The Case for Nexialism
By Sam SacketFrom Grundtvig Review, No. 7, May 1957, pp. 29-36
Allegory is no very common method of expression in these days, and so when a man writes an allegory into a science-fiction adventure novel perhaps it is understandable that the point is missed. Such has been the fate of The Voyage of the Space Beagle, by A.E. van Vogt (Simon and Schuster, 1950); reprinted as Mission Interplanetary, New American Library, 1952).
Its original publisher, in fact, seems to have regarded the novel as of even less permanent value than most science-fiction books, for they issued it in a cheaper format, with poorer paper, printing, and binding, than Mr. van Vogt's other publication in the same series, The World of A. Even though the publishers have thus minimized the value of their own production, the novel does present, largely in a loosely allegorical manner, one of the most interesting recent discussions of what Thomas Carlyle would have called the State of Civilization Question.
Initially significant -- and here, again, the book's publishers, in this case its reprint publishers, seem to have been determined to minimize the importance of the book -- is the title: The Voyage of the Space Beagle. For it was The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, published in 1839 by Charles Darwin, which can be said to have laid the foundations for the work which was ultimately to revolutionize the whole of Western civilization. By alluding to Darwin's work, then, Mr. van Vogt seems to be arrogating to himself the credit for founding a new science which will have as profound an effect on Western life as Darwinian biology. So bold an assumption deserves at least inquiry and investigation.
What Mr. van Vogt is putting forward in this book is Nexialism. The word derives from the Latin nexus, and thus its signification is obvious. Nexialism is the core science; the Nexialist is the man who, without being a specialist in any field of knowledge, knows enough to find his way around in all of them.
The novel is really a collection of only tenuously related episodes, compiled as it is from a number of short stories first published by Mr. van Vogt in 1939 and the years shortly thereafter. (The date, exactly one hundred years after the publication of Darwin's Beagle, may be significant.) Insofar as it has a story, the book treats of the efforts of a Nexialist, Elliott Grosvenor, to achieve recognition for his science at the hands of practitioners of more conventional disciplines, and the action of the book takes place on a long interstellar flight.
The Nexialist's advice is never deferred to in the crises which imperil the Beagle's crew, which in the allegory stands for all the human race; but in the end it is the Nexialist's advice which is taken and which destroys the menace. Significant in the allegory is the fact that in every crisis the men who represent the conventional disciplines fly off in all different directions, with nothing in common to hold them together. The success of the Nexialist in overwhelming the obstacles is a direct result of his ability to correlate and co-ordinate fragments of the basic knowledge of all departments of learning. And without him the crew would perish.
What this means is clear. Faced, as the world is, with problems which appear insoluble, and advancing to meet them with our vast knowledge cut up into little pieces and parceled out among the departments of the college faculty, what we need is the development of the kind of scholar who will be able to absorb the essentials of all fields of study and apply what he learns to the solution of the race's present difficulties. Though this may seem to smack of authoritarianism, of ex cathedra decisions to which we all should defer, such is not Mr. van Vogt's purpose; Grosvenor is always careful not to assume a position in which he will dictate the crew's actions.
Although it may seem evident enough what Nexialism should consist of, Mr. van Vogt is determined to clarify things for us by making Grosvenor's closest friend Korita, an archeologist chiefly concerned with a cyclical interpretation of the history of civilizations. In many cases it is Korita's estimation of the position of an alien menace on the cycle which provides Grosvenor with the clue he needs to solve the problem confronting him.
The meaning of this, also, is clear. History -- the kind of history of civilization that sees general patterns and trends, not the kind that loses perspective in trees of minutiae -- is the handmaiden of the future science of Nexialism. Furthermore, as seems plain from the circumstances of the narrative, if there were no Nexialism, archeology and history would come closest to being able to provide the solutions that would save the crew, or the race.
What we really need, Mr. van Vogt is saying, is a science which will incorporate the essentials of all bodies of knowledge, so that the scientist can provide the proper liaison among disciplines. Such a science will help us to unify human endeavor, so that we will advance on the difficulties which beset us with a united front: cooperatively instead of competitively, with our activities purposeful because directed to a common goal. It will also, from the vantage point of its wider vision over the entire range of human affairs, be able to suggest methods of overcoming the problems with which Western civilization is currently faced -- that of survival in the face of thermonuclear explosives being paramount among them.
Lacking such a science -- which would, of course, take a considerable time to develop -- we should turn not to the physical sciences but to the humanities, and specifically to the history of civilization.
The history of civilization, viewed largely, is the province not only of the department of history but also of the historians of science, of art, of music, of literature, of religion, of philosophy, and of social movements. To the extent that any historian is truly learned in any of these fields, it is noticeable that he is also familiar with the others. Take, for an example, the historian of seventeenth-century English literature.
The farther a historian goes into English literature of the seventeenth century, the more he discovers that he needs to know everything that pertains to his subject and the less he feels that he can carve out an area of knowledge to his own; like Shylock's pound of flesh, it defies accurate measurement and is intimately connected with other areas. In the first place, he cannot limit himself to England but must familiarize himself with the whole of French literature from Malherbe to Boileau. Then he will discover that he needs to become expert in the principal trends of English and continental philosophy. Next he will find the study of Purcell and others in music is necessary -- and painting and sculpture -- and science from Galileo to Newton.
By this time, of course, he has already become well aware that you cannot take the period 1600 to 1699 and hack it, raw and bleeding, from what precedes and follows it. Everything in the previous course of human history in religion, philosophy, music, painting, political theory, science, and all the other areas of study, has made some contribution to the seventeenth century; and the seventeenth century has seen the birth of forces that will work throughout the future of human culture on this planet. And thus what is left to him is gradually the extension of his learning to include a familiarity with the whole corpus of human knowledge, despite the fact that he remains chiefly interested in a particular segment of the four-dimensional space-time continuum.
While we are waiting for our Nexialists, then, we can look for help and guidance to our historians of science, of philosophy, of literature, of the arts. It may be that scholars will become the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
But the Nexialists, apparently, are coming. A number of American educators have become about methods of bringing together the splintered fragments of human learning. In particular, a number of colleges in southern California, armed with a Ford Foundation grant, are currently engaged in an educational experiment which may be the first step in the production of Nexialists. The program has as its primary goal the emphasis on teacher-training in the course of studies for the Ph.D. degree, but as one of the means of accomplishing that purpose, it emphasizes interrelationships between fields that otherwise have been kept rigidly separated, such as physics and English literature. As the experiment has been under way only since the fall of 1953, it is impossible yet to judge of its success; if it does succeed, however, the colleges concerned predict that the results of the experiment may revolutionize the training of college teachers. And any such revolutionizing will, of course, be in the direction of Nexialism.
Is it for us to sit with folded hands and wait until this experiment has succeeded or failed? Those of us who already, through the weight of accumulated knowledge, qualify as stopgap Nexialists, and those of us who hope, some day, to have acquired the vast learning of the others, might now begin to take stock of ourselves and of our responsibilities to society.
We are, together with all the rest of mankind, embarked as a voyage as adventurous as that which Mr. van Vogt describes through the far reaches of the interstellar void. Perils are arising which may -- and this is not hysteria -- mean the lives of all of us.
In this pass, learning should not be used for classroom display only. The part of wisdom would be to ascertain whether learning, particularly that learning which fits together pieces of truth held by various disciplines, could not be utilized to discover methods of meeting and overcoming the most pressing of the obstacles in our immediate future.
Granted that there is never an easy answer to a complex problem; granted further that a set of answers that would comprehend all human problems for today and for all time is neither possible nor, perhaps, desirable; still, if it is true, as there is reason to believe, that the future of the civilization we know and perhaps even of human life on this planet depends on the efforts of those humanists who are deeply learned in all aspects of human knowledge, then every humanist who possesses that qualification has the moral obligation at least to try his hand at the job.
Much has been written defensively in the last few years about "justifying" the humanities in an age of science. If the humanities can accept the responsibility urged on them by the age in which we live, there will be no further "justification" demanded of them.