Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Literature and Science at Manchester University

There's something I don't quite get about these public talks with Martin Amis, Professor of the Creative Writing School at Manchester University. Once more, last night, for 'Literature and Science', the last in this year's series, the huge Whitworth Hall was almost full - and this on a night of frost and threatened snow. It's as though there's a huge public appetite for intellectual debate, as though, despite the softer options of pop culture or the computer or books by the fire, people are prepared, for the sake of real-life debate, to battle through the freezing winds and stand with their toes dropping off at bus stops.

And yet. I dunno... Bear with me while I try to work it out.

Discussing the subject with Amis were psychotherapist Adam Phillips and philosopher John Gray, chaired by a woman I didn't know and who failed to identify herself but later said in passing that she had a scientific background.

The hall was freezing. People kept their coats on. The panel filed onto the stage and were introduced. John Gray, we were told, challenges the whole notion of science as modern and progressive, indeed challenges the whole notion of progress.

Well, I was interested already: this is the subject of some of my writing.

Amis began. He said there was something he felt he should mention before we went any further: the terrible events in Mumbai. You know, I just don't know what to think about the fact that he did this. It seems so right that someone with a public platform should use it to address a matter of current urgency - and some of what he said was interesting, but enough material for another (hot) debate - but there's something about this which is somehow also wrong: the hi-jacking of an agreed intellectual agenda, which is in danger of privileging, however briefly, the hi-jacker himself over that agenda. Not to mention the fact that he began by saying that 'Mumbai' was like a primitive baby-talk form of 'Bombay'...

I think this is my main problem with Amis when he steps away from writing the fiction which I, for one, have stoutly championed: so often when he speaks in public it's in terms of hierarchies. He turned to the subject in hand and immediately presented us with one: historically, he said, literature has been concerned [in response to the growth of science] with the following, in order: gods, demigods, kings and queens, statesmen and soldiers, the middle classes, Everyman and the working classes, down to the present age, the age of irony in literature.

This, our growing understanding that we are not the centre of the universe, may be an accurate assessment of our historical-psychological position, but the terms in which he spoke of it were interesting, and perhaps telling: he spoke of it as a 'descent' of literature, and of literature as 'historically looking downwards'. We still have cosmic yearnings, though, he said, we still aspire if not to godhead then at least to angeldom - and he informed us of another hierarchy, the nine orders of angels, of which we would probably hope to be Seraphim, he said (though perhaps he should speak for himself). The history of literature and science, he said, was one of increasing 'humiliation' - there he is with that word again! - and disappointment for the human species. The place we are now is realizing that we are not even intelligent enough as a species to understand the universe. As a result, a plausible future for the novel is to move inwards, as the ex-sci-fi writer JG Ballard has done, to a concern with the inner world, and with neuroscience and developmental psychology. The place of the novel is to recreate what it is to be human (not quite sure what he meant by that in this context - it could be seen as begging the question), but it was interesting, he said, that while Einstein would read philosophy to know how to think about his own science, Amis understood that not many present-day scientists would do such a thing.

Then in turn, Adam Phillips and John Gray were asked to speak. See, again, there is something about this, the way Amis always goes first, even when he says he doesn't know anything about the subject at hand: the others always end up looking as if they're responding to him whether or not they do, but in any case they mostly do, and yet it's not a proper debate, and so there's your real-life hierarchy right in front of your face.

Adam Phillips asked the question which Amis's speech had raised but failed to address: why is it so disturbing, after all, to discover we're merely animals? (Well, he threw it out at us.) He then presented his view of the science/literature issue from the point of view of psychotherapy. He told us that having been educated in the sixties and seventies he'd grown up with an anti-technological, Lawrentian view of the world, and the great thing for him about literature then was that it did not have any pretensions [as science did] to progress. The issue of science versus literature was not really an issue for him until psychotherapy brought him up against it. Literature is about singularity (of a character or a voice), but science deals in generalities. Freud himself was perplexed because while you can apply certain general principles of psychology theory (eg we all have an Oedipus complex, all children develop in certain stages) each case history is individual and indeed like a story: singularity is asserted and dissolves the theoretical categories. Psychology therefore is symptomatic of the science/literature dichotomy and its debate around progress: it wants to be concerned with generalities but constantly comes up against idiosyncracy. (I think that's the gist of what he said.)

John Gray said it was interesting how science got used as part of a project of human redemption/salvation/liberation, and amongst writers who have embraced the idea of science as a way for humanity to lift itself out of the animal condition, the Darwinian HG Wells is the most interesting, and The Island of Doctor Moreau the most interesting of his books. Moreau's attempts to 'bring the animal out of humanity' fail, and it is interesting that despite Wells's personal commitment to the idea that progress in science could be used to elevate humanity, his fables point to a different notion: that [scientific] knowledge can't create human progress (and at the end of his life Wells came to the latter conclusion). Gray talked then about the fact that Stalin had tried to develop a supersoldier who would need less sleep and food and would have fewer responses of sympathy - an experiment which of course also failed (I wasn't quite sure of the thread of his argument here), before saying that on the whole literature has not embraced the idea of human progress through science.

Amis was then asked to comment, and he said something which seemed to me once again to appeal anxiously to hierarchy: that yes, we are animals, but the thing which 'marks us off ' (note that language) from the other animals is our knowledge of death, and the thing about literature is that it gives us immortality. But then he turned his statement into a question: Do we take this as a defining difference?

At this point I started to lose grip of the discussion, sitting there at the back of a cold hall (with people around me putting their scarves back on), and the mics not working properly so that John Gray's voice became a shuffly mumble and it all came over to me as not so much a discussion with a development but a choppy to-and-fro between various hobby horses, Amis (it seemed to me) throwing in smoke bombs of references to pseudoscience (which the others then tried to question or define: Gray: What do we mean by pseudoscience? The alchemists, after all, were the precursors of science; Phillips: Pseudoscience is propaganda) and repressive regimes, in particular the Nazi project, which he said was pseudoscience. (Here was one whiff of proper debate, when Gray countered that the Nazis did claim to be rational and scientific and that a lot of anthropology before then was racist.) There was reference to the fact that at certain periods of history knowledge has been seen as a temptation and/or a form of oppression (Gray) and that Stalin was perjorative about reason, since once you discredit reason you can believe anything is possible, which gives you all sorts of licence (Amis). There was agreement that there is a certain sado-masochism in our attitude to science, ie that we feel we must submit to scientific truth, and Phillips asked why we so value predictability [of which, presumably, science provides at least an illusion]? All this interspersed with little lectures (I began to feel like a second-rate student just not following), on the history of philosophy from Gray, on facts about the Nazis and Stalin from Amis.

I kept thinking, Eh? What? as statements came in apparently inconsequentially and begged far too many questions (Phillips: 'It's a paradox that we're animals who have to learn how to be better animals'; Gray: 'The Spanish Inquisition was an attempt to close off knowledge but also an attempt to close off doubt' (an opposition I thought debatable, but which was simply left hanging); Amis: 'Jewish science ( beg pardon?) - Einstein and others - was a revolt against pseudoscience'.

And then it was opened up to the audience. Someone asked (asked, notice: this was not a debate) what made literature different from science (a question which had not yet been addressed) and Amis said (in the patrician manner which he has in public nowadays) that it was a question of innovation (literature wasn't at all innovative; no literary technique is ever really new, but it will survive because people always want stories and literature is the ideal way to commune with oneself, that's what's human [and presumably not animal - EB] about it. Comma publisher Ra Page (looking ridiculously handsome the way he has grown his beard) said that he thought the panel had been making a category error in blaming science with all their talk of pseudoscience because pseudoscience was simply 'not science'. Well, I didn't think the panel had actually been blaming science, but others must have agreed with him because he got a big clap. John Gray argued that they were not making a category error. A man with an Eastern European accent stood up quivering with passion and said that he wanted to put the record straight: there had been a lot of talk tonight about totalitarian regimes using science, but the truth was that art was often their principle motivator. Amis suavely countered with the statement that the point of literature is that it makes nothing happen: the category error occurs when people mistake fiction for something else, as in the case of Salman Rushdie. Finally Gray came in with the ground-touching statement that all human activities - science and literature (look at the fascist thirties writers) - can be used either for good or bad.

And then we all got up (after we'd waited for them to leave: not hierarchy, apparently, but a chance for them to get to the book-signing tables) and went off out into the cold again, and the people I spoke to had apparently found it all far less frustrating than I. The Martin Show was over - for that's how it was billed. And you couldn't help wondering: was that why so many people had come?
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