Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Beach reading

At the Independent, Boyd Tonkin recently interviewed Ian McEwan about his new book On Chesil Beach.

The result is intriguing and very effectively whets the appetite for reading it.

More than that, though, McEwan's observations on things such as the balance between culture and biology or the place of science in shaping one's view of the world are well worth reading.

In particular, one senses a continuation of the themes McEwan discussed in his contribution to the excellent and thought-provoking book The Literary Animal, where he noted:

Literature flourishes along the channels of this unspoken agreement between writers and readers, offering a mental map whose north and south are the specific and the general. At its best, literature is universal, illuminating human nature at precisely the point at which it is most parochial and specific.

From the interview:

"So there have to be two elements running side by side," McEwan continues. "One is that, this is particular: these are characters frozen in history, limited by psychology, by class, by private experience. But on the other hand, this is a universal experience that is differently dressed up by different people at different times." Youth always has to cross that line, even if it would no longer run through the starched sheets of a marriage bed in a dowdy Dorset hotel.

A further excerpt emphasises that his turn toward science was more than a momentary gesture, and illuminates at least a couple of the places (and ways) in which science and literature meet:

"Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style," he says with a tinge of scorn. "You're not a paid-up member unless you're gloomy." But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine "pessimism of the intellect" with "optimism of the will". "Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can't be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not."

He loves the spirited playfulness evident in places such as John Brockman's celebrated website Edge, where "neuroscientists might talk to mathematicians, biologists to computer-modelling experts", and in an accessible, discipline-crossing language that lets us all eavesdrop. "In order to talk to each other, they just have to use plain English. That's where the rest of us benefit." Science may also now "encroach" on traditional artistic soil. McEwan recently heard a lecture on the neuroscience of revenge, in which the rage to get even - that inexhaustible fuel for tragedy and comedy alike - illuminated parts of the brain via "real-time, functioning MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. What was demonstrated was that people were prepared to punish themselves in order to punish others: negative altruism."

(A quick search dug up this brief article concerning research on the psychology of revenge, which is also interesting.)


Anja said...

While I absolutely agree about science's inherent optimism, as always it is humans who are the element of uncertainty (or danger) in the equation, not least because of their exaggerated optimism. The naive enthusiasm of members of the medical profession about their increasingly powerful diagnostic tools (toys) is somewhat daunting indeed.


Reminds me of the early days of x-ray, when no discerning shoeshop could do without its own x-ray machine.


J. Carter Wood said...

Yep, there is that annoying tendency for our innovation to be undermined by our stupidity.

Thanks for reminding me of the history of x-ray shoe-fitting. An image of a 'shoe-fitting flouroscope' is available here.

It was certainly a handsome device.

Funny that you mention this particular example, as Geoff Coupe cited it not all that long ago...apparently, he even had personal experience with them.)

I suppose my favourite example of the destructive potential of too much scientific optimism might be Thomas Midgley, Jr., who was instrumental in developing the use of both tetra-ethyl lead and CFCs. Perhaps fortunately for him, he died before the damage caused by the widespread use of those substances was well known...