Reading Novels

By Sven Birkerts
The American Scholar, Spring 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

Neuropsychology recognizes an emerging consensus that there may not be such a thing as mind apart from brain function. As Eric Kandel puts it: "Mind is a set of operations carried out by the brain, much as walking is a set of operations carried out by the legs, except dramatically more complex."

This research advances hand in hand with the wholesale implementation and steady expansion of the externalized neural network: the digitizing of almost every sphere of human activity.

Is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative and meaning?

Contemplative and analytic thought are different. The former is intransitive and experiential whereas the latter is transitive and goal directed. For transitive thought, information is a means toward some synthesis or explanation. Then it's good to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the contemplative view, information is nothing without its contexts. Contemplation and analysis are opposed kinds of thinking.

The novel is not just a thing to be studied. Its purpose is less to communicate themes or major recognitions and more to engage the mind in a process that in its full realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no larger end and is the end itself. The novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes.

I'm worried by the rapid erosion of certain ways of thinking: reflection, imaginative projection, contemplation. Ideally, we have left brain and right brain in balance. But we are subscribing wholesale to technologies reinforcing left-brain thinking in every aspect of our lives. What we do is changing how we are by reconditioning our neural functioning.

For a long time we have had the idea that the novel is a form that can be studied and explicated. From this has arisen the dogmatic assumption that the novel is a statement, a meaning-bearing device. This message-driven way of looking at the novel allows for the emergence of evaluative grids. In this way, the novel has been made to serve a goal-driven ideology.

But we have been ignoring the deeper nature of fiction. It is inwardly experiential, a mode of contemplation. Its purpose is to create a terrain where mind can be different, where mind and imagination can freely combine, where memory and sensation can be deployed through the constraints that imagination allows.

Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am in the novel to the degree that it involves me, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me. It is misleading to think of myself as hovering between two places: the conjured and the empirically real. I occupy a third state, one which somehow amalgamates two awarenesses.

Reading a novel involves a double transposition. The first is the inward plunge. No novel can be entered without taking this step. The second involves agreeing to the givens of the work. The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first step will be foreclosed by an inability to focus. Imagination must be quickened and then it must survive interruption and deflection. But we complain that it is hard to maintain attentive focus.

All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have had to evolve coping strategies. When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a fractured attention. When we try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble.

What am I doing when I am reading a novel? How do I justify the activity as something more than a way to pass the time?

I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This reading accentuates my own inner life. While I am reading a novel, the work lives inside me and acts on me. My way of looking at others or my regard for the larger meaning of my life is subject to pressure or infiltration.

In a lifetime of reading, we store impressions according to private systems of distribution, keeping factual information on one plane, acquired psychological insight on another, ideas on a third, and so on. I believe that I know a great deal without knowing what I know. Insights from one source join with those from another. I may be a student of human nature based on my reading. But I no longer know in every case that my insights are from reading.

My reading sensibility does not go seeking after themes and usually forgets them soon after taking them in. I shall need to reflect upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to examine what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.

The novel serves and embodies a certain interior pace. This has been shouted down by the transformations of modern life. Reading requires a synchronization of one's reflective rhythms to those of the work. The reader adjusts to the author, not vice versa, and sometimes that adjustment feels too difficult.

But sensibility is now subject to fragmentation by the turbulent dynamic of life as we live it. We can concentrate only by fighting the distractions. To achieve deep focus nowadays is to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self.

AR  I hacked and simplified lustily to edit this cut from a long and wordy original, or rather from a translation out of German. Birkert's way of thinking and writing is very different from mine, which is what makes me consider it worth the effort to appreciate what he has to say.

Transgressing the Boundaries

By Apurva Narechania
The Common Review, Winter 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

In a 1996 issue of Social Text, the physicist Alan Sokal published a now famous article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." He wrote it as a joke and submitted it to the editors, who published it as cutting-edge theoretical work.

Sokal explained: "To test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies ... publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes."

Jonathan Gottschall is in the English Department at Washington and Jefferson University. Gottschall envisions a time when "something of the rigor of the scientific approach is applied to the humanities. We need to really test our questions, really accumulate knowledge and information. And science has been and continues to be successful because it is the best model we have for generating real, durable knowledge." Gottschall is calling for a science of the humanities.

In 1991, Naomi Wolf wrote a book titled The Beauty Myth: How Images of Female Beauty Are Used Against Women. It is a work of third-wave feminism, a movement that emphasizes a poststructuralist view of gender, arguing against universals in female identity. Wolf claims that Western notions of female attractiveness have no foundation in biological reality. Men wield female beauty to keep women striving for its mythical extremes.

In a 2000 class, Gottschall challenged the assumption that the Beauty Myth is a property of Western culture. In his view, though a standard of beauty may exist, it is not a mythological social construct but instead rooted in our more basic biology. Gottschall reasoned that if he could prove female beauty is stressed in literatures outside the Western tradition, the cultural-constructionist coil wound tight around human nature might begin to unravel. The idea was to process world folktales and to tabulate worldwide references to female beauty with respect to geographic region. The assumption is that folktales mirror social attitudes.

In nearly every region containing a representative sample of folktales, there is a statistically significant pattern across all cultures in all parts of the world, not only the West. This suggests that the Beauty Myth is mythological only in the minds of critics.

This kind of criticism is dehumanizing. The treatment of literature as data points violates our conviction that human stories are irreducible. Gottschall's method is reliant on the simultaneous study of multiple works rather than close study of a single tale or tradition. Against this kind of analysis our romantic selves rebel.

Gottschall's class is a literary jamboree. It is an attempt to do for literature what Celera did for the human genome. The easy analogy here is that Gottschall's method is a widening of literary study in the same way that genomics is a widening of biology. Both require effort on a scale previously unimagined in either discipline.

In 2008 Gottschall published a book called Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. The book contains the study on the Beauty Myth and a few more like it. The studies are all packed into an appendix following three provocative chapters where Gottschall outlines his battle against the status quo in the literary academy. His war is primarily against the poststructuralists pasted by Sokal.

Gottschall submitted his Beauty Myth study to literary journals, but no one would have it. The message here is that science and the humanities are too different. They do not speak the same language.

AR  Sad but true — lit crit is a graveyard for unsystematic thinkers.


By Marco Roth
N + 1, September 14, 2009


Edited by Andy Ross

In the neurological novel, the mind becomes the brain. Since 1997, readers have encountered Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (de Clérambault's syndrome), Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette's syndrome), Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers's The Echomaker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington's disease), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by Rivka Galchen, and John Wray's Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia).

The new reductionism of mind to brain explained proximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity. A convergence of evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and other biological disciplines leads to the claim that we are best understood as organisms whose entire panoply of behavior is directly or indirectly related to organic survival.

Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (1997) effectively inaugurates the genre of the neuronovel, and remains one of its more nuanced treatments. The narrator, Joe Rose, is a science journalist, a self-styled man of the enlightenment. Elitist but meritocratic, Joe is a decent guy who has become the object of a love with no cause but the deluded lover’s neurochemistry. Joe correctly diagnoses the madman relatively early in the novel.

In 1997, McEwan was still the sort of writer to challenge somewhat the correctness of Joe's neurological reductionism. Joe's rejection of any talking cure in favor of a thoroughgoing evolutionary psychology and medicalization had costs that the novelist tried to acknowledge.

McEwan largely abandoned his earlier ambiguity when he wrote Saturday (2005), in favor of stark biological determinism. That novel evokes the struggle between the neurosurgeon Perowne, his barrister wife, and their musician son and poet daughter — and Baxter, a violent thug suffering from the incurable, genetic brain-wasting disease Huntington's chorea. Here McEwan changes the narrative voice from the first person of Enduring Love to a more authoritative limited omniscient third person. We’re always in Perowne's scientific mind, a mind capable of reflecting on itself in terms of neuroscience.

McEwan's neuronovels are of the hard variety. Other books are soft neuronovels.

Books like Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (1999), with its Tourettic narrator, load almost the entire burden of meaning and distinctiveness onto their protagonists' neurologically estranged perceptions of our world. Idiots or the insane can dispense ironic wisdom or serve as objects to show off the protagonist's sympathy and understanding. Septimus Smith, the schizophrenic or shell-shocked First World War vet in Mrs. Dalloway, offers a contrast to the bright world of postwar, aristocratic London, as well as a useful sympathetic object for Woolf's title character.

In Motherless Brooklyn, the orphaned narrator afflicted (or blessed) with Tourette's syndrome determines to solve the mystery of his beloved boss's most foul and unnatural murder. The novel shows an agreeable openness about its derivative character, and perhaps the real purpose is to provide cover for stylistic experimentation. While posing as an observing doctor, the author indulges an impulse that would otherwise be seen as pretentious. When Lethem puts his words into the mouth of a Tourettic character, the very act of medicalization marginalizes any remnant modernism as a case for abnormal psychology.

But to ground special perceptions and heightened language in neurological anomaly ends up severely circumscribing the modernist project. The stylistic novelty and profound interiority of Ulysses or
To the Lighthouse were called forth by normal protagonists and were proposed as new ways of describing everyone and anyone from the inside out. Modernism seemed revolutionary. The neuronovel refashions modernism as odd language for describing odd people. The neuronovels prop up rigid social conventions of language use.

Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances exhibits the perils of this mixture of objective (medical) realism with an attempt to write a novel of subjectivity. The novel is narrated entirely from the point of view of Leo Liebenstein, a man who, suffering from Capgras syndrome, believes his wife has been replaced by an exact replica. The delusion sets in when Liebenstein wakes up from uneasy dreams.
"I was then a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalizations," he tells the reader, as though giving a medical report on himself. What happens next is not a medical report but the flight of a damaged mind. Liebenstein's tics and riffs effectively bury the plot of the novel.

A neuronovel relies on something like a readerly meaning impulse, but it also baffles and frustrates the same impulse. The interpretive leap is disavowed by the pathological premise of the novel. By turning so aggressively inward, this kind of novel bypasses the self, let alone society, or history, to arrive at neurology. The deep logic of the story is simple contingency. And mere biological contingency has a way of repelling meaning.

The aesthetic sensation a reader gets from the neuronovel is not the pleasure of finding the general in the particular, but a frustration born of defeat. We want to make the metaphor work. But this would be to insist on meaning or relevance when there isn't any. The reader has to admit that his brain doesn't work like an autistic person's, a Capgras sufferer's, and that when he loves or works or fears or talks, his ordinary neurons fire or misfire for ordinary rather than extraordinary reasons, whatever these may be.

Science may be replicating and systematizing the earlier insights of the psychological novel. A novelist can be a neuroscientist today by anticipating rather than following the discoveries of brain science. A novelist could describe and mimic traits of cognition that can only be described by future science.

AR  The neurosciences have claimed another victim: novels that break fundamentally new ontological ground in psychology. Maybe Joyce's Ulysses was the last novel to do that.

Ian McEwan

By Lorna Bradbury
The Telegraph, May 20, 2010


Edited by Andy Ross

"We overvalue the arts in relation to the sciences."
Ian McEwan, following his 2010 Royal Society of Literature lecture on Darwin and Einstein

McEwan is rare among his peers in taking an active interest in the sciences and in welcoming scientific ideas into his fiction: "I'm not interested in a form of modern intellectual who has no interest in science."

His novel Solar fashions a dark satire out of global warming. The novel is steeped in research, and describes a technology — artificial photosynthesis — that is not yet a reality but is within our grasp.

Solar has suffered at the hands of the American literary establishment. McEwan: "Americans don't like an unattractive character who is not redeemed at the centre of a novel. And maybe it's a matter of British humour too."