The New Compass: A Critical Review

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Hot Topics
Janet Bailey

David Lodge. Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002. xii; 320 pages. $24.95 U.S.

Consciousness and the Novel is a collection of essays connected through their links with David Lodge's latest novel: he tells us in the preface that the ideas for Thinks… were born of his realization that "the interdisciplinary field of 'consciousness studies'" (x) has become a "hot topic" with "challenging consequences for those whose assumptions about human nature have been formed by religious, humanist, and literary traditions" (xi). His exploration of this complex field has obviously involved long reflection on the novel's form and the way we understand consciousness today, in the light—some might say dark—of so much new scientific, psychological, and technological development. If we are wary of undertaking such an investigation, mainly because we are nervous of the perils of this jungle with its peculiar, difficult, and possibly unhelpful terminology, here perhaps is our welcome guide: Lodge's familiarity with the media, his many years of experience as a teacher, literary critic and successful novelist, should give him some special authority to make us alert to his observations.

The introductory chapter which gives the book its title, and the following one, "Literary Criticism and Literary Creation" are the longest and most important because they address specifically the question of consciousness, how it has been diagnosed recently, how Lodge responds to this, and how some writers have handled it. His provocative use of the word "refreshed" in the first sentence of the first chapter gives us a partial sense of the way he contemplates this complicated material when he calls the subject one in which "the old philosophical issues" may be "refreshed by new input from the sciences" (1). Refreshment of mind and spirit is the last thing we feel when we consider the idea that we are "nothing but a pack of neurons" (Francis Crick, qtd. in Lodge 2), with a brain which is a machine "with no ghost, no soul, or spirit" (Lodge 5), but his early use of the passage about the newborn baby—from Anne Michaels's novel Fugitive Pieces—to illustrate the fragile but enduring power of the human soul (as the sight affects Jacob Beer who is a Holocaust survivor), suggests that Lodge is deeply attached to this view of man and recognises its profound importance. He goes on to say that "many people with no religious belief find the words ‘soul' and ‘spirit' useful, if not indispensable, to signify some uniquely valuable quality in human life and human awareness" (5), and as the essay develops and he pursues the consciousness experts (Crick,Koch, Dennett, Levine, Ramachandran, Demasio, and Edelman, among others), Lodge makes us see that they themselves remain somewhat uneasy when they try to give concrete definition to the ultimate mysteriousness of the human psyche. Even Noam Chomsky has conceded that it is "quite possible" that novels will always teach us more than scientific psychology, and Gerald Edelman admits that "Events are denser than any possible scientific description" (qtd. in Lodge 10; 13).

Lodge's discussion of Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 brings the issues exactly into focus when he speaks of this so-called techno-thriller ending "on a note of religious mysticism" (27). The wager at the core of the tale—to build a computer that can so mimic the human psyche that it will respond properly to an examination in English literature—comes to naught when "Helen" (the ghost in the machine or the machine?) will not take the test, closes itself (herself?) down after a brief homily of all too powerful significance for us: "‘You are the ones who can hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be…. Take care, Richard. See everything for me'" (qtd. in Lodge 28). It is curious to find Lodge telling us this is "a surprisingly poignant moment" (28), almost as if he were disinclined to be deeply moved by his own perfect choice to illustrate the writer's conscious defiance in the face of the most sophisticated technological idea imaginable to ordinary mortals: the attempt to reproduce the heart of the mystery ends in the delicate apprehension of the mystery itself, by the machine itself. For a moment here, Richard Powers (he gives the narrator of the novel his own name) addresses the human race and its stern tests: in this halting message, we can suddenly hear echoes of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, as well the voice of the parent, the child and the checkout assistant. We have a strong sense here that Lodge knows these echoes and voices will remain more valuable to us than the machine's pyrotechnics and all the scientific investigations of the brain.

If, as he makes clear, literature is the "richest and most comprehensive" record we have of human consciousness (10), then all he additions to the record from the world of science cannot be more than they are: fascinating, helpful at times, and worth serious attention, but not richer. This whole collection of essays could be called a defence of the novel's extraordinary power to document best how we continue to understand consciousness in the face of all comers from every modern, postmodern, technological and scientific corner, were it not for the background murmur of Lodge's response to the seductive lure cast from these corners, and his misgiving about the idea of the soul. He has a formidable grasp of the range of questions raised by the new consciousness studies, but at the heart of the issue each time he confronts it, he leaves us with the sense of something not quite tackled, at the same time as he admits to complete fascination with the subject. It is certainly a lively exploration in his hands, but it is puzzling that he finds his reading in this field has made it "even more difficult [N.B., he does not say impossible] ... to subscribe to any transcendental religious faith" while still believing "it's been a great education" (297).

As he remains at his most impressive when he speaks specifically about the novelists he admires, we must believe that despite his useful discussion of, for instance, such ideas as "memes" and "qualia" (obviously important in such a study), his infinitely more engaging and illuminating commentary when he speaks of Austen and Dickens and James, and their wonderful power to make us understand the mysterious human world, shows exactly why he is right about the pre-eminence of the novel; and when he explains Roth's enigmatic and unsatisfactory conclusion to The Dying Animal by quoting from 1 Corinthians 13 and from Larkin's poem "An Arundel Tomb," he shows he understands the transcendental nature of love (262-63). Lodge is too reluctant to declare himself the soul's advocate. By his own testimony in this collection, and from evidence to be found in all his work, this engagement with novelists is where his "main argument" is most compelling, and why he inevitably convinces us that the novel rather than consciousness studies should remain our enduring and challenging "hot topic."

Bailey, Janet. "Hot Topics." Rev. of Consciousness and the Novel, by David Lodge. The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) []

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Michael John DiSanto and Sarah Emsley