Revolutionary poetry and liquid crystal chemistry: Herman Gorter, Ada Prins and the interface between literature and science

Foundations of Chemistry 23 (1):1-18 (2020)
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In the Netherlands, the poet Herman Gorter is mostly known as the author of the neo-romantic poem May and the “sensitivistic” Poems, but internationally he became famous as a propagandist of radical Marxism: the author of influential brochures and of an “open letter” to comrade W.I. Lenin in 1920. During the 1890s, Gorter became increasingly dissatisfied with his poetry, considering it as ego-centric, disinterested and “bourgeois”, unconnected with what was happening in the real world. He wanted to put his poetry on a scientific footing, notably by endorsing a dialectical materialist worldview. In the communist society he envisioned, science would become poetry and poetry would become science. In his opus magnum Pan, two terms are rather prominent, namely heelal and kristal. These signifiers not only reflect important themes, but also two friendships which began around 1900, namely with prominent astronomer and marxist Anton Pannekoek and with Ada Prins, the first woman in the Netherlands who acquired a PhD in chemistry, specialised in liquid crystal research. Whereas Ada Prins is mostly remembered as one of Gorter’s secret lovers, she was first and foremost his educated guide into the complex and enigmatic world of twentieth-century chemistry research. Liquid crystal chemistry became an important source of inspiration for Gorter’s work and the main objective of this paper is to demonstrate her influence on Gorter’s Pan as a scientific poem After presenting the two heroes of this paper, and their work in poetry and chemistry respectively, I will analyse the role of liquid crystals in Herman Gorter’s Pan, highlighting important connections with Ada Prins’ research into liquid crystal chemistry.

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Hub Zwart
Erasmus University Rotterdam


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