Anja Müller-Muth – “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter”: Scepticism or Affirmation in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. A Response to Burkhard Niederhoff

"It's wanting to know that makes us matter": Scepticism or Affirmation in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. A Response to Burkhard Niederhoff

Anja Müller-Muth

Published in Connotations Vol. 12.2-3 (2002/03)


In her entry into the debate following Burkhard Niederhoff’s article on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (published in Connotations 11.1), Anja Müller-Muth supports his suggestion that Arcadia is “primarily concerned with epistemological processes and that the misunderstandings in the play are creative rather than disruptive,” but, in striving for the more balanced view of the play, defends the possibility of readings that argue for Arcadia‘s sceptical attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge.

Tom Stoppard's plays teem with epistemological questions, attempts to reconstruct the past, puzzles to be solved, or, more generally, with the search for knowledge and truth. Since the quests of Stoppard's protagonists meet only with varying success, critics argue whether Stoppard's plays communicate a hope that truth and knowledge may eventually be retrieved, or whether scepticism and indeterminacy prevail. Burkhard Niederhoff's article has made a further contribution to this debate. Focussing on the epistemological function of the juxtaposition of the arts and sciences in Arcadia, Niederhoff disagrees with Antor's interpretation of the misunderstandings in Stoppard's dialogue as "semantic entropy,"1) and takes great pains to demonstrate that, quite on the contrary, these misunderstandings create meaning (44). In the first scene of the play, for example,

[t]he interruptions of Thomasina's lesson do not cause pedagogical or cognitive entropy. They result in worthwhile lessons and insights, just as the misunderstandings that characterize the dialogue create interesting and relevant meanings. […] In this play, meanings are found and discoveries are made when 'the unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together,' when a random or chaotic element finds its way into a rational, goal−oriented pursuit. (48−49)

Niederhoff then finds in Arthur Koestler's idea of bisociative thinking2) a tool to assess Thomasina's and Hannah's ability to 'think aside' [→page 282] and to adopt, adapt and improve chance findings for their theories in order to gain new insights. He finally attempts to disprove the play's alleged scepticism by hinting at the structure of Arcadia which evolves on two time levels that not only endow the audience with advanced knowledge but also enable the characters to catch up in the end (55). According to Niederhoff, Arcadia suggests that a clear distinction of true and false is as much possible as a reconstruction of the past. Perceiving Stoppard's focus on the process of research rather than on its results, he concludes: "The acknowledgement of irregularity, unpredictability, and disorder does not lead to scepticism. On the contrary, it opens the door to a new research paradigm [in the case of Arcadia, this new research paradigm is chaos theory] that creates fresh possibilities and opportunities" (57).

While I wholeheartedly agree that Arcadia is primarily concerned with epistemological processes and that the misunderstandings in the play are creative rather than disruptive, I part company with Niederhoff when he tries to invalidate sceptical readings. I shall ground my response on three major aspects:

1. Intertextuality

Arcadia lends itself especially well to an intertextual reading which considers the various meanings that are grafted onto the text via allusions. For example, the allusions to Arcadia, landscape gardening, chaos theory or Lord Byron infuse the play with meanings which, by undermining notions of determinate knowledge, not only account for its wit but also for its uncertainties. As I have elaborated on this topic elsewhere,3) one example may suffice:

In his thorough analysis of the first scene of Stoppard's comedy, Niederhoff perceives Sidley Park as "an Arcadia where exciting but hazardous discoveries can be made, an Eden where knowledge may be gained at the price of innocence" (47). Niederhoff apparently plays down the challenge to the pursuit of knowledge that generically resides in the allusion to Paradise—after all, eating from the tree of [→page 283] knowledge was the sin which closed Eden to Adam and Eve.4) If Stoppard's play is as optimistic about the pursuit of knowledge as Niederhoff's article suggests, the frame of reference renders this pursuit problematic. On the one hand, the allusion to Eden realigns knowledge with sin; on the other hand, the allusion to Arcadia evokes ambiguity, especially when characters quote the famous sentence "Et in Arcadia ego." In a seminal article on Nicolas Poussin's two versions of The Arcadian Shepherds, Erwin Panofsky discussed the ambiguity of this phrase implying either nostalgic longing or a memento mori.5) Both readings also resonate in the first scene of Stoppard's Arcadia, when Lady Croom quotes the sentence in a nostalgic manner, whereupon Thomasina refers to the grammatically more accurate reference to death (13).6) The paradisiacal and Arcadian subtext thus provides a setting by no means favourable for the advancement of unambiguous knowledge, a twist which Niederhoff's reading does not take into account.

2. Misprisions

Unravelling intertextual references is, of course, a question of method; and in choosing to focus on the dialogue and the structural elements of the play, Niederhoff perhaps necessarily puts aside intertextual considerations. This does not explain, however, the instances where he clearly misreads Arcadia.

Arguing that Thomasina makes important discoveries in the first scene through misunderstandings and interruptions, Niederhoff presupposes an innocent Thomasina who, through observing her seniors, quickly advances if not to experience, at least to a sound knowledge of life. We should not forget, however, that Thomasina is a precocious prodigy whose reactions to Septimus's evasive answers to her questions about carnal embrace very clearly indicate that she already knows what this expression signifies. Later on, her witty repartees are definitely no chance remarks but pointed comments on the dialogue.7) When referring to the metaphor of the seed falling on [→page 284] stony ground, for instance, Thomasina does not misunderstand Septimus's biblical allusion (cf. Niederhoff 48) but sees through it and, as Niederhoff himself points out, retorts with a reference to Onan.8) In so doing, she reunites the biblical frame of reference with the sexual one, thus skilfully outmanoeuvring Septimus's evasive reply. There is a gradual increase of knowledge in the first scene of Arcadia, but this forms part of the exposition of the play, conveying information about its topic, setting, and protagonists to the readers or the audience who are actually the ones who gain new insights and 'learn' most in this scene. This enhancement of knowledge, however, is largely a matter of theatrical conventions.

The juxtaposition of Bernard and Hannah needs some qualification, too. If Bernard is not susceptible to evidence against his theory, Hannah's readiness to adapt to chance findings does not induce her to alter her opinion on the relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism, either. Although she revises her interpretation of the Sidley Park hermit from a "mind in chaos suspected of genius" (Arcadia 27) to "[t]he Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness" (Arcadia 66), her aversion to Romanticism remains unchanged. This is the more remarkable because, as Niederhoff demonstrates, Hannah owes her evidence largely to twists in the plot that could be classified as (however loosely) "romantic" within the binary oppositions deployed in the play: random discoveries, (sexual) attraction, or conversations on chaos theory.9) In fact, Bernard's comment on her book Caro, malicious as it may be, raises the suspicion that Hannah's scholarly work rests firmly within the matrix of feminist recovery studies blaming patriarchal society for condemning the works of female writers to oblivion.10) Her new book project displays a similar revisionary rhetoric of a powerful, central, hegemonic force (Romanticism) suppressing a marginalized figure or idea (Enlightenment, embodied by the Sidley Park hermit).

I also doubt whether Hannah's and Thomasina's research methods exemplify bisociative thinking. Working on the interdisciplinary topic "landscape and literature 1750−1834" (Arcadia 25), Hannah does not [→page 285] have to learn anything in order to look at other disciplines, and as has just been seen, Hannah is far less flexible in her research paradigms than Niederhoff suggests. Moreover, insights in Arcadia do not result from playing or daydreams (Niederhoff 50; I cannot find any example of a daydream in this play), but from accidental finds (e.g. envelopes, folders, or pictures) during an otherwise very systematic and methodical research.11) Last but not least, Thomasina's observations on rice pudding with jam ("You cannot stir things apart"; Arcadia 5) which catalyzes her later insights about the second law of thermodynamics neither result from "thinking aside" nor are they inspired by a "visual image," as Niederhoff suggests. They merely follow the old inductive principle of deriving a general rule from observations of everyday occurrences. Koestler and bisociation are by no means needed to explain this particular passage and other moments of discovery in the play.

A further misprision occurs with reference to the setting. Whereas Peter Paul Schnierer12) considers Arcadia to be an elusive space, Niederhoff declares:

The Arcadia of the play is not located in an elusive elsewhere but right before the audience's eyes: in the schoolroom shared by Thomasina and Septimus. This is Thomasina's room of her own, a privileged and protected environment in which she can pursue her intellectual interests and make her discoveries in the company of a gifted and sympathetic teacher. (54−55)

This is altogether wrong because "[t]he Arcadia of the play" is first and foremost identified as and located in the garden of Sidley Park. This garden, in turn, is represented in a drawing in the gardener's sketchbook and in a number of verbal references in the dialogue, but it is not visualized right before the audience's eyes.13) The schoolroom is far from being "Thomasina's room of her own," for people frequently intrude into it, even sending her out. As an institutionalized site for the perpetuation of conventional knowledge—Thomasina is taught traditional maths and Newtonian principles—a schoolroom epitomizes precisely the traditional matrix that would impede innovative [→page 286] thought according to Koestler's bisociation (cf. Niederhoff 53). Finally, the room itself proves to be unstable, its props move through time, acquiring different meanings depending on the century and the scene of the play in which they are used. In sum, the temporally unstable setting of Arcadia can hardly serve to counter the idea of elusiveness.

3. Return to Scepticism (?)

Let me return to the question whether Arcadia professes a sceptical attitude towards the pursuit of knowledge or not. Niederhoff finds evidence for an anti−sceptical stance in resolved misunderstandings, learning processes, insights and verifications of theories. The examples he quotes indeed support an affirmative position, yet I believe one has to consider some further aspects in order to arrive at a balanced view of the play.

For one thing, it is crucial to distinguish between different levels of communication, because insight and knowledge are unevenly distributed in Arcadia. The nineteenth−century characters have the knowledge of past events for which the twentieth−century characters are craving. On the other hand, the twentieth−century scientists have an advanced technology and discoveries at their disposal which the nineteenth−century characters are still lacking. During their research, the scholars and scientists on both time levels gain on each other, but due to the time lag and the ensuing historical and scientific rift, they cannot catch up entirely. It has already been suggested that the meanings brought about by the misunderstandings which Niederhoff has analysed create above all insights in the external communicative system, i.e. among the audience who has access to the different frames of reference and thus can enjoy the comic effects produced in the play. When assessing insight and knowledge in Arcadia it is therefore vital to note whose advancement of knowledge is at stake.

It is equally important to realize that several uncertainties still remain unresolved at the end of the play for both characters and audience, [→page 287] who still do not know,14) for instance, why Byron left England, or who shot the hare.15) Arcadia also remains painstakingly vague about Septimus's precise motivations and occupations as hermit of Sidley Park. Whereas Burkhard Niederhoff is very confident about details concerning Septimus's eremitic life,16) the play makes no explicit statement on why Septimus had decided to spend the rest of his life in the hermitage, what he did with the formula, whether he understood it, or whether he wanted to prove or disprove its implications. We do not even know whether Septimus was really insane or whether his contemporaries, not understanding Thomasina's algorithm and its implications, only believed him to be a lunatic. Val and Hannah refer to Septimus as mad, but their remarks are based on nineteenth−century documents and on Val's prejudice that only a madman would take the pains to plot an iterated algorithm with pencil and paper.17) Before taking this remark at face value, we ought to remember that Val also believed a girl living at the beginning of the nineteenth century could not come up with the algorithm Thomasina discovers. And if Septimus is not mad—what about Hannah's theory on the significance of the mad Sidley Park hermit for the status of Romanticism? Burkhard Niederhoff asserts:

The outcome of the research or detective plot also precludes scepticism. […] This plot contrasts Bernard's theory, which is wrong, with Hannah's theory, which is right, and both are proved to be so in the course of the play. […] As I pointed out above, the final moment of Arcadia is about the discovery of the missing piece of evidence that establishes the truth of Hannah's theory. A sceptical play would end on a different note. (55, italics B. N.)

In view of the points made above, Niederhoff's alleged refutation becomes as valid as the claims for the play's scepticism he attempts to invalidate. Yet, instead of trying to prove or disprove the alleged scepticism or affirmative attitude in Stoppard's Arcadia I would rather highlight what I consider to be Niederhoff's most valuable insight: "Stoppard is less interested in truth than how it is found or missed; he is less interested in the result of research than in its process" (56). Although I am wary of speculating about authors' intentions, I can [→page 288] wholeheartedly subscribe to Niederhoff's emphasis on epistemological processes in Stoppard's play. When one looks at how knowledge is achieved, scepticism ceases to be an important issue because a reading that looks at epistemological processes instead of gained insights can cope with multiple meanings and indeterminacy. What Stoppard's Arcadia witnesses is a serene variation of existentialism, of plodding on towards a self−set goal without knowing whether one is going to achieve it, or whether it even exists. This is the glory of Hannah's "It's wanting to know that makes us matter" (Arcadia 75). Stoppard's characters matter because they want to know. The problem with us scholars may be that we tend to be so hungry for results that we pretend to know, even if it may sometimes be "[b]etter to struggle on knowing that failure is final" (Arcadia 76).

Otto−Friedrich−UniversitÄt Bamberg