On Science and Technology in Literature

In Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the cloned students living at Hailsham are encouraged to create artwork to prove that they have souls. As the power to create comes from internal reasoning, their creations expose what is inside of them. In this sense, creation is a sign of the soul, and the soul is a sign of a unique human identity.

Many believe that the ability to experience, endure and learn from a full range of emotions or a complete spectrum of emotions is part of the human experience. But the possibility genetic engineering holds for curing diseases, eliminating undesriable traits, and deterring the harmful consequences of old age, suggests the possibility of a world without pain and hardship.

Is the human expereience, including pain and grief, what contributes to the self, and contributes to a desire or even need, to create? How could genetic manipulation change the emotional spectrum, human identity and human desire?

The memoir Autobiogrpahy of a Face seems to adress these questions directly. In this book, the author, Lucy Grealy, describes her struggle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a deadly form of cancer. The surgeries and chemotherapy involved in the treatment of this disease leave Lucy’s face grotesquely disfigured as she loses a significant portion of her jaw. Beginning in her preadolescent years, Lucy begins to percieve herself as ugly because of the disfigurement of her face and the reactions others have to it.

Lucy writes that upon seeing her face, one of her peers asks, “What on earth is that?” and “That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen.” Here Lucy is not only called ugly, but her very identity as a human being is questioned.

Lucy dedicates the remaineder of her life to attempting unsuccessfuly to reconstruct her face through surgery and bone grafts. Doctors provide Lucy with the best reconstructive technologies available, but even these fail to fix her jaw.

After the surgeries, Lucy believes she will be restored to a happier, healthier condition and freed of the depression and sense of low self worth her ugliness creates. But Lucy’s redemption, it seems, actually comes through her memoir. Only through her writing, through her art, and through her personal achievement, does Lucy find true self worth. Lucy’s memoir shows how pain, grief and ugliness may be used to create beauty.

Given the context of scientific experimenation and discovery, and the framewok of genetic experimentation, under which this book is now being evaluated, I wonder, if Lucy did not suffer, would she have created? Without ugliness and pain, would she have created something beautiful? During her life, Lucy wanted to correct her face. She attempted many bone grafts, and tried to utilize the best surgical technologies available. If she could have used cloned skin cells or bone grafts, would she have used them?

Recall the original ending of Gattaca. The director points out that many of our most renowned creators, for instance, Einstein and Emily Dickinson, suffered from some form of a genetic “disorder”. And recall Andrea Barret’s husband in “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” who is hexadactylic. And again another connection to Gattaca: the hexadactylic pianist, who plays music previously unable to be preformed, and unique to this genetic “disorder.”

The point in introducing Lucy Grealy’s case and connecting her struggle with the other scenarios raised in Gattaca and Ship Fever is certainly not meant to stifle scientific invention at the sake of preserving human suffering so that human artistic production will continue. Rather, Lucy’s story is meant to provide a complex example that reflects class debate surrounding the meaning of the human experience, the role of the self, and the implications scientific discovery could have on shaping identity.

Let us not forget the full range of human emotions and the role they have played in the creation of art. We should probably ask, above all, whether these topics would even be debated in a classroom seeting without art, without creation. Certainly, we would not be leading discussion with films like Gattaca or books like Ship Fever, both creations and works of art in and of themselves. Also, remember that creation and creativity is not isolated to the realm of “art” but can be pursued in every academic field, including the sciences and mathematics, particularly scientific technology and genetic research.

Elizabeth Frankenfield

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~ by lizfrank on February 9, 2008.

2 Responses to “On Science and Technology in Literature”

  1. You make me want to read Autobiography of a Face. Thank you for this vivid post.

  2. I’ve read Autobiography of a Face, too, and I agree with your point. The motivation for creative work often arises out of human suffering. After all, if everything is going well, there’s no need to think about doing anything extra. We saw this in Brave New World where everyone was happy, so there was no desire to accomplish anything special or extravagant like a work of art. Pain, obstacles, hardship, misery – these are the kinds of things that motivate people and bring about a surge in creative energy. After surviving a catastrophe, people are forced to see themselves and the world around them in a new light. They are forced to contemplate and reconsider the meaning of their very existence. This is what stimulates them to invest their energy in some type of creative outlet – so that they can reformulate their purpose in life and share their story of triumph with the world. We all love to hear and read about these stories of success because it assures us that it is possible to overcome disaster and create a meaningful focus in our life. Pain and suffering is what makes life interesting and worthwhile to live. If all of that was eliminated – if all disease was eliminated through genetic engineering – life would indeed be duller. What a brave new world it would be that had such unimaginative people in it!

    ~ B2

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