Asimov’s “Nightfall” (as the epigraph suggests, and the anecdote goes), arose from an argument he had with his editor John W. Campbell about Emerson’s essay “Nature.” It’s always worth stopping to think about moments, like this one, when fictions pointedly announce their literary antecedents. Indeed, during class one of us mentioned the recent inclusion of another of our course readings, Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” in Breaking Bad. Looking at these explicitly intertextual moments, we noted, offers some real evidence for our frequent sense that popular culture has an implicit “project,” or performs a kind of intellectual work—that a show like Breaking Bad pointedly joins a conversation that extends back to Whitman or Shelley, or that Asimov’s landmark story, published during the Second World War, continues a longstanding argument about “Romantic” science.
During Friday’s class, we took the opportunity to trace out a few specific lines of argument that Asimov engages.
We noted, for example, the Emersonian overtones in the discussion of “children below six, to whom the world as a whole is too new and strange for them to be too frightened at Stars and Darkness. They would be just another item in an already surprising world.” That prompted a number of us to turn to the way Emerson (and Coleridge before him) invoke childlike patterns of being-in-nature, of projecting familiar feelings or beliefs onto natural objects. Thus Coleridge describes “the idling spirit” as seeking humanity in all things, to the point that it “makes a toy of thought” (a peculiar phrase, and one Emerson picks up in his dictum “Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit”). Reconstructing that moment of exchange between Coleridge and Emerson helped bring into focus the many places where Asimov casts scientific or pseudoscientific pursuits in terms of toys, games, amusement park rides–diminutive images for that big construct the story (and elsewhere Coleridge too) calls “Mystery.” But that image of the speaker in “Frost at Midnight” projecting his “superstitious wish” for companionship onto an ashen film also raised another set of associations, one that sent the conversation back even further from the “Romantic” moment of Coleridge and Emerson to their Enlightenment predecessor David Hume:
Asimov conveys quite well that Humean dialectic between the radically new and the already familiar: gaps in our knowledge, places where nature seems not to correspond to the orderly or probability-driven world to which we become accustomed, can provoke confusion or mysticism (or even a kind of pleasing terror). But those moments of discontinuity ultimately conform to our understanding of nature as an orderly and regular set of laws. It’s hard not to read “Nightfall” as a story that could have ended differently. What was remarkable about our class’s conclusion, I think, is that we pointed to that alternative as one the story aligns as much with Emersonian romanticism as with Humean empiricism.¹
The Humean move from a miracle (a “transgression of the laws of nature”) to the “marvellous” (something that falls beyond our previous experience, and prompts us to enlarge our account of nature’s laws) appears above all in Beenay’s “cute little notion” that the stars may be distant suns of other systems. It didn’t take much for us to recognize that this fanciful notion as a truth, self-evident to us, that simply remains (as Hume would say) outside the experience of the provincial planet Asimov paints us. And it was hardly a subtle point that this strange new world, with its cult of mystery and elliptical scriptures, resonated with Hume’s attacks on provincial beliefs and the scriptures of “barbarous nations”–attacks aimed both aimed at abuses of the Christian scriptures and, as we noted a few weeks ago, at the relatively new global horizon that made different climates and different cultural assumptions available to British readers around the time of Hume’s writing. If his “Indian Prince” anecdote is ripe for postcolonial critique, then we ought to keep an eye out, too, for how this logic of cultural difference (and its challenges to “common sense”) remains inscribed in science fictions, whether in terms of what Star Trek will call “new life and new civilizations,” or–especially as we turn to Lovecraft–in the way seeking the unknown on this world remains caught up with ethnography, and with enforcing a distance between “developed” and “provincial” cultures.
1. Were we to write an even longer intellectual history here, we might go back to one of Hume’s own pretexts, in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa contra Gentiles III:101:
And since at times one and the same cause is known to some and unknown to others, it happens that of several who see an effect, some are astonished and some not: thus an astronomer is not astonished when he sees an eclipse of the sun, for he knows the cause; whereas one who is ignorant of this science must needs wonder, since he knows not the cause.