Just as we should not be surprised that Marie Corelli, a writer of fantasy and weird fiction, attacks realism as a literary mode, so, too, we should not find odd her dislike of modern science. First, she makes the ill-founded claim that Victorian science failed to advance beyond the ancients, such as Democritus. According to the Theos Ardath, the protagonist of Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self, modern Western science lacks both originality and usefulness. He tells a scientist in the ancient land of Al-Kyris to which he travels mystically.
I come from far-off lands, where, if I remember rightly, much is taught and but little retained, — where petty pedagogues persist in dragging new generations of men through old and worn-out ruts of knowledge that future ages shall never have need of, . . and concerning even the progress of science, I confess to a certain incredulity, seeing that to my mind Science somewhat resembles a straight line drawn clear across country but leading, alas! to an ocean wherein all landmarks are lost and swallowed up in blankness. Over and over again the human race has trodden the same pathway of research, — over and over again has it stood bewildered and baffled on the shores of the same vast sea, — the most marvellous discoveries are after all mere child's play compared to the tremendous secrets that must remain forever unrevealed; and the poor and trifling comprehension of things that we, after a life-time of study, succeed in attaining, is only just sufficient to add to our already burdened existence the undesirable clogs of discontent and disappointed endeavor.
The scientist from Al-Kyris then responds by making a claim that serves as Corelli's strongest, if obviously false, criticism of science and scientists. According to Corelli's timeserving scientist, "to the scientific eye, there is nothing left in the world that ought to excite so vulgar and barbarous an emotion as wonder, . . nothing so apparently rare that cannot be reduced at once from the ignorant exaggerations of enthusiasm to the sensible level of the commonplace." Indeed, the scientist delights in the supposed fact that the "so-called 'marvels' of nature have, thanks to the advancement of practical education, entirely ceased to affect by either surprise or admiration the carefully matured, mathematically adjusted, and technically balanced brain of the finished student or professor of Organic Evolution." Corelli's criticism, which is a libel on science and scientists of the past two centuries, clearly misses the passion and wonder thast so many physicists, chemists, and biologists find in the nature world.
Corelli continues with an additional charge that scientists are essentially part of a conspiracy that will lead to "God-less Light of Universal Liberty": "Much time is of course required," the ancient scientist tells Theos, "to elevate the multitude above all desire for a Religion, — but the seed has been sown, and the harvest will be reaped, and a glorious Era is fast approaching, when the free-thinking, free-speaking people of all nations shall govern themselves and rejoice in the grand and God-less Light of Universal Liberty."
The worst is yet to come! According to Corelli, scientists advance science, even when they know it is false. The scientist, who sounds like Lamarkian botanists in Stalin's Soviet Union who did so much to damage Russian agriculture, tells Theos that "that a Theory may be one thing and one's own private opinion another."
My Theory is my profession, — I live by it! Suppose I resigned it, — well, then I should also have to resign my present position in the Royal Institutional College, — my house, my servants, and my income. I advance the interests of pure Human Reason, because the Age has a tendency to place Reason as the first and highest attribute of Man, — and it would not pay me to pronounce my personal preference for the natural and vastly superior gift of Intellectual Instinct. I advise my scholars to become atheists, because I perceive they have a positive passion for Atheism, and it is not my business, nor would it be to my advantage to interfere with the declared predilections of my wealthiest patrons. Concerning my own ideas on these matters, they are absolutely NIL, ... I have no fixed principles, — because" — and his brows contracted in a puzzled line — "it is entirely out of my ability to fix anything!
Corelli's combine hatred and ignorance of modern science seems obviously part of her love of fantasy, vision, and mysticism. One wonders, however, to what degree her views of science stgruck a chord with her late-Victorian audience and contributed to her popularity.
Corelli, Marie. Ardath: The Story of a Dead Self. London: Bentley, 1889. [Project Gutenberg has a free electronic text online; search on Google.]
Last modified 29 August 2003