The Hard Problem
In the most recent issue, Paul Johnston has a terrific review of Nicholas Humphrey’s new book, Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. In Soul Dust, Humphrey explores what scientists call the “hard problem”—how it is that the brain, with its axons and neurons and synapses, gives rise to that most seemingly immaterial of phenomena, consciousness. This is a question that has plagued biologists, philosophers, and psychologists (of which Humphrey is one) for quite some time.
Though Johnston is skeptical of several of Humphrey’s major claims, he applauds the psychologist for “drawing on sources outside the usual purview of scientific or even philosophical discussions of consciousness.” More specifically, he thanks Humphrey for including material from the humanities—the films of Woody Allen and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance—as evidence for how consciousness feels and what it means.
In light of this, here’s a short list of some other literary works that take up the hard problem of consciousness.
Edward St. Aubyn, At Last
As Paul Lakeland has indicated, there are many joys to be found in the Patrick Melrose novels: the sparkling dialogue, the Waugh-like wit, the controlled prose style, the narrative intelligence. But there’s also great attention, especially in the cycle’s final novels, to the relationship between mind and consciousness. At one point, Patrick notices that his wife, Mary, has a book entitled None the Wiser: Developments in the Philosophy of Consciousness by her bedside. He immediately quips, “You couldn’t be reading that book unless you were having an affair with the author.” Patrick is right: Mary is in fact having an affair with the perfectly named Erasmus Price, a philosopher who specializes in the study of consciousness and writes in an inscrutable prose style. Patrick gets back at Mary by continually ranting and raving about the mind-brain problem, which leads to this exchange between Thomas, Patrick’s young, precocious son, and his mother in At Last:
“What is the ‘consciousness debate’ that Dada gets so angry about?”
“Oh, God,” said Mary, desperate for someone close to her who didn’t want to talk about consciousness. She thought she could put Thomas off by making the subject sound impenetrably learned. “It’s really the philosophical and scientific debate about whether the brain and the mind are identical.”
“Well, of course not,” said Thomas taking his thumb out of his mouth and rounding his eyes, “I mean, the brain is part of the body and the mind is the outer soul.”
“Quite,” said Mary, amazed.
“What I don’t understand,” said Thomas, “is why things exist.”
“What do you mean? Why there’s something rather than nothing?”
“I have no idea, but it’s probably worth staying surprised by that.”
“I am surprised by it, Mama. I’m really surprised.”
Emily Dickinson, “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind,” “I felt a funeral, in my Brain”
In a 1984 essay in the New York Times Book Review, Marilynne Robinson praised Emily Dickinson and her nineteenth-century American peers (Melville, Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau) for “the rigor with which they fasten on problems of language, or consciousness … I believe they wished to declare the intrinsic dignity of all experience and to declare the senses bathed in revelation—true, serious revelation, the kind that terrifies.” As Robinson indicates, Dickinson is one of American literature’s great explorers of consciousness: her poetry examines—“enacts” would probably be a better word—how the mind encounters, shapes, and is shaped by the world that it perceives. Somewhat more surprisingly, Dickinson is also one of the great poets of the brain. She is sensitive to the brain as a physical structure, one that is both miraculous in its capacities and sensitive to harm. Here is “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind:
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make it fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.
Tom McCarthy, Remainder
In this truly bizarre, truly brilliant work, a man is injured in a mysterious accident: the novel opens, “About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.” After the accident, the man has to relearn how to perform basic daily functions (walking, eating carrots, etc.), and this means that he has to do something called rerouting: “Rerouting is exactly what it sounds like: finding a new route through the brain for commands to run along.” The only way to do this is through breaking down each movement into its smallest components, understanding how they fit together, and then imitating them: “No Doing without Understanding: the accident bequeathed that for ever, an eternal detour.” Every action, in other words, must be brought into consciousness before it can be performed; catastrophic injury shows both how crucial consciousness is to the brain and how much of our brain’s activity lies below our conscious imaginings.
The narrator’s new relationship to his own body and mind leads to the nagging feeling that everything that he does—walking down the street, getting something from the fridge—is fake, second-hand, inauthentic. So, physical injury causes spiritual/metaphysical disaster, and the rest of the novel follows the narrator’s increasingly (wonderfully) strange attempts to win back a feeling of realness and authenticity.