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by David Lodge
Harvard University Press, 2002
Review by Joshua Gidding, Ph.D. on Feb 19th 2003

Consciousness and the Novel

The Science, and Art, of Consciousness

The title of this collection is something of a misnomer.  Six of the eleven essays have little or nothing to do with the subject of consciousness, and the only thing connecting them that I can see is that they’re about novels.  The author, a prolific and well-regarded novelist and critic himself, has some claim to write about consciousness and the novel: his novel Thinks, published in 2001 (reviewed in Metapsychology in October 2001), dealt with the relationship between a novelist and a cognitive scientist.  But this book seems more like a patched-together collection than a unity of connected parts; as the author’s Preface acknowledges, all but one of the essays were previously published elsewhere.  The Preface also expresses Lodge’s wish for connection among the essays – but it’s a connection more devoutly wished for than consummated.

Nevertheless, several of the pieces, beginning with the first title essay, are interesting as journalistic treatments of the various affinities between “literary creation” and the scientific study of consciousness.  (The footnotes to this essay constitute a useful bibliography of recent books in the field.)  Lodge relates recent developments in the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science – neurology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, psychology, linguistics, sociobiology, zoology, among others – to the study of narrative.  According to brain researcher Antonio Damasio, the interaction of an organism – any organism, not just humans -- with an object is

a simple narrative without words.  It [has] characters.  It unfolds in time.  And it has a beginning, a middle and an end….  The imagetic representation of sequences of brain events, which occurs in brains simpler than ours, is the stuff of which stories are made….  Telling stories is probably a brain obsession.

In the second essay, “Literary Criticism and Literary Creation” (apparently the one entirely new piece in the collection), we learn of the “multiple draft” model of consciousness set forth in Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, “which proposes that all thought is produced through a process of expansion, editing, and revision, like a literary text, although unlike literary creation it is so fast that it seems experientially to be instantaneous.”  (Unfortunately, such instantaneous thought is beyond the reach even of the writer’s best friend – caffeine – to summon up.)  “The very idea of the individual self,” Lodge summarizes Dennett, “is constructed, like a novel…we are almost continually engaged in presenting ourselves to others, and to ourselves, in language and gesture, external and internal.”  In Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, speculating as to why “we cannot construct a phenomenal psychology that can be shared in the same way that physics can be shared”, concludes that “consciousness is a first-person matter.”  But neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran understands the question of “person” more in terms of conflict and resolution: in Phantoms in the Brain he writes, in sweeping terms, that the “need to reconcile the first person and third person accounts of the universe…is the single most important problem in science.”

            Lodge nicely relates the problem of consciousness and “person” to the work of Henry James.  In discussing James’ innovative “fictional method which allowed him to combine the eloquence of a literary, authorial narrative voice with the intimacy and immediacy of the first-person phenomenon of consciousness”, Lodge points to James’ development of the technique of “free indirect speech” -- perhaps the fictional equivalent of the perspectival “reconciliation” that Ramachandran calls for?  In short, James’ “free indirect speech” enabled the third-person, “objective” narrative to incorporate the first-person, “subjective” consciousness of the character being portrayed.  Lodge’s critical analysis of James – and of the problems inherent in film adaptations of James’ novels – is particularly acute.

James’ fictional innovation had important consequences for the history of the novel – particularly for the novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which consciousness is also a central concern.  Lodge cites passages from Woolf’s famous essay, “Modern Fiction”, to show how literary modernism was especially concerned with the portrayal of consciousness:

The mind receives a myriad [sic] impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel.  From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms…life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end….  Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.

And of Joyce’s own work, which represented what she called “the quick of the mind”, Woolf had this to say, of the “Hades” chapter of Ulysses: “In contrast with those we have called materialists, Mr. Joyce is spiritual; he is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain.”  Lodge’s conclusion on Joyce is less poetic, and more concise (and also much more sweeping, though he is probably right): “He came as close to representing the phenomenon of consciousness as perhaps any writer has ever done in the history of literature.”

Yet Joyce also demonstrates a “limitation” in the literary representation of consciousness.  Drawing analogies from computer science and neurobiology, Lodge points to the paradox that language is “linear”, while consciousness is “parallel”:

When we speak and listen, when we write and read, we are bound to this linear order.  But we know intuitively, and cognitive science has confirmed, that consciousness itself is not linear.  In computer terms the brain is a parallel processor running many programs simultaneously.  In  neurobiological terms it is a complex system of billions of neurons between which countless connections are being made simultaneously as long as we are conscious.

In demonstrating and exploring (and perhaps, from another perspective, falling victim to) this paradox, writers like Joyce, Woolf and James helped to create many of the masterpieces of literary modernism, including Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway and The Wings of the Dove.  These novels “give us a convincing sense of what the consciousness of people other than ourselves is like”.  But in their emphasis on the primacy of individual consciousness, they also show us that fiction – modernist fiction, at least; the case is somewhat different for post-modernist fiction, as Lodge demonstrates – “has, and must keep, a private address”, in the words of Eudora Welty. 

The ability to imagine the thoughts and experiences of another person is what cognitive psychologists call “Theory of Mind”, or “personalistic knowledge” – an ability that usually develops in children around four and a half years old.  “One might suggest,” says Lodge,

that the ability novelists have to create characters, characters often very different from themselves, is a special application of Theory of Mind.  It is one that helps us to develop powers of sympathy and empathy in real life.

According to novelist Ian McEwan, “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.  It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.”

Such ideas, while not particularly original in themselves, do invite us, in the interdisciplinary context in which they are offered, to do some “parallel” thinking across conventional boundaries, and that is refreshing – especially in the field of literary criticism.  Lodge’s own strengths as a critic, in this book at least, lie more in the areas of summary, clear explanation, and the intelligent popularization of diverse ideas – the strengths of a good literary journalist – than in original critical thinking.  His writing, while usually lively and felicitous, is not always so.  He is overly fond of the word “poignant”, and uses it three times in four pages.  There are a few platitudes, dismaying to see in an accomplished novelist: “richly rewarding”, “subtle balancing and tight control”, “devastating indictment” (the latter two, no less, in an essay on the scrupulous stylist Evelyn Waugh).  The essay on Kingsley and Martin Amis, perhaps the weakest in the collection, contains some rather feeble speculation.  When Kingsley, casting about for material to write about after Lucky Jim, says in a letter, “the Ormy [sic] is more or less out of the question -- I didn’t do any fighting and I’ve forgotten what I did do,” Lodge wonders, “Could there be some denial or repression of traumatic experience in that last clause?”  And here is Lodge’s insight on the effect of the father’s 1986 novel The Old Devils on the novelist son: “The Old Devils deservedly won the Booker Prize that year, the prize Martin is famous for not winning, but the son rejoiced in the father’s success (the Oedipal struggle was over by now)….”  Earlier in the same essay comes this offensively banal passage on the subject of Kingsley’s anti-semitism:

“What’s it like being mildly anti-Semitic?” Martin asked him one day.  “It’s all right,” Kingsley answered, in typical sparring mode.  But of course it isn’t all right, not in the light, or darkness, of modern history, and one is glad to know that Martin harried him on the topic.  On another occasion Kingsley found Martin with Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man.  “What’s that you’re reading?  Some Jew?”  Keeping his back turned as he fixed a drink, Martin summarized Levi’s description of being rounded up with other Jews for deportation to Auschwitz.  When he [Martin] turned around, Kingsley’s face “was a mask of unattended tears”.  [Lodge then cites Kingsley’s words]:

That’s one thing I feel more and more as I get older.  Let’s not round up the women and the children.  Let’s not go over the hill and fuck up the people in the next town along.  Let’s not do any of that ever again.

Lodge concludes: “I for one am grateful for that anecdote.”  The banality on display here – offensive, not evil -- is Lodge’s as well as Kingsley’s.  One wonders what exactly Lodge is “grateful” for – other than the opportunity to show us that he, along with deep-down kind-hearted old Kingsley, perceives the Holocaust to have been a terrible mistake, never to be repeated. 

I suspect it is Lodge’s very strengths as a journalistic summarizer and simplifier that lead him into breezy and simplistic generalizations such as, “If the 1960’s were about politics, the seventies about sex, and the eighties about money, then (it seemed to me) the nineties were about therapy.”  But one could just as easily see the sixties as about sex, the nineties as about money, and the seventies, eighties and nineties as all about therapy, too.

Yet despite his occasional vapidities, Lodge is an attentive critic of novels and movies.  He carefully notes plot anomalies and inconsistencies, and is perceptive about film adaptations of the novels of James and Greene.  In what is probably the strongest critical essay in the book, “Henry James and the Movies”, he notes the numerous cinematic attractions of James’ novels: period settings, sumptuous production values, yet without lavish (and expensive) historical background, well-defined story structure, and the appealing cinematic themes of “sexual desire and money”.  He then goes on to identify, in light of his book’s subject (there’s a connection!), the basic shortcoming of all the film versions:

For those who know and love the novels of Henry James, the movie adaptations will always be more or less disappointing, because of the medium’s inability to do justice to what is arguably the most important component of the books – their detailed and subtle representation of the inner life.

The discussion of film adaptations of Greene’s work is also good.  After a close and sensitive literary analysis of a passage from Greene’s novel Brighton Rock, Lodge concludes:

There’s no way this rich matrix of allusion and association could be conveyed through visual imagery or spoken dialogue alone. One reason why so many of the films of Greene’s novels disappoint is that without the powerful and persuasive rhetoric of his narrative voice, the stories can seem contrived and melodramatic.

Lodge’s collection of essays may not, in the end, be as critically unified or “connected” as he would have us (and himself) believe.  But when he chooses to conduct his discussion of “consciousness and the novel” not through bibliographic summaries or journalistic surveys or elevated book chat, and instead through the kind of focused critical intelligence displayed by the examples above, his book comes closer to the goal set by its title.


© 2003 Joshua Gidding


Joshua Gidding, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Dowling College. He is the author of The Old Girl: A Novel (Henry Holt, 1980).