and Art, of Consciousness
The title of
this collection is something of a misnomer.
Six of the eleven essays have little or nothing to do with the subject
of consciousness, and the only thing connecting them that I can see is that
theyre about novels. The author, a
prolific and well-regarded novelist and critic himself, has some claim to write
about consciousness and the novel: his novel Thinks, published in 2001 (reviewed in Metapsychology
in October 2001), dealt with the relationship between a novelist and a
cognitive scientist. But this book
seems more like a patched-together collection than a unity of connected parts;
as the authors Preface acknowledges, all but one of the essays were previously
published elsewhere. The Preface also
expresses Lodges wish for connection among the essays but its a connection
more devoutly wished for than consummated.
several of the pieces, beginning with the first title essay, are interesting as
journalistic treatments of the various affinities between literary creation
and the scientific study of consciousness.
(The footnotes to this essay constitute a useful bibliography of recent
books in the field.) Lodge relates
recent developments in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science
neurology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, psychology, linguistics,
sociobiology, zoology, among others to the study of narrative. According to brain researcher Antonio
Damasio, the interaction of an organism any organism, not just humans -- with
an object is
a simple narrative
without words. It [has]
characters. It unfolds in time. And it has a beginning, a middle and an end
. The imagetic representation of sequences of
brain events, which occurs in brains simpler than ours, is the stuff of which
stories are made
. Telling stories is
probably a brain obsession.
the second essay, Literary Criticism and Literary Creation (apparently the
one entirely new piece in the collection), we learn of the multiple draft
model of consciousness set forth in Daniel Dennetts Consciousness Explained,
which proposes that all thought is produced through a process of expansion,
editing, and revision, like a literary text, although unlike literary creation
it is so fast that it seems experientially to be instantaneous. (Unfortunately, such instantaneous thought
is beyond the reach even of the writers best friend caffeine to summon
up.) The very idea of the individual
self, Lodge summarizes Dennett, is constructed, like a novel
we are almost
continually engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, in
language and gesture, external and internal.
In Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, neurobiologist Gerald Edelman,
speculating as to why we cannot construct a phenomenal psychology that can be
shared in the same way that physics can be shared, concludes that
consciousness is a first-person matter.
But neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran understands the question of
person more in terms of conflict and resolution: in Phantoms in the Brain
he writes, in sweeping terms, that the need to reconcile the first person and
third person accounts of the universe
is the single most important problem in
Lodge nicely relates the problem of
consciousness and person to the work of Henry James. In discussing James innovative fictional
method which allowed him to combine the eloquence of a literary, authorial
narrative voice with the intimacy and immediacy of the first-person phenomenon
of consciousness, Lodge points to James development of the technique of free
indirect speech -- perhaps the fictional equivalent of the perspectival
reconciliation that Ramachandran calls for?
In short, James free indirect speech enabled the third-person,
objective narrative to incorporate the first-person, subjective
consciousness of the character being portrayed. Lodges critical analysis of James and of the problems inherent
in film adaptations of James novels is particularly acute.
James fictional innovation had important
consequences for the history of the novel particularly for the novels of
James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which consciousness is also a central concern. Lodge cites passages from Woolfs famous
essay, Modern Fiction, to show how literary modernism was especially
concerned with the portrayal of consciousness:
The mind receives a myriad [sic]
impressions trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of
steel. From all sides they come, an
incessant shower of innumerable atoms
life is a luminous halo, a
semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to
. Let us record the atoms as
they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the
pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or
incident scores upon the consciousness.
of Joyces own work, which represented what she called the quick of the mind,
Woolf had this to say, of the Hades chapter of Ulysses: In contrast with
those we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at
all costs to reveal the flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its
messages through the brain. Lodges
conclusion on Joyce is less poetic, and more concise (and also much more
sweeping, though he is probably right): He came as close to representing the
phenomenon of consciousness as perhaps any writer has ever done in the history
Yet Joyce also demonstrates a
limitation in the literary representation of consciousness. Drawing analogies from computer science and
neurobiology, Lodge points to the paradox that language is linear, while consciousness
When we speak and listen, when we write
and read, we are bound to this linear order.
But we know intuitively, and cognitive science has confirmed, that
consciousness itself is not linear. In
computer terms the brain is a parallel processor running many programs
simultaneously. In neurobiological terms it is a complex system
of billions of neurons between which countless connections are being made
simultaneously as long as we are conscious.
demonstrating and exploring (and perhaps, from another perspective, falling
victim to) this paradox, writers like Joyce, Woolf and James helped to create
many of the masterpieces of literary modernism, including Ulysses, Mrs.
Dalloway and The Wings of the Dove.
These novels give us a convincing sense of what the consciousness of
people other than ourselves is like.
But in their emphasis on the primacy of individual consciousness, they
also show us that fiction modernist fiction, at least; the case is somewhat
different for post-modernist fiction, as Lodge demonstrates has, and must
keep, a private address, in the words of Eudora Welty.
The ability to imagine the thoughts and
experiences of another person is what cognitive psychologists call Theory of
Mind, or personalistic knowledge an ability that usually develops in
children around four and a half years old.
One might suggest, says Lodge,
that the ability novelists have to create
characters, characters often very different from themselves, is a special
application of Theory of Mind. It is one
that helps us to develop powers of sympathy and empathy in real life.
to novelist Ian McEwan, Imagining what it is like to be someone other than
yourself is at the core of our humanity.
It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.
Such ideas, while not particularly
original in themselves, do invite us, in the interdisciplinary context in which
they are offered, to do some parallel thinking across conventional
boundaries, and that is refreshing especially in the field of literary
criticism. Lodges own strengths as a
critic, in this book at least, lie more in the areas of summary, clear
explanation, and the intelligent popularization of diverse ideas the
strengths of a good literary journalist than in original critical
thinking. His writing, while usually
lively and felicitous, is not always so.
He is overly fond of the word poignant, and uses it three times in
four pages. There are a few platitudes,
dismaying to see in an accomplished novelist: richly rewarding, subtle
balancing and tight control, devastating indictment (the latter two, no
less, in an essay on the scrupulous stylist Evelyn Waugh). The essay on Kingsley and Martin Amis,
perhaps the weakest in the collection, contains some rather feeble speculation. When Kingsley, casting about for material to
write about after Lucky Jim, says in a letter, the Ormy [sic] is more
or less out of the question -- I didnt do any fighting and Ive forgotten what
I did do, Lodge wonders, Could there be some denial or repression of
traumatic experience in that last clause?
And here is Lodges insight on the effect of the fathers 1986 novel The
Old Devils on the novelist son: The Old Devils deservedly won the
Booker Prize that year, the prize Martin is famous for not winning, but the son
rejoiced in the fathers success (the Oedipal struggle was over by now)
. Earlier in the same essay comes this offensively
banal passage on the subject of Kingsleys anti-semitism:
Whats it like being mildly anti-Semitic?
Martin asked him one day. Its all
right, Kingsley answered, in typical sparring mode. But of course it isnt all right, not in the light, or darkness,
of modern history, and one is glad to know that Martin harried him on the
topic. On another occasion Kingsley
found Martin with Primo Levis If This Is a Man. Whats that youre reading? Some Jew?
Keeping his back turned as he fixed a drink, Martin summarized Levis
description of being rounded up with other Jews for deportation to
Auschwitz. When he [Martin] turned
around, Kingsleys face was a mask of unattended tears. [Lodge then cites Kingsleys words]:
Thats one thing I feel more and more as
I get older. Lets not round up the
women and the children. Lets not go
over the hill and fuck up the people in the next town along. Lets not do any of that ever again.
concludes: I for one am grateful for that anecdote. The banality on display here offensive, not evil -- is Lodges
as well as Kingsleys. One wonders what
exactly Lodge is grateful for other than the opportunity to show us that
he, along with deep-down kind-hearted old Kingsley, perceives the Holocaust to
have been a terrible mistake, never to be repeated.
I suspect it is Lodges very strengths as
a journalistic summarizer and simplifier that lead him into breezy and
simplistic generalizations such as, If the 1960s were about politics, the
seventies about sex, and the eighties about money, then (it seemed to me) the
nineties were about therapy. But one
could just as easily see the sixties as about sex, the nineties as about money,
and the seventies, eighties and nineties as all about therapy, too.
Yet despite his occasional vapidities,
Lodge is an attentive critic of novels and movies. He carefully notes plot anomalies and inconsistencies, and is perceptive
about film adaptations of the novels of James and Greene. In what is probably the strongest critical
essay in the book, Henry James and the Movies, he notes the numerous
cinematic attractions of James novels: period settings, sumptuous production
values, yet without lavish (and expensive) historical background, well-defined
story structure, and the appealing cinematic themes of sexual desire and
money. He then goes on to identify, in
light of his books subject (theres a connection!), the basic shortcoming of
all the film versions:
For those who know and love the novels of
Henry James, the movie adaptations will always be more or less disappointing,
because of the mediums inability to do justice to what is arguably the most
important component of the books their detailed and subtle representation of
the inner life.
The discussion of film adaptations of
Greenes work is also good. After a
close and sensitive literary analysis of a passage from Greenes novel Brighton
Rock, Lodge concludes:
Theres no way this rich matrix of
allusion and association could be conveyed through visual imagery or spoken
dialogue alone. One reason why so many of the films of Greenes novels
disappoint is that without the powerful and persuasive rhetoric of his
narrative voice, the stories can seem contrived and melodramatic.
Lodges collection of essays may not, in
the end, be as critically unified or connected as he would have us (and
himself) believe. But when he chooses
to conduct his discussion of consciousness and the novel not through
bibliographic summaries or journalistic surveys or elevated book chat, and
instead through the kind of focused critical intelligence displayed by the
examples above, his book comes closer to the goal set by its title.
© 2003 Joshua Gidding
Joshua Gidding, Ph.D., is Assistant
Professor at the Department of English, Dowling College. He is the author of The
Old Girl: A Novel (Henry Holt, 1980).