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The Relationship between Literature and Science in John Banville’s Scientific Tetralogy


Sidia Fiorato

Starting from the debate between the two cultures, the book analyzes the relationship between literature and science in the last years of the twentieth century in the light of scientific theories which universally underline both their indeterminacy and their lack of universal values (Relativity Theory, Quantum Mechanics, the Uncertainty Principle, Chaos Theory). Scientific theories are echoed in literary texts but also a reverse influence from literature to science has taken place. In his scientific tetralogy John Banville analyzes the figures of those scientists who contributed to a paradigm shift in the world view from the early modernity to the present. His interest is not exclusively focused on epistemology but rather on the creative mind of the scientist. Science appears to follow the same epiphanic creative process as literature in its understanding of, and theorizing upon, an enigmatic sort of reality.


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3. 1 The scientific tetralogy Banville's narrative production presents an ongoing engagement with science, which is openly thematised in his scientific tetralogy and its investigation of the connections between fiction and scientific theory; it is set as a starting point for his artistic trilogy, and already hinted at in content and style in his first novels. The choice of such a theme is in contrast with the Irish background, characterised by a lack of attention for scientific issues and scientific culture which, "on the surface, would appear to seek to diminish national and religious divisions."1 In fact, science in eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland was extremely active, the majority of scientists being Protestants, thus underlining a missing link between Roman Catholicism and science. The decline of Irish science can be traced back to the depopulation of the Protestant communities for political reasons (the constitution of the Irish Free State didn't prove a favourable atmosphere for the development of science) and also to the political downplay of any Protestant contribution to the country's image. As a consequence, science became marginalized: "Any allusion to the flourishing state of Irish science throughout the greater part of the nineteenth century serves only to raise doubts as to the validity of that well-established picture of nineteenth century Ireland as the seat of tragedy, gloom and despair."2 In the light of these considerations, Banville's fascination with science acquires a particular interest and meaning. We have seen (in Chapter 1) how, in the contemporary cultural...

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