By Simon Critchley
As a kid in England, I watched a lot of television. There weren’t any books in our house, not even the Bible. TV was therefore pretty important, omnipresent actually. Of course, most of what it delivered was garbage. But in 1973, the BBC aired an extraordinary documentary series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by one Dr. Jacob Bronowski in 13 hour-long episodes. Each episode was what he called an “essay” and involved some exotic and elaborate locations, but the presentation was never flashy and consisted mostly of Dr. Bronowski speaking directly and deliberately to the camera.
Dr. Bronowski (he was always referred to as “Dr.” and I can’t think of him with any other, more familiar, moniker) died 40 years ago this year, at the relatively young age of 66. He was a Polish-born British mathematician who wrote a number of highly-regarded books on science, but who was equally at home in the world of literature. He wrote his own poetry as well as a book on William Blake.
He was a slight, lively, lovely man. Because it was the early ’70s, some of his fashion choices were bewilderingly pastel, especially his socks, though on some occasions he sported a racy leather box jacket. He often smiled as he spoke, not out of conceit or because he lived in California (which, incidentally, he did, working at the Salk Institute in San Diego), but out of a sheer, greedy joy at explaining what he thought was important. But there was a genuine humility in his demeanor that made him utterly likeable.
“The Ascent of Man” (admittedly a little sexist now – great men abound, but there are apparently few great women), deliberately inverted the title of Darwin’s 1871 book. It was not an account of human biological evolution, but cultural evolution — from the origins of human life in the Rift Valley to the shifts from hunter/gatherer societies, to nomadism and then settlement and civilization, from agriculture and metallurgy to the rise and fall of empires: Assyria, Egypt, Rome.
Bronowski presented everything with great gusto, but with a depth that never sacrificed clarity and which was never condescending. The tone of the programs was rigorous yet permissive, playful yet precise, and always urgent, open and exploratory. I remember in particular the programs on the trial of Galileo, Darwin’s hesitancy about publishing his theory of evolution and the dizzying consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some of it was difficult for a 13-year-old to understand, but I remember being absolutely riveted.
The ascent of man was secured through scientific creativity. But unlike many of his more glossy and glib contemporary epigones, Dr. Bronowski was never reductive in his commitment to science. Scientific activity was always linked to artistic creation. For Bronowski, science and art were two neighboring mighty rivers that flowed from a common source: the human imagination. Newton and Shakespeare, Darwin and Coleridge, Einstein and Braque: all were interdependent facets of the human mind and constituted what was best and most noble about the human adventure.
For most of the series, Dr. Bronowski’s account of human development was a relentlessly optimistic one. Then, in the 11th episode, called “Knowledge or Certainty,” the mood changed to something more somber. Let me try and recount what has stuck in my memory for all these years.
He began the show with the words, Read the rest of this entry »