A Study in Illusions

In his Pegram Lectures of 1968 (published as Illusions) André Maurois hoped to “determine the part played by illusions in the life of man, to what extent they are dangerous, and whether on the contrary they are not, in certain cases, salutary.” His study looks at the role of imagination in three areas: our sensual and emotional life, our scientific endeavors, and our artistic pursuits.

Maurois was a prolific literary figure whose career spanned the first half of the twentieth century. Today his works are hardly known. This is unfortunate because his prose is full of wit and insight. I cannot help but be reminded of that other great French author, Michel de Montaigne, who possessed the same combination of skepticism and optimism coupled with an insatiable but refined curiosity.

While not exactly a conservative, neither was Maurois a “primitivist” when it came to understanding nature (including human nature):

We project ourselves upon nature and… the great task incumbent upon science will consist in expunging from reality that which stems from the observer…. That anthropomorphism which consists of attributing human reactions to animals or things is one of the causes of illusions.

This objectivity, at any rate, is the ideal at which the scientific method aims. But while the author was an admirer of the accomplishments of research and experimentation, part of his genius lay in the fact that his skepticism cut both ways. Later in the book he points out that the scientist “being a man” is “not wholly impervious to illusions.” He is subject to pride, stubbornness, cultural bias and the limitations of the methods and materials of his age. Maurois doubted that even the most advanced theories offered the “last word.” He lived long enough to see once unquestionable intellectual dogmas supplanted by new discoveries. For him the science was never “settled,” and no doubt as he predicted many years ago some of the politically favored systems of today will go the way of the quack theories of Lysenko (Stalin’s favored biologist).

What of modernity’s infatuation with technology? Maurois was concerned that people were placing messianic hopes in science; that even in our “advanced” epoch they were reverting to superstitious prognostication and daydreams.

Certain events can, thanks to science, be foretold, but the future, as a whole, remains unpredictable. And what man would most wish to foretell is precisely what eludes experiment: love, happiness, death, genius…. Technical progress cannot, of itself, determine moral changes.

The lectures conclude by discussing the presence of creative illusion in the arts. Speaking of drama, Maurois says, “You are not living this, but what you see, just because you are not involved, will help you to understand life.” I will share more of his insights in my next post.

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