Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary‘ explores this subject in great depth). Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.
Category Archives: books
I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.
Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial, Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).
Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.
Does language determine how we think?
In Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, aliens visit the Earth with a gift to mankind: their language. By learning this language, one of the protagonists begins to see the future as a memory. This, one of the characters explains, supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines how we perceive the world.
Although many have questioned the claims of the hypothesis, and to some extent it is no longer taken seriously, there is still merit in examining the idea, which is explored directly in Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass’ and indirectly in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made.’
Deutscher’s book begins with a long exploration of colour. William Gladstone, before becoming British Prime Minister, devoted many years to his three volume ‘Studies On Homer’. One of his most astonishing observations is that Homer does not refer to the colour blue. So the question arises, and this is central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: if Homer had no word for blue, was he unable to perceive the colour? Homer describes the sea as ‘wine dark’, but then sheep are violet, honey is green. According to Gladstone, Homer’s colours were not facts but images, and maybe the use of green to describe honey was to convey a sense of it being fresh, like a newly snapped twig. The sea is dark, forbidding. The ‘unharvestable sea’.
Nevertheless, nothing, in Homer, is blue.
In 1898, the year that Gladstone died, W.H.R. Rivers, anthropologist and psychiatrist, while studying the people of the Murray Islands, off the coast of Australia, discovered that although they had no word for blue (they described the sea as ‘black’) they could differentiate colours as well as anyone else. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was refuted.
But Deutscher’s book takes the reader along a clever path, first demonstrating that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is ‘ludicrous’, and how could anyone seriously entertain such nonsense, but then slowly pulls us back to a point on that path where it may have some substance after all, the most astonishing example being the Aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use egocentric coordinates as we do, but geographic coordinates. Guugu Ymithirr has no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and doesn’t use ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’. Instead speakers use the cardinal points north, south, east and west. Instead of saying ‘John is in front of the tree’, they would say ‘John is north of the tree’. This means, of course, that they must always know where north, south, east and west are. And they do. They have, as Deutscher terms it ‘a perfect pitch’ for direction.
So, is it because they speak a particular language they are more likely to have this ‘perfect pitch’? If so, this may uphold Sapir-Whorf.
Deutscher’s book is wonderful. He leads you to agree an argument, then shows you how wrong you were to trust him. Towards the end of the book he explores ‘Russian blues’. Russian has a word for ‘light blue’ (goluboy) and ‘dark blue’ (siniy). Do Russians see these colours more distinctly because of these words? Well, yes, it seems they do, again supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
But what we’re left with is a very diluted form of the hypothesis, language does affect how we see the world. A little. Maybe not much.
If Deutscher comes to any conclusion he states it first in quoting Franz Boas: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey not in what they may convey.’ And his own pithy maxim: ‘culture enjoys freedom within constraints’.
Meanwhile Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ explores similar territory but with specific attention to the language of emotions. Her theory of ‘constructed emotion’ is interesting, although, compared with Deutscher’s book, her book is woolly, overlong and burdened with too much speculation. Feldman Barrett suggests that emotions do not exist, are social constructs, and ‘each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion.’
This, I think, is central to her argument. Find a word to describe your inner state, and that inner state will be isolated, understood. Most emotions are the result of this, but what is being isolated is not necessarily something physical, but a senstation simplified because it corressponds to what is socially agreed. ‘Culture is a cohesive set of mental representations.’
Norwegians have ‘Forelsket’ the intense joy of falling in love; Russians ‘Tocka’ or spiritual anguish. And the Japanese have ‘Age-otori’ – the feeling of looking worse after a haircut. These emotions may not be unknown to English speakers, but they are more elusive. Nevertheless, she argues, they are all socially constucted and when a word is allocated to them, they have a new reality.
What Feldman Barrett advocates is a scepticism of simplistic emotional termniology, while, at the same time, exploration of a greater granulartiy of language will give us more access to our inner states, and therefore a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.
The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.
He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.
Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!
The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.
And here they are:
The Romans failed to conquer the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes: in 9CE when an army led by Varus was ambushed in the Teutoberg forest, the Romans suffered one of the worst routs in their history. As the Roman Empire came to its end, these tribes began to occupy what was Roman territory, and the region evolved into a conglomeration of tiny states known as The Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost almost half its population during the massacres of the Thirty Years War, and remained fragmented until 1871, when Bismarck, then President of Prussia, pursued a war against France, and in doing so, forced the empire into uniting. France was defeated and William I was crowned first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. Prussia had become the most militarised state in the empire, and its capital, Berlin, became the capital of this new, mighty country.
Faust’s Metropolis is the history of the German capital. It is a huge book, 800 pages, but its subject is vast and complex. Berlin lies at the heart of Germany, and has been at the centre of a European nightmare which has its origins in Prussian militarisation. Berlin has been at the epicentre of two world wars, and almost a third. The Cold War, a stand off between opposing political systems, was epitomised by the division of Berlin, and, to a great extent, ended when border was opened in 1989, and the Wall subsequently destroyed.
As far as the English speaking world is concerned, the history of Germany, and particularly, Berlin, have been foreshadowed by those catastrophic events. In most bookshops at least three quarters of any section on German history will be devoted to Hitler, the Nazis and World War One.
When Napoleon conquered Germany, he stood before the tomb of Frederick the Great in Berlin. ‘Hats off gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if he were still alive, we would not be here.’ There is no doubt that Versailles was chosen for the coronation of the first German emperor, William I, as revenge for the Napoleonic wars. The reparations set out in that treaty of 1919, ending World War One, signed in Versailles, had a significant role in the rise of the Nazis. After the invasion of France, Hitler stood before Napoleon’s mausoleum, creating a sinister symmetry with Napoleon’s tribute to Frederick. He said it was the ‘greatest moment’ of his life.
In the closing months of World War Two, Stalin’s armies swept through the Berlin, committing atrocious acts, murdering and raping, taking revenge, as they would say, for the failed Nazi invasion of their country. The city was divided, the Wall built.
Berlin has been occupied by the French, the Russians, the Americans and the British. It has been the home of Hegel, the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Dada, Brecht. Alexander Von Humboldt, an intellectual giant, born and died in Berlin, he was a scientist, explorer, mapmaker, yet his achievements remain relatively unknown in the English speaking world, probably because of wars that began and ended long after he died.
In the early 1700s the city welcomed immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, France and Scotland. There were an eccentric series of monarchs: Frederick William the First who appointed a jester to replace Leibniz in the Academy of Science, and who called intellectuals ‘dogfood’. He disguised himself as commoner and wandered the city, physically attacking those he saw as idlers. He conscripted taller men for his ‘giant grenadiers’ and made them march through his rooms. Frederick the Second, perhaps the most famous Prussian king, better known as Frederick the Great, was a tormented, bullied young man. He was an accomplished flautist, Bach wrote ‘A Musical Offering’ based on a theme he composed. Voltaire, despite being a friend of Frederick, said of Berlin it had ‘too many bayonets and not enough books.’ Indeed, Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, was at the heart of a militarisation that would spill over into the twentieth century. For many years Berlin was like a garrison town, and its citizens in awe of the military. Berliners deference to authority is beautifully encapsulated in the story of Wilhelm Voigt, an unemployed shoemaker, who, masquerading as a Prussian officer, ordered a company of troops to accompany him to the city treasury, where he was handed 4000 marks, an enormous sum at the time. He was jailed for two years, but eventually pardoned by the Kaiser, and is now something of a folk hero, a statue of him still stands, perhaps reminding Berliners that their once great reverence for authority had grave consequences for the world.
The city was completely destroyed in World War Two, very little of the past remains. More bombs were dropped on the city than on the entire United Kingdom. Most buildings from the Nazi era, and from the German Democratic Republic, have gone; the Wall has more or less disappeared. In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s galvanising study, the city is conjured before our eyes, rebuilt layer upon layer, rises from the dust.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).
‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’
A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.
There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.
The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.
It took me three months to wade through Robert Fagles’ 600 page translation of the Iliad. There were days when, exhausted, like the warriors, I felt I could not go on. It is brutal, graphic and relentless in its description of how one after another of the men are slaughtered, and, as each one falls, he is named and often his family and origins recorded in excrutiating detail. Yet something compelled me on. There is Achilles, the loner, a romantic human figure among the automatons, the one whose rage begins the book. There are the gods, whose arguments change the course of the war and whose voices act like the consciences of the protagonists. There is the music of the verse, because this is epic poetry, and whether Homer was the sole author, or whether it is the work of generations, there is a rhythm to the narrative, woven out of repetition, it riffs like jazz, it thunders like techno. Phrases like ‘wine dark sea’ ‘grain giving earth’ and ‘unharvestable sea’ appear again and again, like a chant that lulls the reader into the landscape of the beached ships, the citadel on the horizon, shimmering in the heat. In The Mighty Dead Adam Nicolson contends that the origin of the Iliad can be traced back to as early as 1700 BCE, to the ancestral homeland of Achilles, the steppes between the Caspian and Black seas. We know the Trojan Wars took place in the Bronze Age, just before the mysterious collapse of many eastern Mediterranean civilisations, so the Iliad may have travelled hundreds of years before it was commited into writing by the man we know as Homer. No other work of European literature can claim such a formidably long gestation, so it is no wonder deep and ancient tradition, a civilisation long lost, ‘floats all through the songs like dust through air.’ Fagles’ translation is stunning, and finding my way through it, continually cross referencing protagonists, place names and gods has been one of the most profound experiences of my reading life.
In his huge, extraordinary book The Master and His Emissary Iain McGilchrist writes this:
“If you are a bird…you solve the conundrum of how to eat and stay alive by employing different strategies with either eye: the right eye for getting and feeding , the left eye for vigilant awareness of the environment. More generally , chicks prioritise local information with the right eye and global information with the left eye.”
Information from the right eye is relayed to the left brain, and the left eye to the right. The left brain is responsible for focused attention, and the left brain for more or less everything else but particularly, vigilance.
The more focused your attention, almost by definition, the more likely you are able to ignore the world around you.
In Syracuse in 212BCE Archimedes, concentrating on the geometry of conic sections, failed to hear the approach of Roman soldiers, who killed him moments later. Concentration can block the world out. Focused thinking, particularly when we’re trying to solve a problem, obliterates everything else.
Intelligence is a measure of focused thinking. The testing and examination regime of the English and Welsh education systems rewards the focused thinker at the expense of the mind that is more open, less able to follow a line of thinking, more likely to wander off into a daydream. Yet the daydreamers are often the creative thinkers, the ones who need time, not pressure, to succeed.
Liam Hudson, writing in 1966, grasped this in his book Contrary Imaginations. He developed a series of tests to show that the focused thinker, (he used the term convergent thinker) although able to solve mathematical and closed problems, was not so able to find creative solutions. Very often, the vigilant thinker (Hudson calls these divergent) those whose brains, for whatever reason, are more likely to wander, can provide endless solutions when the focused thinker, the one on the hunt, can find very few. The convergent thinker, says Hudson, tends towards maths and sciences, the divergent towards the arts.
Guy Claxton, in his 1998 book Hare Brain Turtle Mind suggests that the regimented learning model of recent times prevents the unconscious mind from finding answers. Creativity is blocked. And as Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary elucidates, what is at stake is of paramount importance.
In the test driven school system, the focused thinker is the winner. In turn, these students achieve results, gain university places, the higher paid jobs. Think of the terms ‘target’ ‘aim’ objective’ – which mode of thinking do these suggest? It’s obvious. The education system has built in prejudice.
It follows that positions of authority and power are often filled by the focused, convergent, target driven thinker, who assumes that the way he or she learnt must be the only way, and so the process is continued.
Meanwhile, the creative thinkers, the vigilant, divergent daydreamers and creators, are squashed, their talents exiled to the remote and undervalued regions of the education system. It’s a waste, and it’s damaging, and as I hope to explore in a later blog, one contribution to the growing epidemic of mental illness.
Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers. Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.
Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury. And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.
When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.
And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.
Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope. There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.
Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.
International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic. And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.
The system itself is failing. There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family is the first of six volumes provocatively titled My Struggle. This first volume deals with Knausgaard’s early youth, and the death of his father. But subject matter aside, it’s the way Knausgaaard sets about this that makes it so evocative. He wants to include everything; and in the same way as Borges’ Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard. Or like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world in labourious detail, so Knausgaard’s preference is to present us with the quotidian and the incidental, and it’s the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard’s soupy universe. There are moments when I couldn’t help but feel I was walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the disappointing parties, the dreadful bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, despite his philosophical digressions, is somehow charming. He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision. ‘What you see every day is what you never see,’ he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail. It’s no wonder his writing reminds me of Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst. This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes with fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren’t so sensitive, he wouldn’t have produced such a fine book. It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is. Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I’ve read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.