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Love on a Laptop

Thinks…

by David Lodge
Viking, 341 pp., $24.95

It is no secret that British writing is on something of a science jag. The last few years have seen—to name only major works from well-known writers in mid-career—Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth (which draws freely and heavily on ideas from genetics), Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (psychiatry), Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (quantum physics), Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and Night Train (physics, cosmology), and Philip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy (physics). Forty-two years after C.P. Snow complained about the entrenched division between the arts and the sciences in The Two Cultures, we seem to be witnessing a salutary level of cultural osmosis from science toward the arts.

David Lodge’s eleventh novel, Thinks…, is part of this general trend, but it is also in one important respect different from the books mentioned above. All those fictions draw on, borrow from, and exploit scientific ideas, and use science as a source of imagery and metaphor; but there is a sense in which they are not about science. They tend to treat it as a body of knowledge to be drawn on rather than a subject under scrutiny. They see science more as a point of departure than as a zone of contention. This is only to be expected: common sense tells us that one can use physics as a source of metaphor in a novel more readily than one can, say, use a novel to make an intervention in the multidimensional mathematics of string theory. Thinks…, however, takes on a subject which is not only hotter-than-hot in scientific and philosophical circles, but is also one about which the novel has traditionally felt it has a good deal to say: consciousness. Lodge’s new book is not just around the subject of consciousness, but about it, and is refreshingly undeferential in its willingness to speak directly, engagedly, and skeptically about current scientific concerns.

One of the pleasures of Lodge’s fiction is the classical clarity of its structures. In Thinks…, the two main characters represent the Two Cultures. In the science corner we have Ralph Messenger, director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science at the fictional University of Gloucester. (Readers who miss Rummidge, Lodge’s reimagined version of the Birmingham where he lives, needn’t worry too much, since his comic world continues to—in the 1975 words of Changing Places—“resemble the one we live on, without corresponding exactly to it.”) Messenger is a fluent, confident, pugnacious pop-science public intellectual, author of a TV series on the mind–body problem and a frequent media performer who is—in the words of an envious colleague—“the master of the scientific sound-bite.” He is a good-looking fifty, and has affairs, though his tacit agreement with his wife, Carrie, is that he will only do so at some distance from home and work. He thinks that some people are “hardwired for happiness,” and he seems to be one of this elect body. He is neither thin-skinned nor fine-grained, and this is a sample regret: “BSE and AIDS between them have made two of the greatest pleasures in life, prime beef and wild pussy, possible causes of a horrible death.” His view of consciousness is that it is a “problem” to be “solved”; he thinks that “the mind is like a computer.” He has written a book with the self-explanatory title The Mind Machine.

Helen Reed represents the other culture. She is a writer in her early forties, the lapsed-Catholic author of two sensitive literary novels, Mixed Blessings and The Eye of the Storm. She has been recently widowed; her husband Martin, a producer at the BBC, died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of forty-four. She is spending a term teaching creative writing at the university, and has rented out her house in London to live on campus. As soon as she arrives there she begins to regret the move. The campus is isolated, her maisonette there feels bleak, and her main thought is that “coming here was a terrible mistake.” As for her view of consciousness, it is in its way as robust as Messenger’s:

Consciousness, after all, is what most novels, certainly mine, are about. Consciousness is my bread and butter. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve never seen anything problematic about it as a phenomenon. Consciousness is simply the me-dium in which one lives, and has a sense of personal identity.

Thinks… is the story of what happens when Ralph and Helen, and the viewpoints they represent, meet.

The novel begins with Ralph in the middle of an experiment: he is talking into a dictaphone in his office on a Sunday morning, “the object of the exercise being simply to record the random thoughts, if anything can be random, the random thoughts passing through a man’s head.” He is trying to produce “raw data, on the basis of which one might begin to try to describe the structure of, or from which one might infer the structure of… thought.” (The ellipsis and repetition are Ralph’s, or Lodge’s.) He needs to do this because “how to build the randomness, the unpredictability of ordinary non-specialized thought, idle thought,” is “a real problem” for Artificial Intelligence, “which this exercise might conceivably help to solve…”

That is a lofty purpose, but the ordinary workings of Ralph’s mind are less highfalutin. Left to their own devices, his thoughts drift toward erotic musings: as he murmurs into his dictaphone, he remembers a one-night stand at a conference in San Diego (“I recorded us in bed to test the range of the condenser mike, left it running on the chair with my clothes without her knowing…she made a lot of noise when she came I like that in a woman”); a kiss in the kitchen at dinner party the night before (“It’s very exciting this wordless snogging we do at parties, ever since that pre-Christmas party at the Glovers’ when we were both drunk and now we do it every time we meet though we never talk about it”); and he thinks about his wife (“It’s because she said no last night that I want her”). As he looks out the window, attempting to perform this experiment on himself, Ralph sees a bedraggled, windswept Helen wandering over the campus. Ralph found Helen attractive at last night’s dinner party so he goes outside in an unsuccessful attempt to accidentally-on-purpose bump into her.

The next chapter is from Helen’s journal, beginning a week before Ralph’s dictaphone entry and carrying on after it. She speaks of her misgivings on arriving at the university, and—she has scant experience of teaching—of her fears about her students: they “will have razor-sharp minds and know all about things like postmodernism and poststructuralism which were just vague rumours from across the sea when I was at Oxford, a distant rattle of tumbrils over the intellectual cobblestones of Paris, a faint babble of impenetrable jargon rising from thick American quarterlies.” She is still grieving for her husband, and hasn’t written any fiction since he died. It turns out that Helen saw Ralph in the kitchen with the hostess at the previous night’s dinner party, and also that the reason he failed to find her on Sunday morning was that she had on impulse slipped into the university’s ecumenical chapel to attend mass. The service was dispiriting, and Helen’s conclusion is that “I more and more feel as if I am in an open prison: I could easily walk out, I long to walk out, but the predictable consequences of doing so keep me here, on my honour. I must do my time.”

The next chapter introduces us to the third of the book’s narrative manners: it is told in the third person, present tense, and describes Ralph and Helen’s meeting a few days later in the university’s Staff House. We soon come to the philosophical crux of the book:

Ralph chuckles. “You don’t find anything surprising or puzzling about the fact that you are a conscious being?”

Not really. About the content of my consciousness, yes, of course. Emotions, memories, feelings. They’re very problematic. Is that what you mean?”

Well, they come into it. They’re called qualia in the literature.”

Qualia?”

The specific quality of our subjective experiences of the world—like the smell of coffee, or the taste of a pineapple. They’re unmistakable, but very difficult to describe. Nobody’s figured out how to account for them yet. Nobody’s proved they actually exist.”

From Ralph’s point of view, it’s not clear that qualia exist at all; from the novelist’s point of view, everything about being human comes to us in the form of qualia—and it is qualia that are the whole medium of the novel. Thinks… therefore provides a tour d’horizon of the novel’s different modes of depicting qualia and consciousness: through an individual’s spoken words (Ralph’s dictaphone), his written words (Helen’s journal), and from the outside (third-person narrative). The last of these is by no means the least potent of fictional tools, a point Helen makes by quoting her beloved Henry James, the first sentences of The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once—she had tried it—the sense of the slippery and the sticky.

…Helen repeats the quotation, and says, “You see—you have Kate’s consciousness there, her thoughts, her feelings, her impatience, her hesitation about leaving or staying, her perception of her own appearance in the mirror, the nasty texture of the armchair’s upholstery, ‘at once slippery and sticky‘—how’s that for qualia? And yet it’s all narrated in the third person, in precise, elegant, well-formed sentences. It’s subjective and objective.”

To a hard-core, head-banging cognitive science type like Ralph, none of this tells us anything about anything we need to know. His view is that “it’s literary fiction, not science.” As for people who read novels, “All they really find out is what has gone on in the writer’s head.”

After this lunch, Ralph takes Helen on a tour of the Holt Belling Centre for Consciousness, a transparent building whose spiral staircases turn to the left, “like the double helix of DNA,” decorated with a mural of themes from cognitive science. This offers Lodge an opportunity to run past the reader some of the big set-piece debates of cognitive science. In short succession we have two famous thought experiments, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Searle’s Chinese Room, followed by the fact that “there are about a hundred billion neurons in a single human brain, and more possible connections between them than there are atoms in the universe.”

Two parts of the mural give Helen ideas for her creative writing class: one refers to Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper “What is it like to be a bat?” and another to Frank Jackson’s thought experiment about “Mary, the color scientist,” who lives in a totally monochrome environment and then is one day introduced to color; the question being, “Does she have a totally new experience?” (Helen’s view: “Obviously.”) Her class is invited to write parodies on these two themes, which gives Lodge a chance to have some fun. Lodge loves parody and pastiche—they have been a feature of his work since The British Museum Is Falling Down in 1965, which told part of its story about a young academic via a virtuoso karaoke set of literary impersonations. The parodies often function as a dandyish flash of color in the narrative; in Thinks…, as elsewhere in Lodge’s fiction, they allow him to kick off the traces of realism for a while and have a laugh, as here with his impersonation of “S*ml Bcktt” being a bat: “When? Why? How? Squeak.”

Helen and Ralph become more intimate, and exchange a kiss in the hot tub at the Messengers’ country retreat. (The hot tub, incidentally, is not a standard feature of British academic life: Ralph’s last job before the University of Gloucester was in California, and he married a rich woman.) Helen, however, has scruples about having an affair, not least because she has grown to like Carrie, Ralph’s wife. She is also becoming preoccupied by the fact that one of her students is writing a novel in which the heroine has an affair with a man who has a troublingly large number of traits in common with her deceased husband, Martin. Finally she confronts the student, and is faced with the devastating revelation that not only did Martin have an affair with this woman, when she was a production assistant at the BBC, but she was neither the first nor the last of his extramarital girlfriends. Helen, shattered by this news, finds herself confiding in Carrie, who gives comfort, but who shortly thereafter turns out to be hiding a secret of her own: Helen sees her kissing Nicholas Beck, a professor of fine arts, whom everyone at the university is sure is a “celibate homosexual.” This changes things, and so when Carrie has to fly to America after her father has a heart attack, Helen instigates an affair with Ralph. Or, as Ralph graciously puts it to his dictaphone: “This afternoon I fucked one of England’s finest contemporary novelists.”

When Helen describes going to bed with Ralph for the first time, she finds herself writing in her journal in the third person: “She was only doing what everybody else was doing, evidently: fulfilling her desires, making hay while the sun shone, squeezing every drop of joy from her aging body before it was too late.” The switch to the third person is a sign of Helen’s own unease, a moral unease; not so long before, she had felt that she was “struggling with Ralph Messenger for my soul—literally, because according to him, it doesn’t exist.” The third-person diary is Helen’s way of distancing herself from her own actions; in a sense, she is trying to keep secrets from herself.

Thinks… is deeply concerned with secrets, and there are a great many of them in the book, not just because the characters are trying to keep their love lives hidden, but because it is in the nature of human beings—Lodge suggests—to be opaque to each other. We never know what other people are thinking. When Helen comes back from the outing on which she saw Carrie with her lover, she wonders “whether anything in human behaviour is ever what it seems.” This is a key idea in Thinks… The language of the cognitive scientists and the experiments in the Holt Belling labs—a computer program attempting to simulate mother love via a kind of computer game, a scientific paper defining grief as “an extended process of cognitive reorganization characterized by the occurrence of negatively valenced perturbant states caused by an attachment structure relating to a death event”—are profoundly and irreparably missing the point. They try to describe emotion from the outside in; but when it comes to human beings, meaning is only accessible from the inside out.

After Carrie comes back from America, Ralph, who has been having trouble with indigestion and “a sort of sensation of fullness,” goes to see his doctor, who finds a lump on his liver. He is referred to a consultant called Henderson, who does tests that do not rule out cancer as a cause; and then on Carrie’s advice goes to see a second, grander specialist. (Carrie says: “I’ve seen so many doctors in the past few weeks… You develop a nose for the really smart ones and the so-so ones. Henderson is one hundred percent so-so.”) At the same time a woman scientist with whom Ralph had an affair at a conference in Prague is threatening him with blackmail; his center is at risk of losing its funding, and is embroiled in a row after students discover that it has accepted money from the Ministry of Defence; and a policeman arrives with the news that someone has been accessing child pornography over the center’s computers. Ralph, as he explains to his dictaphone, is in trouble:

If everything goes wrong that could go wrong in the coming week I may find myself diagnosed with terminal cancer…fought over publicly by three women…threatened with divorce by one of them…the Centre exposed in a porn scandal…its research funding cut…my status damaged…my enemies triumphant…. Of course if the first of these possibilities turns out to be the case, none of the others will matter very much…or for very long. Which is perhaps why I feel surprisingly calm…

With Ralph’s cancer scare the novel finally and definitively comes down on Helen’s side. There is a conference at the university on the subject of consciousness—“Con-Con”—and Ralph invites Helen to give the concluding speech, the “Last Word,” which is always delivered by a nonscientist:

The idea of the self is under attack today, not only in much scientific discussion of consciousness, but in the humanities too. We are told that it is a fiction, a construction, an illusion, a myth. That each of us is “just a pack of neurons,” or just a junction for converging discourses, or just a parallel processing computer running by itself without an operator. As a human being and a writer, I find that view of consciousness abhorrent—and intuitively unconvincing. I want to hold on to the traditional idea of the autonomous individual self…. There is a tragic dimension to consciousness, which has also been hardly touched on in this conference. There is madness, depression, guilt, and dread. There is the fear of death—and strangest of all, the fear of life. If human beings are the only living creatures that really know they are going to die, they are also the only ones who knowingly take their own lives. For some people, in some circumstances, consciousness becomes so unbearable that they commit suicide to bring it to an end. “To be or not to be” is a peculiarly human question.

This speech has a secret meaning: Ralph, in the shock of his discovery about the lump on his liver, had asked Helen if, in the event of its proving malignant, she would assist him in killing himself. Luckily, the scare turns out to be just that: Ralph has a hydatid cyst, contracted from a job working with sheep and dogs in his youth. But the novel has one last surprise in store for him: waiting to meet Helen in her maisonette to end the affair (after having sex one final time, of course), he opens her laptop, reads her journal, and finds out about his wife’s adultery. It’s a secret he would have been bet-ter off not knowing; he should have stuck to the view from the outside. In the book’s penultimate paragraph, we learn that Ralph has had an operation on his cyst. “It was a complete success, but people who knew him commented that it seemed to knock him back a bit, and that afterwards he was perceptibly less assertive, more subdued, more middle-aged.” Whether that is because of the operation or because of what he knows about Carrie’s affair is, of course, a secret.

The debates over the nature of consciousness are not going to be resolved anytime soon, and Thinks… is unlikely to be the last novel to intervene in the argument. But it does set the bar high. From Helen’s post-conference journal:

Rosenbaum gave his paper today on “Building a Functioning Mind.” It seems to be a computer program that will take over some of the functions of human managers, and eventually all of them. He admitted under questioning that it would never be able to see or hear or move about, and could only communicate by Email. “But, hey, lots of my friends are like that,” he quipped. The more I hear at this conference, the more convinced I become that cognitive science is light years away from replicating the real nature of thought, but I simply don’t have the competence or the confidence to say so in public.

David Lodge, on the other hand, does, and has.

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