TOSS AN ENCYCLOPEDIA INTO AN OSTERIZER and press “blend.” That’s how it feels to spend an hour with Raymond Malewitz.
The assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at Oregon State University will take you on an intellectual romp that careens from crime-scene forensics to IKEA hackers, from the Sokal hoax to mad-cow disease, from “salvagepunks” to the Adventures of Tintin. In one breath he’s talking about MacGyver, and in the next, he’s making a point about Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. One minute he’s analyzing the gray wolf’s role in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, while the next he’s describing what happens when you drop a zinc-and-copper penny into hydrochloric acid.
“I’m a dabbler,” he says with an apologetic grin. “I like to jump nimbly from thing to thing.”
Especially, he likes to leap the traditional chasms between the sciences and the humanities on American campuses. While his propensity to break out of disciplinary silos makes him a rarity in academia, he’s not entirely alone. There is, after all, his doppelganger. Giving his listener a quizzical look that says, “I know, it’s hard to believe, right?” he waxes befuddled about Jason Coats, an undergraduate classmate at the University of Michigan who had signed up for the identical, improbable double major, biochemistry and literature. “It was the weirdest thing,” he says, still shaking his head in disbelief nearly two decades later. “There was this other guy who took the very same, very strange double major.”
The doppelganger aside, Malewitz’s simultaneous embrace of the humanities and the sciences did set him apart from his peers. “My chemistry friends were deeply suspicious of my English friends, and my English friends were kind of puzzled by my chemistry friends,” he reports, a sly snicker signaling his enjoyment of confounding his pals.
As an undergrad, Malewitz figured the only way to connect science and literature professionally was through the science fiction genre — that is, fiction about the future. But he had scant interest in what he calls “speculative scenarios.” It was the real practice of science, “the day-to-day interactions between laboratory people and laboratory objects,” that pulled him in. Unsure about his professional direction after graduation, he took a job doing smokestack purification research for an environmental engineering company in Cologne, Germany.
Once back in the states, he taught chemistry and biology at a private international high school for oil-industry kids in Houston. He loved teaching. But as he looked toward grad school, he remained torn between the sciences and the arts.
“I struggled with it a lot,” he confesses. “But over the course of working in various chemistry labs, I discovered that as a chemist, you have to specialize rather quickly. And that’s the thing you do for your life. You’re the ‘mass-spec’ guy. I didn’t want to be the mass-spec guy.”
Meanwhile, a new field was taking hold in literature departments — literature and science, which he defines broadly as “fictional explorations of scientific achievements and problems,” which are often “combined with attempts to accurately represent modern science as a kind of culture.” He thought to himself: “Whoa, this is something I can do. I can combine these two interests and talk about things I love from the literary perspective, which I couldn’t do from the other way.”
So he went back to school for a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Virginia. Summers, he wore his science hat to teach a course in the science of crime-scene investigations at Cambridge. His doctorate completed, he taught writing as a lecturer at Yale for several years. But he never abandoned the scientific alter ego that had been with him since childhood.
Roots on a Rock
It was in the mid-1970s when a retired Catholic priest living near the shores of Lake Huron fell in love with a young elementary school teacher. The unlikely pair married and lived for two years on one of the lake’s thousands of small islands, a “2 ½-acre rock pile” without electricity or running water. No TV, no phone. Great slabs of ice crashed and rolled in the lake during spring thaw, making travel to mainland Ontario impossible. So when the couple’s first child, Raymond’s older sister, came along, they moved back to town. But they spent summers on the island.
During those long, light-filled days, Ray learned to catch, fillet and panfry fresh pike and perch. He gathered wild blueberries in a tin bucket. He pumped water at an old hand pump and, when he was big enough, hauled it to the cabin. With his younger brother, he salvaged fort-building materials from a couple of moldering old skiffs. Beaver and deer swam in the cold, clear water that lapped the shores. At night, he listened to his father’s adventure stories of canoeing in the Yukon, paddling Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake above the Arctic Circle.
And he read. The teetering stacks of library books he carried back to the island after weekly boat trips to the mainland were an eclectic selection, from graphic novels to presidential biographies to Hindu scripture. A particular favorite was Hemingway, who “wrote about areas in Michigan that I knew and that I had fished,” Malewitz says. “The authors I typically read were either European or focused on one of the two American coasts, so I tended to associate ‘important’ art with those regions. Hemingway taught me that my own region was worthy of the same thinking.”
Summers on a primitive island where the only parental rule was, “Don’t die,” gave Malewitz room to know Earth on its own terms. The human bent toward domination and domestication of wild places and wild things became a central theme in Malewitz’s scholarship. For a recent OSU Humanities Center fellowship, for instance, he explored the question, Can literary animals have agency? His analysis centered on Cormac McCarthy’s searing story of adolescent Billy Parham’s paradoxical relationship with a captive gray wolf in The Crossing, the second novel in the Border Trilogy. This quarter, he’s co-teaching a course called The Art, Science and Literature of Fly Fishing, described in the syllabus as “a cross-linked, multidisciplinary class that uses fly fishing as a window into the larger world of science, art and conservation.”
Zoonotic diseases — ones that pass between animals and humans — are another of Malewitz’s current interests. “These zoonotic viruses — Ebola, mad cow, HIV, West Nile — are really dangerous in our popular imagination,” he says. “They have an additional horror associated with them because it suggests that we are like the animals, that the divides we set up between human bodies and animal bodies are illusory, right?”
He also delves into “material culture studies,” an interdisciplinary field that originated in anthropology but has veered toward contemporary themes such as anti-consumerism, waste reduction, self-sufficiency and DIY (do-it-yourself) — ideas Malewitz tackles in his first book, The Practice of Misuse: Rugged Consumerism in Contemporary American Culture (2014, Stanford University Press).
Malewitz voices impatience with what he calls the “artificial war” between the sciences and the humanities. He concedes that when scholars in the arts, sciences and social sciences toss their divergent ideas into one bubbling cauldron, there’s a danger of creating some “monstrous Chimera — you know, like part human, part lion, part horse.
“Sometimes that looks pretty ugly,” he says, pondering the oddity of such a multi-species beast. “Sometimes, though, it’s beautiful.”