When my blog site is upgraded (I am told ‘it is only a matter of time’) I will be able to link to some of my own favorite sites. One that I discovered only recently is ‘The Frontal Cortex’. It’s a great site which focuses on one of my own main interests – the social implications of neuroscience.
What particularly attracted me was a post from the site’s author Jonah Lehrer about a fantastic recent essay in the New York Review of Books by Zadie Smith. In the essay Smith contrasts two novels – one the best selling and highly acclaimed Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, the other Tom McCarthy’s avant garde masterpiece (according to Smith), Remainder. The question posed by Smith in a piece that combines forensic critique with barely suppressed rage at the persistence of the conventions of novel writing, is why it is that the mythical world of lyrical realism has such a grip on us. Smith’s questioning is made more poignant because she is herself an exponent of exactly the form of writing she is critiquing.
In this sense Smith’s piece is a classical restatement of the modernist question? Why is it that we accept the way the world is portrayed in conventional realism as if it really is how the world is? Lehrer usefully makes the link between Smith and Virginia Woolf’s classic essay "Modern Fiction":
Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being "like this". Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old
As Lehrer goes on to say:
“Woolf doesn't name drop neurons, but instead uses the language of contemporary science ("impressions," sensory "atoms"). The connection between this Smith essay and Woolf's modernist manifesto becomes even more explicit when Smith goes on to consider the flaws of realism (as represented by Netherland). She compares the depiction of reality in "realistic" literature to the flux of self-conscious experience, ridiculing the strict constraints of 21st century realism just as Woolf had mocked "Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy" in 1925, for never grappling with the disorder of "human nature".
Netherland doesn't really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?'
Earlier this year in my annual essay - notable for the fact it has been read or watched even fewer times that my blog has been read (yes I know self pity is ugly but in my case I can promise it is authentic) – I asked what might happen when greater awareness of brain science made it more difficult for us to maintain the myths of Western selfhood? In responding David Willetts questioned whether ‘knowing’ something scientifically, but which is counter intuitive, always changes the way we see and act. For example, he said, we know the sun doesn’t ‘rise’, it is the earth that turns but that doesn’t change either how we talk about it or how we see it.
The irony of the lyrical realist novel is that far from persisting because it describes reality it gets its power from reinforcing the myth of a separate, continuous, Cartesian self.
PS In yesterday’s blog I asked whether the ban on smoking in public places will reduce smoking overall. Mike Bury e-mails me to point out figures showing an unprecedented decline of 400,000 in the number of smokers since the ban was introduced. As you say, Mike, it’s a triumph for progressive paternalism
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?