Modern Methods: The Intersection of Myth and Science
in the Works of Giorgio de Chirico and Primo Levi
Adviser: Pietro Frassica
Meredith A. Bock
French and Italian
“It’s always helpful to start early, but settling on a topic you love is the most important thing.”
I originally imagined my thesis would involve a lot of lab time, perhaps with my own strain of yeast or genetically engineered mice. As a freshman, I never would have anticipated my thesis preparation would lead me from the medieval setting of Macerata to a small town on the Lago di Garda for a summer, from the political writings of the Renaissance to the art and fiction of 20th-century Italy. As a pre-med sophomore with a background in the humanities, I remember worrying that I would have to put one of my interests aside to choose a major. Ultimately, the appeal of my thesis topic was that it allowed me to combine my different interests and analyze precisely the intersections between them.
In a fitting conclusion to my undergraduate experience, my thesis examined the interface between science and society in the turbulent atmosphere of 20th-century Italy. I had always been interested in the intersection of different disciplines of thought and how seemingly unrelated modes of understanding could be combined to reveal a common epistemological foundation. I first focused in on this issue in my second junior paper (JP) analyzing Francesco Guicciardini’s political writings in the context of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance. Situated at an interesting historical moment when long-standing medieval certainties about the Ptolemaic universe were dismantled but a new order had not yet solidified, Guicciardini exemplified the burgeoning trend toward humanism. In his valuation of la discrezione and experience as the foundation of knowledge, Guicciardini’s ricordi are exemplary of this transition in thought away from absolutism, both in the methodology he uses and in the acknowledgement of its limitations. Knowledge was to be derived in a step-wise process of perception, integration, and generalization. The scientific method would undergo many more precise modifications over the centuries, but I used this text as a lens to view how the basic procedure—rigorous observation followed by the submission of this information to intellectual processes to form a probabilistic theory—emerged with the humanistic movement.
By the end of my JP, I felt I had established the approach I wanted to take for my thesis. However, I had not entirely settled on a topic. My first piece of advice is: You do not need to force the epiphany. A lot of seniors talk about the “Aha!” moment they have when they see their thesis unfold before them in some kind of blaze of future bound and formatted glory. For me, it was more of a development over time. It’s always helpful to start early, but settling on a topic you love is the most important thing. If you need to take some extra time to make sure it’s the right one, you’ll be happy you did when spring break rolls around and you’re in the basement of Firestone Library for the fifth night in the row subsisting on fodder from the Wa. No matter how early you start, the last stretch of writing is intense for everyone and the last thing you will want is to be bored with your topic.
After coursework on Italian literature and art in the 20th century, I became particularly interested in applying the approach I used in my JP to this time period when many artists and writers actually thematized these tensions and interactions between technology and society, science, and literature. Considering that I was interested in examining some of the underlying epistemological foundations of these works, the turn of the century was a fascinating moment—similar in many ways to the revolution of thought in the Renaissance—where the 19th-century notion of a world whose reality could be revealed definitively within a positivist framework broke down as a newly urbanized and secularized society at the turn of the century transformed the texture of human experience. The belief in objectivity and ontological continuity in the 19th century gave way to a cultural and scientific emphasis on multiple perspectives, subjectivity, and the paradox of self-referential systems. Deconstructing these works the way I did in my JP to examine the underlying approach to knowledge would be particularly interesting in a time when many thinkers were engaged in the same project.
After discussion with my adviser, I originally wanted to have three parts focusing on three thinkers situated throughout the century to track the progression of this theme. However, as I began my first two chapters and my topic continued to morph, my intended last chapter on Italo Calvino no longer quite fit with my argument. I was initially worried that the remaining sections—on Giorgio de Chirico’s arte metafisica and Primo Levi’s series of short stories Storie Naturali—would seem too jumbled together without a third chapter to complete the progression of the theme. However, I was able to focus in on enough common themes that I ended up with a more cohesive product than I would have had with my original idea. I was lucky to have an adviser who knew how to expertly guide me in a productive direction while also listening closely to my own interests. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I think one of the most important aspects of the thesis process is finding an adviser with whom you have this rapport.
Though there are various Italian thinkers in the 20th century who explore scientific themes in their work, I chose to analyze the works of de Chirico and Levi for their particular approach toward combining structures of understanding and their similarity in choice of those structures. With his arte metafisica, de Chirico engages in the process of myth-making with the new icons of modernity in an artistic process that combines traditionally separate structures of understanding. It is thus through a momentary convergence of worlds that a vision of the metaphysical can be obtained, an act of revelation he then transfers to his viewers by inducing an intuitive merging with the object of art. His art is founded on myth, but he utilizes a formulaic composure and increasingly explicit scientific symbology that reflects his Nietzschean consolidation of different modes of thought. Never proposing a universal truth, de Chirico seeks to convey personal moments of revelation by providing his viewer with their conduit. Later in the century, Levi—part chemist and part humanist—embeds his work with both scientific and mythic structures in order to explore their limits. He is interested in the intersection between science and myth in a way similar to de Chirico, but he is less concerned with the philosophical pursuit of a metaphysical reality than he is with the everyday ethical consequences of different modes of understanding.
Rather than expressing faith in any single human structure, de Chirico and Levi find the intersection of myth and science to be a combination of epistemological structures that can more effectively order the chaotic data presented to the modern sensibility. In contrast with Calvino and other scientifically yet fantastically inclined thinkers of the modern period, both of them value concrete reality, not in the strictly positivist sense but as a medium through which higher truths can be reached. The key ways in which their works differed also provided me a means of tracking the development of this theme from the beginning to the middle of the century, from the historical and cultural circumstances of the First World War to the Second.
Seniors always give the advice that you should choose a topic you are passionate about. Considering the length of time you will be spending with it—and how all-consuming it becomes over the course of the year—I think this is absolutely true. However, I also will add that it is important to stay flexible. My topic developed in unexpected ways and I had to change or even eliminate parts that I initially considered integral. Your passion for your topic will be your driving force, but it is important to find an adviser and a department that will help direct and develop it.
Lastly, choose your carrel mate wisely. I think this is good advice in itself, but also in a broader sense. Even though your thesis has your name on it, there are so many people that will become crucial to you during the writing process—proofreaders, study buddies, family members, the assorted baristas at Small World Coffee. Choosing a topic is intimidating, but ultimately the value of the thesis is in the whole process, how you grow and adapt and interact with your collaborators. There can be pressure to pick a particular subject for various external reasons, but I think if you focus from the beginning on an area you find meaningful and believe will enrich your year in some way, it will lead to a thesis of lasting value. As I get ready to go to medical school next year, I feel that my thesis has helped prepare me for a profession that is often considered technical but is at its root humanistic. The thesis is distinct from any other coursework you’ve done, because it really comes to define your year—and after all the hard work, holding the bound copy in your hands is pretty much the best feeling you could imagine.
Modern Methods: The Intersection of Myth and Science
in the Works of Giorgio de Chirico and Primo Levi
Meredith A. Bock
Professor of French and Italian
“Meredith’s thesis gave me new ways to reflect on the relation between science and the humanities, which seems to be a question that fascinates students today more than ever.”
As a senior thesis adviser, I have the pleasure of guiding students in their scholarship in a subject of their choice. I enjoy seeing how much effort and enthusiasm they apply in developing their theses. In some cases, as in the case of Meredith Bock, students discover new and unexpected avenues in exploring their topics, which is a great pleasure for an adviser to witness. After my discussions with Meredith, she proceeded in fascinating directions that had never occurred to me. In a regular classroom setting, I present the material, select the readings, and choose the topics of discussion. In advising a thesis, it is the student who brings to me his or her discoveries, which often go beyond the approaches I suggest.
During the last academic year, working with Meredith was a great pleasure, because she has genuine interests both in science and in the humanities. She followed her passions in writing her thesis as she explored the use of ancient myth in the writings of Primo Levi and in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Her interdisciplinary analysis displayed an appropriate balance between these two different fields.
The most difficult aspect of advising this thesis was helping Meredith to focus her efforts on a narrow topic when she had such a wide spectrum of interests. She was able to find a topic that combined a variety of subjects with which she was at ease. I was impressed by the depth of Meredith’s inquiry into her sources. She not only analyzed but also interrogated the texts and found some intriguing answers. Meredith showed how myths can surface the existential uneasiness of 20th-century human beings.
Her thesis analyzed the synergy of science and literature, one of the most important and oft-debated issues among scholars. Contrary to assumptions shared by many, the two are not incompatible. Meredith analyzed the ways de Chirico moved from the concrete world to access metaphysical truths, and how Levi applied the role of technology to his assessments of society and the human experience. Meredith’s thesis gave me new ways to reflect on the relation between science and the humanities, which seems to be a question that fascinates students today more than ever.
My first advice to seniors is to focus their field of inquiry. The thesis is a great opportunity for students who have spent four years developing their skills in a variety of topics to pursue their interests in a specific field and elaborate their original ideas. It is always difficult to find a topic that is narrow enough for a thesis but also allows students to combine their multiple and equally beloved interests. It is important to be aware of this consideration when defining a topic, and it is often the key to a successful thesis.