CATCHING THE LIGHT
The entwined History of Light and Mind
 
by Arthur Zajonc
Oxford University Press, New York, 1993
 
Reviewed by Hannah M.G. Shapero
    
 
     This book was first recommended to me by a Zoroastrian friend, Jamshid Varza, since in the early chapters of the book there are some passages about the Zoroastrian religious world-view and especially the conception of God as Light. The author, Arthur Zajonc, is a professor of physics at Amherst College, but his concerns in this book reach well beyond the scientific into the mythical and religious meaning of Light. In CATCHING THE LIGHT, Zajonc is trying to write a “biography of Light”, or rather, the story of how human beings have viewed the phenomenon of Light, and tried to explain it through the years.
    
He begins with ancient Greek and Persian ideas of what Light might be. His version of Zoroastrianism is the “classic” one of cosmic dualism, the battle between Light and Darkness, and the ultimate victory of Light. Zajonc then takes us through some Western medieval scientific material on optics and sacred geometry. After that he moves into a short history of the development of visual perspective and the mathematical sciences in the Renaissance. From there he traces the science of light up until the emergence of modern physics. He shows how, as exact science advances, mythology recedes, so that after Descartes and the Enlightenment, myth and moral meaning was no longer connected with scientific research and the “facts” of the physical world.
    
And yet there have been eyes even in the modern centuries which saw science and Light differently. Zajonc spends quite a lot of time describing the optical and color theory of the great German writer Goethe, who was a scientist as well as a literary figure. Goethe’s theories are not always “correct” by modern standards, and the mysterious phenomena Goethe observed have been explained by modern visual physiology. Nevertheless Goethe’s theories of seeing are important to Zajonc’s thesis in the book: that exact science is not incompatible with myth and the imagination. In fact, as Zajonc repeats throughout the book, the whole phenomenon of light and seeing is dependent not only on physical processes but on the intellectual development of the seer, whether eye or mind.
 
     Zajonc is especially concerned with this last theme because he is a follower of the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the German mystical writer whom he mentions in the same chapter as Goethe. Rudolf Steiner was originally a follower of Madame Blavatsky’s “Theosophy” but broke away to form his own esoteric movement, “Anthroposophy”. Steiner’s work, to an outsider like me, is a fascinating mixture of profound philosophy and Gnostic mysticism. One of the ideas that Steiner stresses throughout his work is that there is a “supersensible” world (which is also known as the imaginal world), which can only be perceived if we “develop the appropriate organs of perception”. He doesn’t mean an actual “third eye” or sensor array here; it is a metaphor for learning a way of seeing through the imagination as well as physical eyes. Zajonc also uses the word “supersensible” and talks throughout the book about this process of learning to see differently.
 
     In the later chapters, Zajonc attempts to explain to lay readers about how the theory of relativity, and then quantum mechanics, has revolutionized how scientists view light. He describes experiments, which measure light as both particle and wave, and the philosophical paradoxes that such experiments raise. He mentions some of the mind-bending theories, which have tried to explain the mysteries of light on a quantum level. At the end, despite all the science that has done so much to explain it, light still remains mysterious.
 
     Zajonc is a dramatic writer, who can easily pass from clear scientific descriptions to exalted poetic passages. Sometimes that poetry gets in the way of his thoughts; his writing is at times overwrought. I found his chapters on science more readable than his literary excursions. Also, his connection with Steiner’s Gnostic philosophy and Western esotericism means that he always has an underlying agenda, namely the re-connection of the scientific mind with the mythic-imaginal mind. I agree with his agenda, but feel that Zajonc was not open enough with his readers; he did not admit that this is his own personal background. The meeting-space between science, myth, and religion is filled with pitfalls, and though Zajonc avoids most of them, I would have liked to see him mark this one out clearly.

 
© 2001 Hannah M.G. Shapero

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