Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The laboratory of dreams

 Imagine falling asleep and entering a vivid dream, so vivid that when you awake you are going to remember it well. In this dream you find yourself in an extraordinary place that looks like the ruins of a majestic city from a distant past. There is no one around, no one to ask for information, just you and the silent ruins; vestiges of buildings, open spaces that could be agoras, or piazzas, or landing pads for flying machines, and carved pathways that could be remnants of streets or dried-up water channels or whatever. Nothing about this place is familiar. It is the city – if, indeed this is a city – of mysteries.
As you walk on, feeling mystified, perplexed and at the same time full of wonder, you come across a familiar object. It sits atop a podium and, wow, it looks like a book! At last, something you recognize; a book! You are indeed a very lucky person. You rush impatiently to pick it up. Holding your breath you open it in the hope for answers. But as your eyes fall on its pages your initial excitement wanes. Alas, the book is written in a totally unintelligible alphabet. The answers you hoped to find are so out of reach. Nevertheless, you being an intelligent and persistent sort of person, not one to give up so easily, you sit down and start going through the book in a most methodical way, in a single-minded quest to decipher the strange alphabet. Your instinct tells you that the book may hold the city’s mystery. That the unintelligible words might speak the story that fills the gaps. If you managed to read the book you will have arrived at an explanation: you will have known where you are and how you got there, who was there before you and, most importantly perhaps, why the city has been ruined. For it is the last part that concerns you, ultimately, the most. Perhaps the city of gaps is not the past, but the future. Then your quest within your dream comes to an abrupt end and you awake.
Quickly, before dreams, ethereal as they are, volatile in their constitution, unreliable in their loyalties, wipe themselves out from memory, you rush and write down what you saw in your mind’s wonderings. Then you read and re-read what you wrote, re-living your dream. You read your story about a story. If only you were not so absolutely certain that you had been dreaming! Your dream was as real as it could get and the more you read about it the more real it becomes. If someone else read what you wrote she would probably be convinced that you were not a dreamer but a story-teller, or a myth-maker, or an archaeologist, or a forensic expert, or – indeed – a truth-seeker of any guise.

In Jorge Volpi’s novel “In search of Klingsor” the coded book is the book of nature. The undecipherable letters are protons and electrons and neutrons, the colorful zoo of elementary particles. The dream is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As a reader you find yourself dreaming inside Volpi’s story. Your narrator is Gustav Links, a mathematician and an eye-witness to the incredible physics revolution that took place in Germany between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His nemesis is a young American physicist-cum-intelligence officer by the implausible name Francis Bacon. Sometimes the narrative - your reader’s dream - ebbs so subtly back and forth from Bacon to Links, as if those two characters were in fact one and the same. The curious duality persists throughout the plot. After all, you are in Heisenberg’s bizarre quarters of quantum trickery, where nothing can be pinpointed with accuracy. You must accept the dubious, the uncertainty of reality. Volpi’s heroes are in this sense very real too, the whole entourage, Einstein, Bohr, Von Neuman, Kurt Gödel, an order of legendary modern knights who seek the Ultimate Answer, the Truth, the Holy Grail. Klingsor, the code name for the elusive villain, the one Bacon seeks so passionately, along with the American Government – not to mention the Soviets – is a hero of many: Volpi’s, as well as Wagner’s. Klingsor is a Nordic incarnation of knowledgeable evil, a Lucifer of the Arctic, as well as the codename given to the mysterious man who commanded the German scientific research effort under the Nazis. Another duality, another story-within-a-story, another book-within-a-book, multiplicities mirrored ad infinitum. Take note that a rumor persists to date that Francis Bacon, the establisher of the scientific method, was the alter ego of William Shakespeare, the writer. Could the fictional characters Francis Bacon and Gustav Links be alternate manifestations of the same person? Like the dual nature of light, could one be the wave and the other the particle? They seem to share so many common passions, particularly with women. They bond in a very similar and often tragic way, they emit similar photons of desperation, they tunnel through history without ever touching upon its events, narrowly escaping everything that occurs around them – including bombs - until the final chapter, when Links, accelerated beyond control at the speed of light, hits upon a wall and disintegrates. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bacon disappears instantly too.

Where did Links and Bacon come from? Whence stories? Do they exist outside the novelist’s mind? And if so where? Are they discovered whilst delving into a platonic realm of perfect forms, or are they invented in the same way that the light bulb was? Is the brain function of the scientist similar to that of the poet, when they compose their respective works?
Apparently dissimilar and mutually exclusive, the “two cultures” took divorce several centuries ago. Plato, ironically, would have approved. In the Republic he makes explicit his distaste for poets and instructs for their exclusion from civilized society (grudgingly, presumably for sentimental reasons, he allows only for the occasional reading of Homer). Descartes cements the divorce further by stating that scientists deal with the “material”, the res extensa and poets, writers etc. (and priests, the other class of story-tellers) with the “spiritual” or the “imagined”, the res cogitans.
In the wake of the 21st century the imagined is being recorded in the bright colors of brain scans. The imagined is now also a “thing”, i.e. a rightful member of the class of res extensa. Dreams are scientific objects to be peered upon in the same way that chemical molecules are. Soon, with the further advancement of brain scan technology, dream watchers in University labs will be able to track dreams at the level of neurotransmitter concentrations and electrochemical pulses. But we do not have to wait for this near future. We can safely conclude now that the imaginer (the scientist, or the writer) and the imagined (the theory, or the novel) are all things. In this sense, literature and science have rediscovered each other in a post-modernist, ultra-materialist fashion. This amazing notion also confirms something we always knew, namely that scientists are story-tellers too. The evolutionary theory is the narrative of life on Earth, from its just-chemical past to its multi-cellular, car-driving, Earth-polluting present. Geology tells us a story about the formation of the continents and thus explains their constitution, morphology, oil wells as well as nasty occurrences such as volcanoes and quakes. Cosmology spins a much longer story, about the whole of the Universe, how it came about starting from a hot soup of exploding energy. Science: stories, within stories, dreams within dreams, things about things, brains areas flashing on a screen, dopamine, serotonin, osmosis, the chemical works.

The trouble with this equalizing notion, however, is that it cancels distinctions. The artificial divorce is off – hurrah! - and narratives are re-united; however, as schoolchildren will confirm, novels are not science and science is not a novel. If science and novels were the one and the same, then we would not have airplanes, or telephones, or antibiotics. Earth could look any way you liked. And birds, sometimes, would talk and even prophesize the future. We would be living inside someone’s imagination, without fixed natural laws, where anything could happen anytime. Miracles, i.e. unexplained freaks of haphazard occurrence, would be the bill of every moment. Experience thankfully says otherwise. And brain scans, alas, are furnishing us with little more than triviality. In fact, it is not only trivial but outright wrongful to surmise that narratives of scientists and narratives of writers are substantially equivalent, in the manner that liquid water is essentially the same as ice. A boundary exists, we can be certain of that. But where is the boundary? And what is it made of?
If the dreamscapes of science are different from the dreamscapes of literature, then they must lie in totally different dimensions. There must be a single, quintessential element that differentiates those different categories of dreamscapes beyond doubt.
That element exists. And it is called the experiment.
In the sum total of infinite dreamscapes, there is only a finite number where the experimental method works. There lie the dreamscapes of science. Nowhere else, in no other literary narrative space whatsoever, can you design and execute experiments. Only in the dreamscapes where experiments are meaningful science stories are being made, tested and told.

Writers are not experimentalists, not in the way scientists are. Literature is believed in a different way, without the need to prove that its stories are, indeed, so. Just imagine people walking out of the theatre because they cannot believe that the actors are who they say they are in a play. The suspension of disbelief granted to a good novel, or a good play, is certainly not granted to any scientific theory. In the latter case the opposite is true. Doubt rules the day. Popper suggests that scientific theories must be falsifiable in order to be worth their name. Novels do not have to be. You cannot prove that Links or Bacon never existed. Not only it is impossible to prove Volpi a liar but it is also beside the point.
And yet the dreamscapes of writers and scientists intersect. Both writers and scientists, belonging to the same species of animal, with brains wired in similar fashion and subject to limits set by the senses and known to theorists of knowledge, share a lot. Above all they share the same method of story-telling. Novels and scientific theories go through successive hypotheses, failures, deductions and intuitions. Ultimately however, a novelist is given the Nobel Prize for telling lies that reveal an inner truth, while a scientist for telling truths that reveal the depth of our collective ignorance or - if you prefer - the inner lies that haunts us.
For science and literature, imagination is a shared laboratory, ideas the denizens of scientists’ and novelists’ minds, their continuous mutations and transformations the material that feeds their brains in order to deliver their work. Within that shared laboratory it is not infrequent that they both discover the same, ultimate, truth. Like Klingsor and the Graal, like Physics and the Theory of Everything, like the Volpi’s novel and any novel or scientific theory, a path is plowed where there was none, a way is found in the dark, a story is told, to fill the gaps and offer answers to as yet unanswered questions, to ultimately arrive at the ultimate gap that always waits inside the nucleus of every story. And in that ultimate, nuclear, gap, novelists and scientists alike, shall always find the beginning of yet another story.

Monday, October 22, 2007


When I write I think of innocence. But how can I be certain that I am, in any conceivable way, innocent? And innocent of what? Of a crime or crimes; such as deceit, lies, slander, hyperbole, the long list of misdemeanors lawyers and critics may find useful in their professions? Or of something deeper? Something like, say, the refusal to become a saturated being that regards experience through the looking glass of being there, done that, so what’s new? Or worse: a rock, a barren field, a dried well, a non-reflecting glass, a mute shell: the death of the writer, the absentia of ideas and expression. Then- if I may - changing sides and becoming a reader, my innocence lost anyway, what do I expect from the writer? Like a raped virgin with my clothes torn by barbarians, do I plead and expect for the divine reconstitution of my virtue? And what if there are no gods? In such a case, will I be given the chance to simulate innocence, forget myself in words of compassion, of nostalgia, of others’ woes, of emotive rhyme therapy? Yes, the first and foremost is to define what innocence in writing is, what quality I (the reader-writer) seek, that cleansing well where sins are washed, virtues are reborn, the baptism of words that forgives everything. And then I must explore the test of innocence, if such a test exists.
Let me begin: it took me many copious writing years to realize that art does not explain. It describes. Here is the moon, up there, its abode hamstrung by belief, not a astro-geological phenomenon but the goddess of molten cheese. My training as an engineer must have had a lot to do with my delay in realizing the obvious. Seeing something beckoned to be unscrewed, unplugged, turned upside down, thrown about and broken to bits, explained. The aesthetics of science are an epiphenomenon, not an agenda. They follow, they do not lead. The wonder comes not from observing but from understanding the observed. Until the illuminating instance of explanation, observing is not wonderful but a torture. The scientist is therefore a child with a mind. The artist is a mindless child. He needs to wonder about things so deeply, so wholesomely, so astoundingly, that nothing else can happen to him beyond that. Amazement must be overwhelming, conquering-all, destructive, an ultimatum; write or die. Thus comes writing, like the shedding of blood or the spurt of semen, a reflection of bodily functions too innumerable to mention, an irreversible torrent of processes where the mind is beside the point. In this context, innocence manifests in the description of reality by someone whose senses are so sensitive, so hysterical, so short-wired, that he explodes with description. Therefore innocence, aka the instinctive halting of wisdom; a spontaneous at best, psychopathic at worst, state, a lone antenna weathering the storm of time and aging, stuck on a barren summit and transmitting signals, words, novels.
How do I know I am innocent? How could I? I am in the dark. Lost inside a shaft, accelerating into the bottomless abyss of meaning. There is nothing here to hear or see. My body is no more. It has blended with the engulfing, all-permeating darkness. It has lost its shape, it has become one with everything, like those oceanic polyps, the colonies of transparent nothingnesses that float with the currents. In being such a creature, I can tell you only what I see inside. I see that which you cannot. So listen.