There's nobody here but us chickens.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Readers digest

One of the great things about travelling for a perennial student is the excuse to fling oneself into reading, consequences be damned. Truly an idiotic attitude, as getting to grips with a solid novel should carry far less guilt then the hundreds of email-checks and news updates that permeate my working week. Regardless, I really hit my pace while I was away, filling those fleeting spare minutes in between settling into camp and the onset of heavy darkness with as many pages as I could cram in. So much so that I will make the following claim: I was reading books faster than I could eat them.

This is not hyperbole. I have considered the conditions that constitute a fair swipe at this, and I feel I have met them. Forget the really thick, coarse, sugar-paper, hardback pompous pages that a real dodger might compare to. I’m confident in taking on the eminently chewable pages of your average paperback, and coming out the winner. Lets make it a challenge: I read, you eat. I’ll front you a glass of water, and won’t even use my glasses. I’ll take on the message while you tackle the medium, Marshall McLuhan be damned. And if you whinge over the paper cuts your gums and tongue accrue, reflect first on the wounds that a clumsily constructed sentence are apt to do to me. When you gag on the quasi-papier-mâché of your bolus, streaked with printer’s ink, marvel at my capacity to consume idea after breathtaking idea. And when your stomach burns and churns as it tries to expel this foreign visitor, perhaps you will concede that my achievement of housing its cousin within my brain is fearful.

Anyway, I only read two books, due to fading light. The one I finished most recently, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote, by the late Ahmadou Kourouma. It’s the first African novel I have read – perhaps novel is the wrong word, as the form is quite distinctive, being the soronama, or oral elegy summing up the life of the ruler of a West African dictatorship. It’s filled with cruelty, senselessness and waves of despair; luckily it is also very funny, a dark and bloody satire about the history and current state of the dark continent. It’s a fairly long read and at times hard work to get through, especially as the central actor, the dictator Koyaga, is a fairly characterless soul, preoccupied with hunting and stature alone. By far the best part of the book was the section (or ‘vigil’) that the storyteller relates about Macledio, Koyagas right hand man, whose search for his ‘man of destiny’ leads him across Africa in a hugely colourful and imaginative exploration of powerful princesses, desert traders, possessed souls, magic bones and more. A sympathetic and somewhat tragic character who again and again loses all he values, the vigil wrings genuine pathos out of my world-weary nodes.

Another high point is Koyagas series of visits to other dictators, each grotesque in their own distinctive way, and providing an entertaining flight through the mad and bad. Koyoga is based on Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruler of Togo, and the other leaders referenced throughout the book have their origins in genuine nasty pieces of work. I figure I learned more through reading this than I would have been prepared to wade through in a non-fiction format, not least because the humour serves to make bearable the atrocities it depicts (and I wouldn’t be satisfied with an account that excised those aspects). Not for everyone, but it was for me.

The other book I read was Paul Broks’ Into The Silent Land, which in a funny kind of way is probably more for everyone than it was for me. At least, it’s a book I think everyone has to read, except I probably didn’t need to read it. Still, I’m glad I did.

To expand: Broks is a neuropsychologist, who has been studying, diagnosing and treating individuals whose neurological defects have made their own distinctive imprints on thought, emotion, memory, and behaviour. It’s a story of what really makes us tick, and if we’ve been here before with Oliver Sacks then we haven’t quite done it the Broks way – sardonic, stumbling at times, peppered with sexual incidents and above all informed by this sense of angst, which I find preferable to the recitations about the wonder understanding the mind gives us about the material world. Not that I have any problem with scientific wonder per se, as it is a sentiment which I obviously share; I just get tired of every meditation on the subject concluding in the very same way – we should be baffled but impressed, and then get back to chewing our cornflakes. Broks has dealt with these issues first hand for many years, but it still preoccupies him, and he tries to meet it head on at times – of course we’re all just neurons, of course there is no unifying seat of consciousness, and yet, and yet, and yet – whilst at other times he kind of shifts to stances you don’t often hear scientists espousing, such as his dream sequence where he gets taken to task at the eliminative materialism court of justice, for not believing that science will ever get a hold on consciousness. Its not didactic but massively playful, without ever being less than a scientific and personal meditation (i.e., its not just screwing with your head to try to be clever).

So what’s my gripe? For me, the problem is that a lot of the book is old news; beautifully rendered old news, admittedly, but when you spend your Wednesdays at a nueropsychology clinic and other days with your head buried in Dennett, affective and cognitive neuroscience, having someone describe frontal behaviour isn’t fresh, and begins to smell suspiciously like work. An account of confabulation is never as interesting as hearing it first hand (a bed-ridden patient warning me our session would be cut short as he had a meeting with the European Parliament later, or that he knows the doctor who waved hello to him because he worked under him at the bank), and to really get into the qualia issues you need the space to do it justice, so I’d rather take myself to the authorities.

But forget my gripes, because by the time I finished it I got my time back. As I said before, it’s beautifully and involvingly written, so giving me cause to imagine certain phenomena in different ways. And the last third of the book starts to cohere its thesis (we’re neurons, and that’s it, ok, so…so…) in a quite distinctive way, pulling together meditations on dream life * that are quite astounding with evidence from Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing habits, and really making me think again about this thing that I do, and sometimes presume to take for granted. So read it, I beg of you. Chapter here.

Why, finally a long post? Well, in accordance with the book theme, I’ve being writing bits of thesis, and did a count of how much thesis-worthy material I figure I have at this stage in the game, ¾ in. Counting everything that is at or close to first draft status (admittedly higgledy-piggledy – god, what a word – and needing touching up – some of it is written as complete papers and will need to be segmented and inserted into chapters, which may take as long as the original writing), double-spaced, I’ve broken ninety pages, which is surprising and rather heartening. Of course, there's a lot more to do – I need to do at least 3 or 4 experiments this year…..

And a final book moment: if this is to be believed, the little baby I got involved in should be out by Christmas. So you all know what to get your nearest and dearest….

* Like, how’s this for starters: accept that there is no Cartesian theatre, no single seat of consciousness that watches everything unfold before it, a viewer, that mental events must parade before for them to really happen. This is the view that much of Neuropsychology pushes you towards – you are the sum of a large quantity of mental operations that occur, with no central locus that is you – you can lesion parts of the brain and the person is changed. Is not not-you but not the same-you as it was before. Snip other parts and information is no longer accessible – but only for certain purposes; you may be able to read but not hear words, or see but be unaware of visual stimuli. The ‘you’ you think is leading the way is a construct. If you accept this, then what reason is there to believe that in some very real sense the mental world of dreams may not continue while you wake, just in an area of your neural faculties that is not accessible to your constructed consciousness? What is there to prohibit those ‘unconscious’ processes (which undoubtedly exist; no-one doubts that procedural memory is real) from being smart, in the same way that we consider ourselves (again, that conscious front end that deals with the outside world) to be smart? After all, who the hell is running that awesomely complicated, nuanced and vivid world we call our dreams?