I came across this scalding review of Pere Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man on the recommendation of a friend. I’m not drawn to science essays, being a liberal arts person. So I never would have come across Peter Medawar’s review on my own. It’s contained in Medawar’s collection of pieces called Pluto’s Republic. The title of the collection is a joke. A misnomer from a man who told Medawar that he was interested in philosophy.
I was interested in the ten page piece as an instance of the blackest sheep in the current state of belles lettres. The worst, most tactless, most declasse kind of writing that can be posted or printed: the negative review.
It’s a most radical review because, not content with eviscerating the writer, Medawar goes farther and attacks the audience for the book as well. After reading this review closely, the aftertaste it left was how wimpish we are and how little critical evaluation goes into most everyday assessments of literature.
The key point that Medawar makes about The Phenomenon of Man, after pointing out some fuzzy concepts and obfuscating metaphors, is that the writing style corrupts the man. “It is the style that creates the illusion of content.”
Teilhard’s style shouts. Medawar provides a list of adjectives employed in the book, arranging them in rank and file alphabetical order as if they were a battalion of verbiage: “astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper, immense, implacable, indefinite, inexhaustible, inextricable, infinite, infinitesimal, innumerable, irresistible, measureless, mega-, monstrous, mysterious, prodigious, relentless, super-, ultra-, unbelieveable or unparalleled.”
I’ll call just three of these adjectives to the dock as examples of what is happening in this rhetoric:
“Unparalleled.” If something really were unparalleled then we couldn’t discuss it since we would have no basis for comparison. The word is useful more as an emotional expression but it can’t be used in a discussion meant to be reasonable. It’s a hype word.
“Inexhaustible” How could you know something is inexhaustible if you’re not? You wouldn’t last long enough to find out, nor would anybody else. It’s another word that expresses emotional vehemence but not rational content.
“Mysterious” Probably the most general of occult words. There’s nothing mysterious in science. There are things you don’t know. And there are things you can’t know because the questions you are posing are not scientific questions. And there are cases where you think you know something but are mistaken. None of these cases are mysterious.
These alpha adjectives would have limited utility in writing literature as well. They don’t convey any information that would help carry a story along or illuminate a character. You could say in a story: “Henry was a mysterious man.” But then you would have to show what you meant and the mystery would be dispelled…and that might be the point of your story. But why bother to say that Henry was mysterious? Why not just tell the story?
These are adjectives invalidating rational scale. They put the mind in a state of bewilderment from which you would want to escape. Then the writer offers a solution to the mystery…or the “unparalleled…or the “inexhaustible”…and you grab it because you’ve been primed. It’s a sales job. That’s fine for a movie except in a case like The Phenomenon of Man where you are claiming you have made a documentary. Medawar says “Teilhard habitually and systematically cheats with words.”
“…to expound is to expose.” In philosophy grant me one error in logic, let me reverse one fact, or include an unsubstantiated assumption in my argument and I’ll take that concession and build an unstable Valhalla with it to safeguard you from your fear.
Teilhard fudges equivalencies between information theory, genetics, the theory of evolution…and here’s the kicker…consciousness…which is then said to “evolve” to ever higher states. This higher evolving reverses the second law of thermodynamics which states, in my humanities layman version, that things tend to wind down, not wind up.
The exposition also employs a lot of neologisms and other exotic words. My favorite for a long time has been the “noosphere” a word that I would love to see in a lyric poem sometimes or perhaps inhale. I’ve read a lot of old philosophy and Teilhard’s ideas appear indebted to Henri Bergson whose concept of the “elan vital”, a dynamic creative force in nature, enjoyed quite a vogue early in the 20th century before it fell out of favor.
I’m not interested in science. That’s not my background. But I am interested in writing good reviews. And it seems to me that a good review should have teeth.
Maybe the take-no-prisoners attitude is a British cultural trait from years of academic training in debating societies. The adversarial approach towards book reviewing voids the idea that you should try to find something positive to say even about books that you don’t like. And it dismisses out of hand, I would think, the DNF concept that you don’t finish books that you don’t like. Is DNF intellectually dishonest? Do you fear that if you finished the book you might have to say something unpleasant about it? I’m not sure. Medawar made a study of The Phenomenon of Man even though he hated it. I don’t see Peter Medawar as a DNF kind of guy.