esthetic “eureka moments” took shape when I was a graduate student in the late 1960s. One of my most memorable teachers was Elizabeth Sewell, with whom I studied the works of the Romantics. Dr. Sewell, as I recall, had two intellectual idols: Joseph Needham, author of the monumental, multivolume Science and Civilization in China, and scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose many books include one very slight volume called The Tacit Dimension. When I first read The Tacit Dimension in 1969, its simple argument was new and exciting, at least to me: “I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell.” In discussing the physiology of perception, Polanyi writes: “Such operations resemble an integration of particulars by means of tacit knowing, and resemble, above all, the seeing and solving of a problem I have in mind, especially problems like that of composing a poem, inventing a machine, or making a scientific discovery.” This book seems to be almost completely unavailable (just 2 very expensive copies on Amazon), and nearly forgotten, which is a shame. (More on Sewell & Polanyi)
I was in love with Elizabeth Sewell, or at least infatuated with her, more because of her brilliance than her sex appeal, though she was not at all lacking in personal magnetism and attractiveness. In 1969, she would have been 50 to my 23, but after my year of study with her at Fordham University ended, she did invite me to her apartment for dinner, at least once, maybe twice. No overt moves were made, but I sensed the invitation might have been about more than dinner. I dismissed those thoughts—I was interested in more of a spiritual bond with her, and I also thought I was just imagining things. But then I heard a year or two later that she had married a former student, many years her junior. In any case, I don't believe in marriage before age 36. (see also)
I had never before met anyone like her in my young, Bronx-bound life. Born in India to English parents, she held a doctorate from Cambridge, and had published several books of poems, a number of novels, and a handful of critical studies, the best known and most important of which is The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, dedicated to Michael Polanyi and to an answer to the question: “What power and place has poetry in the living universe?” Although I was able to find, and read, one of her novels, two books of her poems, three of her works of criticism (The Structure of Poetry, The Field of Nonsense, and her short study of Paul Valéry), The Orphic Voice resisted my efforts to take it in, and I have only dipped in and out of it. Still, I remain awed by Elizabeth’s intellectual daring in attempting to reconcile poetry and science.
A few years ago, when my friend Joan Retallack asked to borrow my copy of Sewell's study of nonsense literature, The Field of Nonsense, I realized how much Joan reminded me of Elizabeth Sewell—the same intense intellectual passion, scholarly imagination, stunning critical brilliance. I am positive Elizabeth would have devoured Joan’s book, The Poethical Wager (which I promise I did read and love). “The aim of my essay projects,” Joan writes, “is to attend to alternative kinds of sense and—if possible, if lucky—to come up with some oddly relevant, frankly partial meanings.” Elsewhere, in discussing John Cage’s compositions, she writes: “In this way one’s consciousness is invited to venture beyond, although not to entirely abandon, its most habitual and intrusive preconceptions and intentions. This probative wandering sets the scene for the Ah Ha! experience not only in Zen and the arts and sciences but in any adventuresome investigation.”
[Joan Retallack, Lynne Dreyer, Tina Darragh]
My other great and inspiring teacher at Fordham is Richard Giannone, with whom I studied American fiction (and with whom I am still friends). He has written beautifully on Willa Cather, Keats, and, most especially, Flannery O’Connor. In 1968, Richard’s way of reading a novel—by the close examination of particular words and images in the text rather than via plot and character analysis—was a revelation to me. I always say that he taught me to read.
I came upon a tiny obituary for Elizabeth Sewell in The Washington Post in 2001, reporting that she had passed away in Greensboro, North Carolina, on January 12 of that year, at age 81. This is from her book Signs and Cities:
For Anyone Who Has Lost Anyone
D.R.S., February, 1967
They are gone to their host,
To the board, to the blessing,
To the gathering welcome;
They are gone to the dance,
To the giving and taking,
To the wreaths and the garlands;
From the calling and crying,
They are gone to their own,
To the lights, to the singing,
To the turning and finding;
To summers of sweetness
From bodies and spirits