In response to:
American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction from the July 15, 1976 issue
To the Editors:
I am puzzled by Gore Vidal’s description of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as “culturally deranging.” It is true that some physicists and other people have been unhappy about what the Uncertainty Principle tells us. But no physicist, to my knowledge, has claimed that Heisenberg’s principle “deranges” even physics, much less culture in general. And it is hard to see how it could do so, apart from some very odd interpretation that might be given it or some invalid inference that might be drawn from it. For all that Heisenberg’s principle actually says, as I understand it, is that our knowledge of subatomic particles is necessarily limited and incomplete. How this deranges culture I fail to see. Nor can I see in it any valid basis for Mr. Vidal’s statement that “Applied to literature, this principle means that nothing can ever really be known, described, or judged.” In the first place, it is quite a leap from subatomic particles to literature. There is, to say the least, room for doubt that Heisenberg’s principle can validly be “applied to literature” in any simple, straightforward way. But secondly, even if it could, the inference to be drawn from it surely would not be the one Mr. Vidal has given us. To say that not everything can be known about a subatomic particle is not all the same as to say that nothing can be known about it. Omniscience and nescience, after all, are not the only alternatives. Somewhere between the two stands science, and literature.
In fact, the general idea behind Heisenberg’s principle—namely, that human knowledge is intrinsically limited and imperfect—is obviously a very old one. It is a recurring theme in the Bible. And Plato’s dialogues suggest that no exact knowledge of the physical world is possible. The novelty of the Uncertainty Principle, it seems to me, lies not at all in its general idea that there are limits to our knowledge, but exclusively in its specificity and limitation. It speaks not of human knowledge in general, but only of our knowledge of subatomic particles; and it says quite specifically what we cannot know about them, as well as what we can. Thus, it is nothing like a principle of universal skepticism. It is, in fact, far more modest than even the limited skepticism one finds in Plato.
If Mr. Vidal still thinks that Heisenberg’s principle threatens to derange our culture, perhaps he would be good enough to explain why he thinks this.
Gore Vidal replies:
The letter from the University of X is not only amusing but answers, in the nicest way, the agitated letter from the University of Virginia.
I don’t think much comment from me is in order. The gentleman from Virginia assures us, perhaps unnecessarily, that he is neither “a famous writer” not “even a famous critic.” From the evidence of his “insanely angry” prose, I suspect he is also neither a writer nor a critic. But he does teach school and like so many of the new barbarians out there in the weed-grown, chigger-infested groves of Academe, he thinks himself an intellectual. This is delusion. For one thing, intellectuals don’t misread texts: “He asks for books the kids will want to read. Something klassy to compete with TV,” etc. Quite the reverse. Intellectuals also try not to fall into the dread pit of non-sequitur: “Henry Adams is ‘out of date’; soon Pynchon will be ‘out of date’ too. obviously writers should have no ideas at all.” Sentence Two bears no relationship to Sentence One, while…. Well, I can’t correct all the bad writing in the country. Even so, I want very much to be helpful. But my civilizing task will not succeed unless the not-so-happy tenured many accept the plain fact that when it comes to matters of prose and of fiction at this time and in this place, I am authority.
In the physical sciences I am no authority at all—as I was quick to point out. But I do promise that, when physicists learn how to express themselves in words as well as they do in numbers, I’ll try to keep up. Happily, Mr. Illert writes rather better English than the English teacher from Virginia, and I am grateful to him for his description of Heisenberg’s principle—so much richer than the one I copied out of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Mr. Illert makes one error. He thinks that I think: “Heisenberg’s principle threatens to derange our culture.” The verb “threaten” is the give-away. Popular usage has so colored the word “deranging” that its use is almost always pejorative. Yet I meant the word to be simply descriptive. I also thought that my statement was obvious and unarguable. Anything that tends to derange those relative absolutes (yes, sic, but I don’t seem able to come up with a compelling neologism) by which we measure our lives in general and our literature in particular tends to make the task of criticism all the more difficult (by no means a bad or a good thing).
Mr. Illert writes: “It is quite a leap from subatomic particles to literature.” I agree. But Mr. Pynchon attempted it, not I. Incidentally, a physicist wrote me that my description of entropy (taken from Clausius) was wrong. I wrote “pure entropy,” which is meaningless. The correct phrase is “maximum entropy.”