BRYCE CHRISTENSEN, Author of THE PROFESSOR
Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
For much of my academic and creative life, I have been exploring questions raised by the physicist-novelist C.P. Snow in his landmark Rede Lecture The Two Cultures (1959). In this much discussed Cambridge lecture, Snow asserted that the literary-humanistic culture and the scientific-technical culture were separated by a chasm of “mutual incomprehension.” Though Snow claimed that those on both sides of this chasm had suffered as a consequence of this incomprehension, he clearly comes across as a partisan of the scientific culture, which he views as the source of the ideas that will improve the human condition. The literary culture, he claims, is hopelessly ignorant of, even hostile to, the promise of scientific progress. I know as a young high-school student, I was decidedly on Snow’s side of this issue. I was so outspoken in arguing for the superiority of the scientific culture over the literary culture that my high-school AP English teacher once invited me to drop her class and transfer into another science course! (Fortunately, I stayed in her English class and learned a good deal as a consequence.) In college, I took a couple classes—one in the philosophy of science and one in the history of science—that profoundly shook my faith in science as the source of all answers. I came to realize two things that made me start to look outside of science for answers to fundamental questions. First, I came to understand that concepts that scientists once regarded as absolute truth—the concept of a universal ether through which light moves, for instance—had completely lost credibility over time. Second, I came to recognize that scientists base their work upon unprovable premises accepted on faith. When Einstein moved from Euclidean to Lobachevskian geometry in developing his Theory of Relativity, he was setting aside one side of unprovable axioms in favor of a different set of unprovable axioms. To be sure, the unprecedented explanatory power of the new theory Einstein was consequently able to develop gave scientists strong reason to embrace his new theory. But Einstein was still acting on a kind of intellectual faith—not simply responding to empirical fact—when he launched his daring theoretical enterprise. Similarly, it is faith not empirical evidence that we see today among scientists who champion a multiverse cosmology—with countless alternate but unobserved universes. Even scientists’ bedrock reliance on Ockham’s Razor—that is, their confidence in explanatory simplicity rather than explanatory complexity—is a matter of faith. Anyway, when my college philosophy and history classes confronted me with the evolving nature of science and with the impossibility of doing science without a kind of faith (albeit a metaphysically contracted faith), I experienced a crisis in my personal life. What I had discovered was what the immunologist and philosopher of science Peter Medawar has called “the limits of science.” I had further discovered the reality Medawar speaks of when he says that anyone trying to answer certain fundamental questions about the meaning of life must move beyond science—into realms such as religion, metaphysics, mythology, or imaginative literature. And so I changed my major from chemistry to English and began to probe new realms of understanding, realms that offer no tidy demonstration in the laboratory but which satisfy deeper human cravings. I have never regretted my life-shaping shift in focus.
Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
I wrote my first serious creative work, a short poem that I entitled “Piscator,” a few years after my maternal grandfather’s death. A dirt farmer with very little formal education, my grandfather possessed the uncanny ability to catch fish–again and again–when no one else on the lake was catching anything. For me this almost-magical power somehow evinced a deep connection with the hidden dynamics of nature. My grandfather’s knowledge amounted to nothing recognized by those who tabulate credentials, but somehow it impressed me—and reminded me that not all forms of knowledge and understanding fit neatly in modern resumes.
What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it, and how long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
My latest book is entitled (with apologies to Charlotte Brontë) The Professor. This book, decades in gestation, reflects prolonged meditation on how modern science—particularly modern cosmology—threatens traditional perspectives on human meaning. My reading over many years of non-fiction authors such as Robert Park, Lawrence Krauss, John Polkinghorne, and Freeman Dyson prompted me to think deeply and persistently about the bleakness of the universe visible from a strictly scientific perspective and about the challenge of finding other meaningful perspectives. But the actual writing of the book came in a white-hot burst of writing lasting only three or four weeks. A tidal wave of creative energy rose in my internal sea rather unexpectedly, but when it did, I just rode it.
Do you have any unusual writing habits? What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I am not sure any of my writing habits are all that unusual. I am very much inclined to endorse the view articulated by John Keats when he said, “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” But I take what Keats says about poetry to be true of creative literature in general. Consequently, I write when the impulse moves me, and not otherwise. I wish the impulse came more often and stayed longer, but still I am grateful for those times when the compulsion to write has been overwhelming. Right now, because I am enmeshed in a fight against life-threatening cancer, the impulse to write has been relatively infrequent and short-lived. Still, I have a few short poems in the works, as well as the beginnings of a novel (tentatively entitled ‘Endangered Species’) focused on an environmental terrorist traumatized when two men die consequent to arson he has helped commit to destroy a ski lodge encroaching an a rare lynx’s habitat. If I pursue this novel further, I hope it will illuminate the immense spiritual gap separating human beings from every other creature on the planet.
Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I am very much attracted to music, listening to it a great deal, often even singing (usually for my own satisfaction—and I fear my wife’s annoyance), but writing is the only art form in which I have ventured as a creator. Perhaps, if my current cancer treatment is unsuccessful, I will soon be among the angelic choirs, devoting myself fully to music. Until then, though, I will confine myself to writing.
Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Among fictionists who have influenced me, I would point especially to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Though I have read all five of his major novels, it was my harrowing encounter with Crime and Punishment that helped push me away from an academic career in science toward one in literature. Other novelists who have influenced me have included Leo Tolstoy (his War and Peace invaded my dreams) and Willa Cather (whose finely nuanced characters fully captured my imagination). Among poets who have influenced me, I would point to T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, Jared Carter, Elizabeth Jennings, Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Charles Causley, and Siegfried Sassoon—all consummate craftsmen, all alive to deep spiritual questions. As I reflect on this short list, however, I marvel at how when Siegfried Sassoon turned from writing about the horrors of trench warfare to writing about the transcendence of religious faith, he lost—to his acute dismay—a good fraction of his readership. His later religious poetry, which I find very moving, deserves more attention than it has received. Also deserving of more attention—at least among Western readers—are the marvelous poems of imperial China. I love the heart-stirring historical poetry of Du Fu, rooted in both his personal travail and his nation’s agony during the An Lushan Rebellion, the profound Buddhist spirituality of Wang Wei, and the unflinching Confucian self-scrutiny of Bai Juyi, the surprising cheerfulness of Su Tong-p’o. Some have plausibly claimed that reading poetry in translation is like kissing through a plate-glass window. However, as I read the great poets of Chinese poetry through the translations of Red Pine, Arthur Waley, Sam Hynes, and others, I feel that it is better to have kissed through a plate-glass window than never to have kissed at all.
Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
I would suppose that my writing will generally attract readers who share with me an abiding interest in large philosophical and spiritual questions. I rather hope that my latest book, The Professor, will especially engage young adults who are wrestling with the issues that vexed me when I was younger. I believe that what matters most about my writing is not the style but rather the feelings it engenders, the thoughts it provokes. In this vein, I think of Chuangtzu, the Taoist philosopher, who remarked, “The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.” It would not bother me if readers forgot my work as a work of literature so long as they had internalized the feelings and thoughts that that work catalyzed.
Do you have any advice for new writers/authors? What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
My advice for new writers is that once given by poet Howard Nemerov, “Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.” It is advice I have tried to follow myself. I know that some writers like to experiment with new forms. Sometimes such experiments can indeed prove fruitful. Myself, I prefer to focus chiefly on content while relying on traditional, rather transparent forms. I believe that substance will find organic form. That is, compelling content will tend to incubate, generate, and sustain the appropriate form for that content.
How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
Until fairly recently, I read quite voraciously, averaging five or six serious books a month. But since my retirement six months ago, I have slowed down a great deal, in large part because my retirement–not by design–coincided with a serious and life-threatening manifestation of cancer, enmeshing me in radiation, surgery, hospitalization, biopsies, steroids, and a litany of other medical procedures. What I have been reading has been mostly Christian Scripture (especially the New Testament and the Book of Mormon) and Buddhist poetry (particularly the poems of Wang Wei and Hanshan). Both types of literature have helped sustain me during a trying time.
What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
Publishers of serious literature, especially printed literature, face daunting challenges in the 21st century. In his Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, David Mikics considers the wayelectronic technologies have displaced leisure reading in the lives of millions of modern men and women, most of whom are intent on getting ahead financially. But as Alvin Kernan points out in The Death of Literature, it is not just technological change that is pushing serious literature to the margins: disruptive changes in cultural and social patterns have likewise diminished the number of serious readers and reduced the amount of time these readers devote to reflective literature. In such adverse circumstances, I am grateful for publishers–such as Adelaide Books–truly committed to a literary mission. Such publishers manifest considerable courage in preserving and enlarging a priceless cultural resource. May they persist in their laudable mission in the decades ahead!