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February 18, 2004

Frederick Turner

Dear Friedrich --

I just discovered that the amazing Frederick Turner -- whose moving and beautiful poetry collection April Wind (buyable here) I recently read, and whose just-as-fabulous New Classical manifesto The Culture of Hope (buyable here) I'm treating myself to for a second time -- has also written some columns for TechCentralStation. Here's an archive of them.

Have you run across his work yet? Turner's a very exciting figure. Teacher, poet, essayist ... He glommed onto the implications of the new science earlier than any other arts figure I'm aware of, and he has has led the charge for an evo-bio and chaos-theory-informed return to classicism ever since. He's talented, brilliant, eloquent ... I hope to blog about him at length sometime soon. No, I plan to, dammit.

Until such time, here's Turner's own website to explore And here's a passage from an Edge q&a with Steven Pinker that should intrigue.

EDGE: So what do you see as the appropriate role for art?

PINKER: Good heavens, that's not for me to weigh in on! The most I can do is suggest ways in which the sciences of mind might pipe in with insights that could complement those of scholars in the humanities. Linguistics can help poetics and rhetoric; perception science can be useful for the analysis of music and the visual arts; cognitive science has a role to play in the analysis of literature and cinema; evolutionary psychology can shed light on esthetics. And more generally, the sciences of mind can reinforce the idea that there really is an enduring human nature that great art can appeal to.

EDGE: Who are some of the people exploring the convergence of art and science?

PINKER: Among novelists, Ian McEwan, David Lodge, A. S. Byatt, John Updike, Iris Murdoch, Tom Wolfe, and George Orwell are a few that I am familiar with who have invoked notions of human nature, sometimes traditional ones, sometimes ones from scientific psychology, in their work or their explanations. Among scholars and critics, the list is growing; here are some who pop into mind. George Steiner on biological conflict and drama. Ernest Gombrich on perception and art. Joseph Carroll, Frederick Turner, Mark Turner, Brian Boyd, Patrick Hogan, on literature. Elaine Scarry on mental imagery and fiction. Denis Dutton has been a catalyst for this convergence through his journal Philosophy and Literature and his web site

EDGE: Does this portend a more general trend?

PINKER: We may be seeing a coming together of the humanities and the science of human nature. They've been long separated because of post-modernism and modernism. But now graduate students are grumbling in emails and in conference hallways about being locked out of the job market unless they perpetuate postmodernist gobbledygook, and how they're eager for new ideas from the sciences that could invigorate the humanities within universities, which are, by anyone's account, in trouble. Also connoisseurs and appreciators of art are getting sick of the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring mangled body parts, or ironic allusions to commercial culture that are supposed to shake people out of their bourgeois complacency but that are really no more insightful than an ad parody in Mad magazine or on Saturday Night Live.

You go, evo-bio-arts-crowd. The entire Edge interview can be read here.



posted by Michael at February 18, 2004



I'm definitely looking forward to anything you have to say about Fred Turner.

I know sci-fi doesn't usually do it for you, but have you read Turner's "Genesis", an epic poem about the colonization of Mars? It's his most remarkable work, and it contains almost all the philosophical ideas he expounds on in his non-fiction books.


Posted by: J.W. Hastings on February 18, 2004 4:51 PM


Itís very interesting that you mention Turnerís April Wind. I acquired it last year and used excerpts from it to accompany portions of the gerontology courses I teach. Aging theories can be dry as dust, and Iím always looking for a novel, challenging, unorthodox way to bring some of these theories to life and illustrate the connectivity between scientific theory and Ė yes Ė beauty, my abiding passion.

For example, I introduced the following poem Ö

ďI listen to Bachís resonant concerto
For organ, oboe, strings, continuo,
As the car dives past stands of winter trees
Whose branches branch cascades of smaller Vís.

The same disorder ordered into scales
Inheres within the cells, in the details
Of oaks and chinquapins, as in these naves
Of ribbed and vaulted sound, these mortised waves.Ē

Ö and then attempted to compare/contrast it with the following aging theory:

Gerodynamics/Branching Theory is loosely based upon two existing theories: (a) the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy spontaneously tends to flow from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed, to not stay localized if it isn't hindered somehow, and (b) chaos theory, which posits that internal and external fluctuations of living systems can pass a critical transformation point and create order out of disorder as a pattern of change emerges over time and a structure develops. As applied to the aging process, gerodynamics theory proposes that with age, there is an increase in disorder in living systems; thus, the fluctuating individual passes a critical ďbranchingĒ point and can branch into higher or lower order processes, while branching theory studies patterns of branching behavior across the lifespan, as well as the determinants of this behavior.

Sometimes the students think Iím crazy when I do this, but often the discussions flow amazingly well. And of course we always end up talking about the nature of beauty. Thanks for posting this, Michael. It led to some interesting thought processes on my part today, and made me realize that perhaps I need to take such detours more frequently. My gerontology courses are seriously cool, after all :)

Posted by: Maureen on February 19, 2004 12:30 PM

JW -- Another Turner buff, excellent. I confess that my mind switches to "off" as soon as a character leaves the planet Earth, so I haven't given "Genesis" the attention I'm sure it deserves. I'll be getting back to it shortly, and looking forward to whatever you blog about it, of course.

Maureen -- "April Wind" has got a lot of heft, didn't you find? Who says contempo poetry can't dig deep yet sweep the cosmos at the same time, or almost the same time. Cool to hear that you use poetry in your classes and that it sparks off better discussions. "Gerentology" -- I confess I hadn't even known such a field exists, even though I'm sure I'll be in its crosshairs in not too many years. Whatever branchings there are in my mind certainly do seem to increasing in their disorder. It'd be nice to think that I'm making the leap to higher-order thought processes (aka "wisdom," presumably?), but I doubt it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 19, 2004 4:19 PM


"Gerentology -- I confess I hadn't even known such a field exists, even though I'm sure I'll be in its crosshairs in not too many years. Whatever branchings there are in my mind certainly do seem to increasing in their disorder. It'd be nice to think that I'm making the leap to higher-order thought processes (aka "wisdom," presumably?), but I doubt it."

Iím pleased to have introduced you to the gerontology field, then. Itís a very large academic discipline, and Iím barely able to keep up with the mountain of journals that this field generates. A very interesting question is the one you semi-broached: When does old age begin? And yes Ė wisdom is the goal; however, there is wisdom and then there is Wisdom.

Posted by: Maureen on February 20, 2004 9:59 AM

i like everything about Fred but his politics.
you might be interested in reading a poetic exchange we had, about the recent war:


Posted by: graywyvern on February 21, 2004 5:13 PM

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