Epistemologies of intention : uncertainty and translation in Bertolt Brecht's life of Galileo and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen
Author(s)Schwob, Anneke (Anneke Ellen)
Contributor(s)Massachusetts Institute of Technology. School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Literature Section.
Diana Henderson, Shankar Raman and Alan Brody.
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Abstractby Anneke Schwob.
Thesis (S.B. in Literature)--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Humanities, 2010.
Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 69-70).
Introduction: Translating science as dramatic tradition Scientific and literary traditions are curious bedfellows. Popular perception views contemporary scientists - especially those interested in mathematics or physics - and their occupation as fundamentally other and unknowable to a nonscientific audience. This viewpoint has led to a bizarre treatment of science and its practitioners in literary and dramatic works as most depictions of science in print are restricted to the realm of speculative science fiction geographically and chronologically removed from the author's own time. Those authors or playwrights who do take historical or contemporary science as their subject must present it in such a way that the science is made accessible to a diverse audience. This presentation is particularly important in the theatrical medium. Playwrights have integrated science with drama in a host of different ways, whether as a plot device or thematic concern. I will study plays that entertain broad thematic questions about the nature of truth and morality while still maintaining their focus on the scientific community and its scientific concerns, especially as these concerns intersect with those of society at large. My analysis will focus on two plays that use science more than rhetorically: Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo (editions published in 1937; 1945; 1953) and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (1998). Although these two plays were written and produced more than fifty years apart and the historical events that they examine are over two hundred years removed from each other, both explore paradigm-shattering moments within physics research. I will argue that both plays use physics to examine, broadly, the responsibility that a scientist has to involve himself with the non-scientific community. Characters in both Life of Galileo and Copenhagen make a case that part of the scientist's responsibility lies in presenting science to the laity, both inside and outside the world of the play. The semantic shift involved in making scientific concepts both understandable and relevant within a dramatic context involves a movement on the part of the playwright and his characters that is, I shall suggest, similar to an act of translation. Translation is generally conceived of as purely linguistic, which might be described as an attempt at transmitting meanings across language barriers or a linguistic shift seeking to conserve the sense of a written text in a second language. In his seminal work "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin sees translation as something more than a direct word-by-word transposition from one language to another. Instead, Benjamin posits that the translator endeavors to elevate his project beyond changing signifiers between tongues. A true translation moves past linguistic accuracy as an end point; instead, it identifies a higher meaning that the original text points to and creates a new text from that original. Benjamin's theoretical re-assessment of the task of the translator as one of unlocking meanings extends its boundaries to include the translation of different kinds of discourse into literary or dramatic forms. The plurality of central characters from Life of Galileo and Copenhagen belong to a scientific, not literary tradition. Although they conceive of their investigations philosophically, even this attitude requires a shift in thinking from an empirical or theoretical viewpoint to a more poetic one. Theorists and even non-academics have noted that the language of science involves a distinct set of signifiers that is highly metaphoric and symbolic. Mathematical formulae rely on a scientist's ability to perceive the inner workings of the world as numerical and then to further abstract from those numbers to abstract signifiers, the Greek pis and sigmas and the well-known "x" that appears in even the most fundamental of algebraic problems. This kind of abstraction is itself a translation that moves the scientist from observation to description and then understanding. Undertaking an act of translation requires a unique kind of mind - which I will refer to in shorthand as a "scientific mind" - which involves being able to conceive of the world around it in a more purely scientific way. The translation involved in viewing things scientifically is implicit within those of Brecht's and Frayn's characters who are presented to the audience as fully formed and educated scientists. For characters like Brecht's Andrea, however, that transition - from curious bystander to member of the scientific community - actually occurs onstage. The scientific mind, therefore, as seen within Brecht's and Frayn's plays, requires the ability to translate understanding from observations of the natural world to a scientific or mathematical understanding of those phenomena. I argue, therefore, that truly responsible science requires something more than the ability to translate into scientific understanding; it demands too a route from esoteric scientific knowledge back into a vernacular. As Benjamin intended, translation becomes a way of unpacking meanings deeper than either original form; it can illuminate questions of essential human nature. In each of the plays examined here, translation mediates the scientist's interactions with society. Galileo presents it as a way for scientific tools and thoughts to be used to benefit to common people; in Copenhagen for example, it is Heisenberg's inability to translate and therefore understand his equations that narrowly prevents him from potentially creating a deadly nuclear weapon for Hitler. The two plays focus on very distinct moments in physics - empirical observations of the planets versus theoretical models of a subatomic universe - and so the physicists' modes of translation are also unique. While Brecht's Galileo relies on explanation bolstered by visual proofs, Frayn's Bohr emphasizes the use of "plain language" as a way of parsing the implications of abstract equations. The plays are undeniably vastly different when it comes to both the scope of their science and dramatic form; the reason for this difference can be located in authorial intention. Brecht, a life-long committed Communist and social radical, is remembered for advancing the technique of epic or dialectical theatre, a style that sought to counter the melodramatic realism pioneered by the actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Epic theatre is the theatre of the people, appealing to their reason while advancing the cause of social change. Life of Galileo uses the techniques of this epic dramaturgy; its goals are social, political and didactic in nature. Copenhagen is, by contrast, less informed by ideology than by the idea of intention itself: Frayn frames the play as an exploration into his historical character's motivations at a mysterious meeting in Copenhagen during World War II - the meeting itself is historical fact, although what transpired remains a mystery. The play begins by asking a simple question: why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in 1941? Through the drama, however, Frayn expands his investigations into a full study of how intentions are manifested through acts of scientific study; through an act of thematic mimesis, the more the audience attempts to unravel the characters' intentions, the more those intentions become unclear. Copenhagen's dramaturgy makes this complication explicit through its use of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a structuring metaphor. In parsing intent, Frayn's audience and Brecht's find themselves in a similar position: perhaps due to the numerous revisions Brecht made of the play, Galileo's character embodies a slippery position with respect to his translation and the audience. Unlike Frayn, however, Brecht makes his intended readings of the character clear, creating uncertainty and tension between the audience's reading of the character and the playwright's intentions.