Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: “I must remain in Borges rather than in myself (if in fact I am a self), and yet I recognize myself less in his books than in many others, or in the rich strumming of a guitar.”
On the other hand, John Milton wrote: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”
The soul in a book; the soul in a vial! Nowadays we know all about information stores preserved in vials—stockpiles that contain the potency of life. Let’s leave Borges on the sideline, a warning from an old man feeling his mortality and observing the precariousness of that ill-defined thing, the Self, and instead let’s run with Milton. If books are containers that preserve the souls of their authors, why not look for immortality there? Not the poetic kind, immortal bard and such. Living on in our hearts. What if we take Milton literally? If someone has written enough books—and we’ll throw in letters and journals and any other word scraps that happen to be lying around—could that soul be reconstituted?
Marcel Theroux uses Milton’s line from Areopagitica in his new novel, Strange Bodies; he seems to have taken it as a challenge, or an opportunity. Here’s Milton’s next sentence: “I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” Some plot possibilities there. Before we’re done with Strange Bodies, armed men will indeed be springing up from vials.
The reader learns in the opening sentence that a man named Nicky Slopen has come back from death. I won’t say any more about the plot, except that there’s a lot of it. What we learn, we learn slowly, as, for that matter, does Nicky Slopen. The story unfolds as an intricate origami flower.
I will say that there are haunting domestic affairs and mysterious foreign adventures, which, along with the fantastic premise, have led some reviewers to use the dread word “genre.” (Aren’t we done with genre vs. literature typecasting? Borges himself was a genre writer, first published in English by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, two decades before his poetry started appearing in The New York Review.) The book manages to anticipate its critics, by the way. Theroux’s narrator—a literary scholar—is more than capable of reflecting upon his own story: “the baroque involutions, the doublings and false corridors.” He tells us:
It resembles some half-understood allegory—a form that I loathe. I know it partakes of the comic—necessarily: the conventions of genre are not shared by the true state of sublunary nature—but it is not funny.
Slopen is a scholar of Samuel Johnson, and Doctor Johnson comes to life remarkably in these pages. That’s a cliché, I know.
A triplet of epigraphs opens the book:
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora.
Of shapes transformed to bodies strange I purpose to entreat.
Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.
The original comes from Ovid, the first translation from Arthur Golding, and the second translation from Ted Hughes. So what do we have? One original and two copies? One original, twice transformed? Or perhaps three incarnations of a single Platonic form, to which we have no direct access? Anyway, the relation of this epigraph to the book is more clever and tangled than usual. Call it a meta-epigraph.
In our time the transformation and transplantation of bodies are more commonplace and better understood than they used to be. The bionic woman, the bionic man—that’s us, more and more every day. We don’t have brain transplants yet, but we’ve thought about it, and meanwhile our brains are continually extended by prosthetics hiding in telephones or eyeglasses. We see our selves roaming in cyberspace. Artificial intelligence is hardly a reality, but it’s no longer an oxymoron. Most rational people no longer take it for granted that the soul resides in a magical or spiritual realm, distinct from mere matter.
So—what if? What if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? That is the question Marcel Theroux explores in this wondrous, uncanny novel. It no longer seems so farfetched, and it might not be pretty.
Science fiction has for some time been pursuing the possibilities of immortality via the saving of brain states, if not in vials then on chips. In a Wally Pfister movie set to open this week, Transcendence, a brainy fellow played by Johnny Depp uploads himself, or transforms himself (choose your vocabulary), into a computer, also played by Johnny Depp, naturally. Death, where is thy sting? The futuristic novels of Iain M. Banks explored this theme with particular cleverness. But Strange Bodies does not feel especially science fictional. Nicky Slopen is no scientist; his speciality is the past. He knows little about computers. He learns this much about himself (and learns it reluctantly): “I am a living refutation of Descartes. I am a codable sequence of proteins. I am a mind’s shadow.” He is not his body.
By the way, the word “body” is seldom used in this book, once we’re past the title and epigraph; nor are the most obvious synonyms. The word Nicky Slopen favors is carcass—an ancient, chilling word. He says, “You don’t need to be in a carcass to see what’s best about human existence, but it helps.” And: “Vera helped me to wash, drying me with a gentleness that this carcass mistook for a lover’s touch.” And, recalling his children: “I tend to remember them when they were little, before their difficult-to-negotiate passage into altered teenage carcasses.” This is funny and blood-curdling at the same time.
We have a habit of turning to scientists when we want factual answers and artists when we want entertainment, but where are the facts about the nature of the self? Neurologists peering at PET scans and fMRIs know they aren’t seeing the soul in there. Strange Bodies is effective in its probing of the questions that really matter these days. What is consciousness—can a machine have a simple version of it, or can a sunflower, turning its face toward the sun? How different is self-consciousness—the kind that appreciates poetry and lies down on the couch for analysis?
Richard Dawkins has explained that the core of every organism is no ineffable spirit, but nor is it mere cells: “It is information, words, instructions.” We’re wise to DNA—6 billion bits, plus or minus, to form a human being. Life’s alphabet. Of course Dawkins is right, but even now we barely begin to understand the most rudimentary facts about human personality. Is the self unitary, or is it a shifting collection of fragments, turning inward upon themselves in a recursive illusion? Do our personalities persist through time, or are we a sandpile of our own unreliable memories? It is trite to say that one is not the same person now as twenty years ago. How about five minutes ago?
This is also a book about madness and death—together, because as Slopen says, “All madness has a touch of death to it.” Madness is a peek behind the scrim. If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away, then Hamlet does it not. In madness (and in death) the continuity of being is severed. But if madness is the extreme case of not being oneself, less extreme cases stare back at us every day from the mirror.
If we do achieve immortality—or reincarnation—by saving and copying bits and bytes, mirrors may make us queasy. When you copy yourself, you have to consider the possibility of meeting yourself. Who’s who, in that situation? If we know anything from our introspective experience, it’s that we are unique and integral selves, but Nicky Slopen learns otherwise. “The human personality is not an object,” he says, “it’s a process, a constant state of becoming, that depends on a web of interdependencies, binding us to one another with invisible filaments, to our time, to memories and possessions, and back to our changing selves.”
In our technological age, do artists still have anything to tell scientists about such matters? At one point Slopen debates this question with his new acquaintance Vera. He says novelists just make things up. Vera is a scientist herself, but she says the distinction is false and destructive.
“You are so limited! Bill Gates also makes things up. Is he a novelist? Science, it’s a process of creation too. Literature itself is a species of code. You line up symbols and create a simulacrum of life.”
I’m with her. Of the people we know best, quite a few are fictional. If Theroux offers reason to doubt our robust sense of personality, or the continuity of being, we can credit him with expertise. Borges, likewise. Novelists are in the business of constructing consciousness out of words, and that’s what we all do, cradle to grave. The self is a story we tell.
Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies has recently been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.