LET THERE BE LIGHT: ANN WROE & BRUCE WATSON

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2016 issue of Country Life.

Can light be captured between the covers of a book? If so, what form might it take? Bruce Watson’s scientific and cultural history of light suggests a linear beam through time, from Logos to LEDS. Ann Wroe’s Six Facets of Light is a ‘dappled thing’, a diffusion of lyrical musings which combine to form a single idea: that of light as life.

Both writers call upon a vast storehouse of knowledge to illuminate their subject matter. As Obituaries Editor of The Economist and the author of numerous biographies (among them a ‘bio-mythography’ of Orpheus), Ann Wroe is well-practiced at shaping a life in writing. In this case it is light which outlines and defines a life – whether that of a poet, priest or painter, a scientist, philosopher, or Ann Wroe herself.

Each chapter or ‘facet’ is a spontaneous flow of associative motifs, ideas which came to the author as she walked the South Downs between Brighton and Eastbourne. In the first chapter ‘The White Stone’ she leads the reader from Eric Ravilious’ chalk cliffs to John Clare’s shells, from Samuel Palmer’s wheat to Isaac Newton’s apple. A description of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ search for the remains of a shooting star leads to a meditation on the feeling of frost crunched underfoot; Newton’s comparison between rays of light and wriggling eels prompts a discussion of artists who were also keen anglers. Elsewhere, light induces synesthesia: it can be heard like music or consumed like manna. Threaded throughout the book are fragmented poems and images drawn from the author’s memory – the time she ‘ran home to prove, with a tuning fork, that the sea sang in F’ or the sudden sighting of swans outside the office window.

The American historian Bruce Watson has set himself a Herculean task: to ‘reconcile the battles between science and humanities, between religion and doubt, between mathematics and metaphor’. As far as 200 or so pages will allow, he’s done the subject justice. The book is impressive in scope, shifting seamlessly between cultural beliefs and historical facts: chapters lead from creation myths to Greek Philosophy, from Manichaeism to Gothic Cathedrals. Despite recent quibbles from fact-checking physicists, the chapters on the development of electric lighting and the particle-wave debates are thoroughly researched and clearly written. However, this is a history with its own agenda and the prose occasionally takes on a biased tone. Atheists are placed in opposition to ‘true believers’, and the book is an attempt to recuperate light’s spiritual significance in a secular age. The author favours ‘enchantment’ over empirical truth, and fears that attempts to control and commodify light will reduce our capacity for awe. Such sincerity would be more effective if it wasn’t for the book’s occasionally cartoonish approach to its subject matter – Johannes Kepler is a ‘cranky, clumsy, boil-ridden man’, Newton is ‘foppish […] with shoulder-length locks’, and a description of Descartes’ optical experiments comes with the warning ‘don’t try this at home’.

Goethe believed that the eye sought a type of ‘completeness’ and these two books show a similar impulse towards an all-encompassing vision. A Radiant History starts in the darkness before time and ends by speculating on the afterlife. Six Facets of Light suggests the clear-cut solidity of a stone or gem, and the book’s final facet is entitled ‘Immortal Diamond’: the image Hopkins’ chose to represent eternal life. However, the two writers address the transcendental in very different ways. While Mr Watson’s book is confined by chronology, Ms Wroe invents a new form altogether; her prose is poised between rigorous taxonomy of motifs and a fluid stream of consciousness, between erudite research and personal anecdote. The book’s nearest equivalent is Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the lectures on literature which he never lived to deliver. The first of those lectures was entitled ‘Lightness’, the sixth was never completed. It is that appreciation of loose ends, of light ‘uncatchable by eye or word’, which gives Six Facets of Light its lasting, luminous quality. Enchantment does not need to be argued for. Look, and it will be granted.

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