BEDFORD PARK: A NOVEL
Nothing in Bryan Appleyard’s Bedford Park betrays the fact that it is his first period novel: not its deft characterisations, its virtuoso dialogue, its dry and economical wit, or its choice of a narrator and material quite outside the author’s own experience.
The 19th century is closing and the 20th is opening in a London seething with foreign sedition and the antics of its own wayward men of genius. The enchanted suburb of Bedford Park, a baroque gem created in 1875 as part of an architectural counter-revolution and renewal, houses W.B. Yeats and the novel’s narrator, Calhoun Kidd. Kidd has fled Chicago and his domineering father. However, he enters London salon- society through the notorious Frank Harris, whom he knew as a hotel hop in America. I can actually still quote Harris by heart: a dog-eared copy of My Life and Loves did the rounds of the Remove at my prep school exactly 50 years ago.
Kidd becomes Yeats’s unsuccessful rival for Maud Gonne. He finds the dead body of the Swinburne-quoting Brian Binks on Acton Green and is suspected of the murder but ends up buying the victim’s house. He sees gutter life and the glitterati with Harris, meeting Oscar Wilde in the Café Royal. Harris turns up on his doorstep with ‘Fordie’ (Ford Hermann Hueffer, the later Ford Madox Ford). He walks around a spiritualist festival with Harris, Ford and Joseph Conrad. (Those feet in ancient time did indeed walk upon Turnham Green.) He sees the end of the marathon at the London Olympic Games and a movie at the Bishopsgate Bioscope. He finds out the identity of Binks’s murderer. He sails home to America to a destiny we are aware of but he is not. (How trite the bare bones of even the best fictions are.)
Nevertheless, as plots go, it’s not bad but delicately hinged and it would be a disservice to author and reader to divulge its resolutions. A certain famous name is never mentioned in the text of the fiction itself, which was a shrewd decision.
The real pleasure lies in the deadly precision of the prose and the audacity of putting a horde of literary greats between two covers as characters.
Kidd remarks: ‘The English don’t like things to look like what — or when — they are,’ and of the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue: ‘The building had an elephantine air of groundless confidence and Renaissance nostalgia that oppressed my spirits.’
Appleyard has Conrad describe Bedford Park as ‘the most fabulous place, a place of fables. But an island certainly, most definitely an island,’ and Ford saying: ‘The thing about Bedford Park is it wants to be somewhere else, somewhere better, but condescends to be here, as if wishing to be of service.’
The real pleasure lies in the deadly precision of the prose and the audacity of putting a horde of literary greats between two covers as characters
The ‘repellent’ Ezra Pound punches Cal in the face at a party at Bedford Park. (It can’t have hurt much — Hemingway mentions Pound’s ludicrous ineptness in the boxing ring in Paris 20 years later.) Yeats is described as emanating ‘an air of almost catastrophic awkwardness’, and of Conrad it is remarked: ‘Every aspect of him seemed to come to a neatly defined point.’
If I can contribute my own Conrad anecdote, which has never been put in print, my old editor Harry Mullan’s mother-in-law was the youngest of three sisters who worked as housekeepers for Conrad in Kent. Their two brothers were Conrad’s duty chauffeurs, while Harry’s then teenaged mother-in-law would deliver sausages by bike from the local butcher. None of them would ever discuss their employer other than to chorus: ‘Mr Korzeniowski was an absolute gentleman!’
Good minor characters — gentlemanly or the reverse — are expertly achieved by Appleyard with a minimum of allotted dialogue, including Stepniak, the Russian revolutionist, and the widow of the murdered Brian Binks who laments:‘That garden will never get done up nice now.’
Spiritualism and charlatanry are recurring themes, with appearances by Madame Blavatsky and the clairvoyant Cheiro, who actually proves fatally prescient. The book is haunted by literary ghosts and echoes, past and present. The high society jinks, Crowley-ism, intertwined circles of friends, and understated comedy remind me of the early volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, while the darker atmosphere is that of The Secret Agent, or Alan Judd’s superb novella (and serendipitous piece of Lit Crit) The Devil’s Own Work, or even Judd’s biography of Ford.
I do have a few cavils. The main text is broken up (sparsely) by italicised extracts from Kidd’s notebooks (there exist 90 of them, no less, we are told). I recall describing Paul Scott’s The Corrida at San Feliu to the distinguished Chilean novelist José Donoso. ‘That’s all very well,’ he observed sagely, ‘but what you gain in texture, you lose in focus.’ Absolutely true, but then again we would be deprived of Ford Madox Ford’s devastating one-liner scrawled on Kidd’s MS after perusing his amateurish scribblings: ‘Seek not your satisfaction in the garden of literature. Ford.’
This is a risky thing to do in a book purporting to be written by just that very amateur but, as with all the large risks taken in this excellent fiction, the gamble comes off.
‘Story! There is no story to any of this. Things just happen, that is the simple truth. Oh, of course, we want stories and that is what newspapers are for. They pretend the world is made of stories. It works! We believe them!’
So says Frank Harris, the disreputable, casually cruel, late 19th century newspaper editor, half-way through this book. As a newspaper-man himself, the author should know. Appleyard has created this novel, set in the West London suburb of Bedford Park, around the lives of noted Edwardians. We encounter ‘Willie Yeats’, his muse Maud Gonne, who turns up at his Bedford Park house wearing a pair of slippers; Oscar Wilde; the journalist William Stead.
Told through the eyes of a fictional American, Calhoun Kidd, it demands that we question who and what we are in life, or whether we just weakly drift, like leaves falling to the ground
Other real-life literary luminaries flicker through a tale that is more concerned with evoking an era than it is in narrative.
There is a murder – and a gruesome one at that – but this is a book of ideas, not a whodunnit. Told through the eyes of a fictional American, Calhoun Kidd, it demands that we question who and what we are in life, or whether we just weakly drift, like leaves falling to the ground.
Opening and closing on the Titanic, as it heads towards its mid-ocean encounter with the iceberg, Bedford Park is a witty and erudite historical novel, set mostly in London in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. The story’s narrator is Calhoun Kidd, an elegant but ineffectual product of Chicago’s wealthier classes, who agonises about his own character defects. “I lacked, I knew well enough, presence,” he confesses. Others, too, seem to sense his shortcomings. “You live an indefinite life,” he is later told by the occultist and clairvoyant Cheiro, one of the many real historical figures who have enjoyable cameo roles to play in Bryan Appleyard’s story.
In his attempts to add definition to his life, Kidd is both helped and hindered by his friendship with the ebullient journalist and enthusiastic womaniser Frank Harris, whom he first meets in Chicago when they are young men. Approaching 40 and still dissatisfied with his lot, Kidd crosses the Atlantic to settle in London and renews acquaintance with Harris, now established, in his own eyes at least, as a big player in the imperial capital. Kidd, however, remains alienated from the society around him. He drifts through the cleverly evoked artistic world of the 1880s and 1890s, where Willie Yeats, sharing with Kidd an unrequited love for the famous beauty and committed Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, reads his verse in suburban parlours.
It is also a brilliantly lively, often very funny reconstruction of a lost world of artistic endeavour and social idealism
The suburb in question is Bedford Park, “an aesthetic utopia”, as Kidd describes it before moving there, built for artists and intellectuals to gather and mould the future. Yet reality has already intruded into its west London idyll. A friendship on which Kidd had embarked after a chance encounter in a teashop has ended in murder; he discovered the body. He is even briefly suspected of the crime by a Hegel-quoting police inspector. More than two decades after his arrival, London’s promise and that of its dreamlike suburb finally begins to fade. The man from Chicago decides to sail home.
Calhoun Kidd is a name borrowed from a Father Brown story and Appleyard’s tale, with its philosophical policemen, wild-haired anarchists and dreaming poets, carries echoes of the fiction of GK Chesterton, creator of the clerical detective and himself a one-time resident of Bedford Park. It is also a brilliantly lively, often very funny reconstruction of a lost world of artistic endeavour and social idealism through which Appleyard’s American abroad wanders in a fruitless search for his true self.
First, of course, I must declare an interest: Appleyard and I go way back – two score years and more, man and boy. But I can declare, hand on heart, that if Bedford Park had come my way anonymously or from any other source, I would have hugely enjoyed it. It is, among other things, a great read – and one that doesn’t leave you (me anyway) with that let-down, so-what feeling one gets at the end of so much contemporary fiction. Bedford Park, though, is only contemporary in the sense of having been written now. It is a novel of the `Edwardian’ era, that high point of English, of European, of western culture, before the continent stumbled into a war that destroyed all the brightest hopes of civilisation – and it inhabits that period so completely that it could almost have been written then.
I share Appleyard’s fascination with this lost golden age and its bright stars, so I was delighted to find many of them in the pages of his novel. Here are Yeats and Maud Gonne, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, the monstrous Frank Harris, the great journalist William Stead. And here is the mad, enchanted dream suburb of Bedford Park in West London, where these figures come and go – and beyond it the great Metropolis, the World City of its age, London, where the modern world is taking shape at bewildering speed, in bewildering forms. And, beyond that, the novel ranges as far as Chicago, and out to sea on a great ocean liner…
It is written with gusto, with brio – you could almost call it a romp – and it is in parts very funny; it had me laughing aloud many times. Bedford Park is also packed with well hidden allusions and quotations
But (as the name suggests) the heart of Bedford Park is in that strange, hilarious suburb, that would-be Earthly Paradise of artists and intellectuals, idealists and lovers of beauty – the Saffron Park of Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Chesterton does not appear in person in the novel (though the `hero’, Calhoun Kidd, takes his name from a Chesterton story) – but his genial spirit suffuses the entire venture. It is written with gusto, with brio – you could almost call it a romp – and it is in parts very funny; it had me laughing aloud many times. Bedford Park is also packed with well hidden allusions and quotations (by no means all of them Edwardian), and that too is part of the fun.
For myself, I could have done without the murder mystery element in the plot, but I’m probably an atypical reader in not being too fussed about narrative; there was already enough there for me in the great succession of set pieces featuring a cast of extraordinary people, some invented, some historical, some both. Bedford Park is a lively, convincing and entertaining portrait of a time and a place, created in the spirit of that time and place. Despite the darkness of some of its content, it is actually cheering – and of how much contemporary fiction can you say that? Chesterton himself would, I think, approve.
With Bedford Park, Bryan Appleyard has created an extraordinary blend of crime thriller, evocative period piece, philosophical musings on will and intention, and in the process has created a novel of poetic richness. He has stuffed it full of exotic, larger-than-life characters, some real and some fictional. It is an ambitious book, posing many big questions, and is chock-full of allusions, references and recurring themes which are expertly handled. Journalism, and truth – even whether there is such a thing, or if it matters – form the backdrop to the activities in the London suburb.
An American, Cal Kidd, comes to London and immediately meets the exuberant Brian Binks in an ABC coffee shop. Following Binks’s particularly gruesome murder, Cal gets drawn into the strange world of Bedford Park and its weird and colourful characters. He meets Oscar Wilde and Yeats, falls in love with Maud Gonne, gets punched by Ezra Pound, notating all carefully in ninety notebooks; Cal is a man who prefers writing to engaging with the world. Crucially, he remakes contact with Frank Harris, who he’d last seen in America, many years before. Ironically, Frank, the newspaper editor, prefers deeds to words, his self-will and sexual lust firing himself into action. The story charts Frank’s decline and Cal’s inevitable destiny, interwoven with evocative set-pieces.
He has stuffed it full of exotic, larger-than-life characters, some real and some fictional. It is an ambitious book, posing many big questions, and is chock-full of allusions, references and recurring themes which are expertly handled.
The many themes – water, wetness and ice; fire and its effects, both literal and symbolic, windows, child prostitution, secrets, even the significance of looking at something from above or below – are handled and developed with great subtlety, like leitmotifs. Water plays a crucial role: the book begins and ends on water, characters are compared to it, as if flowing, connecting. London is ‘a woman with wet shoes and glorious eyes lighting up her wet pale face’. Lips are dry, made wet; the book itself leads ultimately to ‘death by water’.
The book is haunted by a mechanistic, inhuman view of life, voiced by Frank: “Everything is connected and nothing matters.” The idea of will, and intention, whether we can ignite our real selves with a ‘fire inside’, or whether our destinies are merely carried along by watery forces flowing beyond our control, is a dominant theme of the book, as is the question of our natures, and whether we can choose to go against them. Appleyard suggests that we can, but, “the cost may be higher than you bargained for”.
Bedford Park is beautifully written, and both Appleyard’s descriptive power, and his sensitivity for capturing the feeling of a moment, are one of the revelations of this hugely enjoyable book. His erudition and the range of references and symbols he employs never intrude or disrupt the pace of the storytelling, which kept me glued to the screen. Highly recommended.
THE BRAIN IS WIDER THAN THE SKY
Simon Ings, The Observer 20th November, 2011
In 1610 Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei published Starry Messenger, a book of telescopic observations of the night sky, and opened the heavens to busy and ambitious imaginations. Johannes Kepler imagined a manned voyage to the moon in The Dream (1634). Galileo gave us much to look forward to. But the world never turns out to be what we expected.
Award-winning feature writer Bryan Appleyard reckons today’s neuroscientists are like Galileo. The images they pull from their fMRI scanners, tracing blood-flow in the living brain, are the equivalent of Galileo’s drawings of moon mountains. They are magnificent achievements – but they are the beginning of the story, not its end.
The Brain is Wider Than the Sky is not about the sciences of the mind. It’s about how ideas from those sciences are playing out in the culture at large. Appleyard is scientifically literate, rigorous and intelligent. He is also very good at tracing that perilously faint line where the science of consciousness leaves off and the moonshine begins. Not all moonshine is bad for us. Kepler’s Dream was and is a delight. But a culture cannot live on moonshine alone, and Appleyard reckons we’re consuming more of it than is good for us.
The human brain is the most complex object we know. To describe it, thinkers and writers quite understandably reach for the most complicated thing they can imagine. Four centuries ago the brain was considered a particularly fiendish plumbing problem; later it turned into a steam engine; then a telegraph office. Now it’s “like the internet”. The brain is no more a computer network than it is a heating system. Proper neuroscientists know this. The baseless assumption that the brain is some sort of meat computer has combined oddly with the IT revolution, giving many otherwise rational people the idea that our computers will someday soon acquire consciousness. If mere computational power were enough, of course, then any complex system would be conscious. The weather would be conscious. The oceans would think as they turned.
A new and powerful religion holds sway: a belief in the wisdom of the digital collective. To be saved, we must plug in. Plugging in leads, inevitably, to disenchantment. As humourist Alice Kahn has it: “For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.” Call trees are the least of it. Appleyard gives a voice to the victims, from the tearful teenager drowning in the flood of his own social media, to Cheryl Cole, whose every action is so thoroughly mediated and syndicated, she spends her life patiently explaining to journalists that she is actually a human being.
The brain is no more a computer network than it is a heating system.
Appleyard’s central point is that, in our desire to think great things about our IT “cloud”, we’re deliberately oversimplifying ourselves. We’re hammering ourselves into ridiculously reductive boxes. In our desire to be part of something greater, we’re making ourselves small.
Appleyard is not alone, but, philosophically, this book is not quite on the same level as last year’s You Are Not a Gadget, a work of staggering apostasy by one of cyberspace’s founding fathers, Jaron Lanier. A couple of things make Appleyard’s work a valuable companion to the debate, rather than a latecomer to the party. First, his breadth of reference. He’s interviewed actors in his time, and celebrities, as well as geeks and gurus and scientists, and he treats all his subjects with a critical sympathy that looks easy but takes a career to acquire.
Second, he manages to distinguish between the work of individual scientists and the broader philosophical questions science raises. An early highlight is a vivid, concise, down-to-earth description of the workings of an fMRI scanner – a machine that can create maps of the functioning brain. Not many pages later, Appleyard turns philosopher, and offers an excellent explanation of what reductionism is, and why a science that simply anatomises phenomena into smaller and smaller parts misses a vast portion of scientifically explorable reality.
Poor thinking around digital technology is certainly damaging what is human in us, but not completely, and not for ever. Appleyard has a refreshing belief in a culture’s ability to laugh off its absurdities, eventually. He reminds us of one of the finer jokes in US sitcom Friends. Chandler shows off his new laptop, crowing about its staggering speed, immense processing power and gigantic memory. When asked what he’s going to do with it, he sheepishly admits that he might play a few games.
If only we were less gullible, this excellent joke would have lost its currency years ago, and this book need not have been written. As it is, Appleyard’s meditation is essential reading. We’re all Chandler now. And the joke – that a holy Father-figure may be lurking somewhere in the iCloud – is wearing very thin indeed.
Helen Lewis-Hasteley, New Statesman, 16th January 2012
The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £20
How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future
Edited by John Brockman
Atlantic Books, 410pp, £19.99
Nicholas Carr has a lot to answer for. In 2008, Atlantic magazine published an essay of his called “Is Google making us stupid?”, in which he argued that the internet was changing the way we think – making us less reflective, less capable of sustained concentration. “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle,” Carr wrote.
Thousands of readers nodded along, although the irony of doing this while reading a 4,000-word article may have escaped many of them. (Carr later expanded his argument in a book called The Shallows, which made the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly, some people were still capable of deep reading, or at least thought they were.)
Both Bryan Appleyard’s The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky and John Brockman’s new collection were written in the shadow of Carr’s question. Appleyard’s book interrogates the idea that human beings have spent decades trying to create machines in their image and whether, having failed – witness the annoyance of automated option “trees” at call centres – we are trying to bend ourselves to fit with the machines. Does our technology shape us, just as we shape our technology?
He notes that every time we advance our understanding of the human brain, it is shown to be even more extraordinary than we thought. Yet we continue to believe that the same brain is ultimately explicable, if only we could apply enough science. Our latest model of the mind – that it is like a giant network, like the internet, in fact – also tempts us to believe that, with enough computing power, consciousness could be simulated. This is what the futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the “Singularity”, the moment when a computer develops greater-than-human intelligence and (I’m paraphrasing here) declares itself our overlord.
Appleyard is sceptical and he marshals a range of dissenting voices, including Jaron Lanier, the virtual-reality pioneer who, in a book called You Are Not a Gadget, spectacularly renounced the “plugged-in” world he once championed. Appleyard doesn’t much fancy being a gadget, either, particularly if it involves oversimplifying our thoughts and social interactions to fit into a machine-dominated world. It’s back to those “call trees” again – why resign ourselves to a life of pressing three for the operator? Why not acknowledge that our analogue problems can’t be reduced to a digital list?
Appleyard is a gifted writer, able to explain both the beauty of a Hockney drawing and the mathematical unit used to measure how many computations processors like our brains are capable of performing (the charmingly named petaflop). His book takes in a sojourn in an fMRI machine to see whether creativity can be mapped, a visit to Microsoft in the 1990s to meet its techno-evangelists and a disquisition on why interviews with actors are so boring and Cheryl Cole finds it hard to eat in public.
The book has a deliberately broad sweep, and Appleyard’s attempts to show the ramifications of our digital collective culture occasionally go too far, leaving you stranded in the middle of a finely tuned paragraph wondering what the hell all this has to do with neuroscience. You never mind, though, because it’s always fascinating, and always clearly expressed.
Appleyard is a gifted writer, able to explain both the beauty of a Hockney drawing and the mathematical unit used to measure how many computations processors like our brains are capable of performing
Brockman’s collection is rather more of a mixed bag. Brockman runs Edge magazine, where he is described as a “cultural impresario”. Every year, he invites a bunch of luminaries to expatiate on one of the big questions vexing humanity. In 2006, it was “What is your dangerous idea?”. For this latest book, he asked his panel: how is the internet changing the way you think? There are answers from physicists, psychologists, euroscientists, evolutionary biologists, artists and others – including, refreshingly, a teenage PhD student who is a “digital native” and reduces the old-fartiness level by approximately 73 per cent.
One thing the luminaries mostly agree on is that the technological revolution of the late 20th century is the biggest upheaval since Gutenberg, and that growing up in a information-surfing culture is affecting us on a personal and social level. Given that I read this book on a train on my Kindle, while opposite me a stressed mother entertained her toddler – who could not yet talk – by letting the child play Angry Birds on her iPhone, I find it hard to disagree. Yet the very obviousness of this point exposes a limitation of the collection format: by halfway through, I was sighing repeatedly: “Oh, not bloody Gutenberg again!”
The overlap makes this book one to dip into rather than read at one sitting, but it’s bursting with quotable phrases. Here is the writer Paul Kedrosky wondering whether he could give up the internet. “Could I quit? At some level, it seems a silly question, like asking how I feel about taking a breathing hiatus or if on Tuesdays I would give up gravity.” He is one of the minority who are relatively untroubled by the netpocalypse, wondering whether he really had more BDTs (big deep thoughts) before he spent all day connected, or whether his memory is playing tricks on him.
It is largely the dissenters from hand-wringing who are more intriguing. June Cohen argues that “the rise of social media is really a reprise” – a return to a storytelling culture. And the psychologist and writer Steven Pinker believes that “the most interesting trend in the development of the internet is not how it is changing people’s ways of thinking but how it is adapting to the way people think”. He argues that the web took off because of the graphical user interface that made engaging with it more intuitive. Now we are developing interfaces based on speech, movement and even thought.
Ultimately, many of the contributors conclude that we don’t know how the internet is changing our brains because we don’t know how anything changes the hefty lumps of fat and water in our skulls: they are still so poorly understood. Or, as Emily Dickinson put it in the poem that gave Appleyard his title: “The Brain – is wider than the Sky -/For – put them side by side -/The one the other will contain/With ease – and You – beside”.
Michael Burleigh, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year, 1st Deember 2011
Bryan Appleyard’s The Brain is Wider than the Sky is a beautifully written defence of human complexity in the face of the corporate mechanisation of our lives. If you are frustrated by automated queuing, this is one for you.
Andrew Nixon, The Dabbler, 17th November, 2011
Bryan Appleyard has a knack for ice-breaking book titles. Brandish Aliens: Why They are Here or How to Live Forever or Die Trying in public and there’s a good chance that you’ll provoke someone to ask, “What’s that about?” This will be a hard question to answer, since to properly explain what a Bryan Appleyard book is about would probably require you to read the whole thing aloud from start to finish. They don’t easily reduce. But after um-ing and waving your arms around for a bit, you’ll likely end up saying, “Science and art” or, “The human condition” or, perhaps, “It’s about Everything.”
His latest work, The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 10 November 2011), follows the trend. Its theme is the conflict between the urge to simplify and the true, unknowable complexity of the world and of human nature. It is not, however, a linear argument, nor is it a dialectic with a position set up and then knocked down. Rather, Appleyard gives us a series of self-contained essays from which an overall thesis gradually emerges. A quote from the Introduction defining ‘emergent properties’ could stand for the book itself: “These are things the system can do that are not predictable from the constituents of that system, because they do not arise simply as a sum of all the properties of the parts.”
The book’s chapters – its constituent parts – deal with matters as diverse as brain scans, financial systems, celebrities and artificial intelligence. Those familiar with the Appleyard modus operandi will know what to expect, but newcomers may be puzzled, for his is an unconventional method. There are a lot of negatives in this review because an Appleyard book is much easier to define in terms of what it isn’t. It isn’t strictly reportage, though there is plenty of first-person material. Some of this is harrowing (for his fMRI brain scan, Appleyard must recall bleak memories of his father’s illness and death). Some of it is funny. Before his meeting with Bill Gates, Appleyard is advised by a Microsoft PR woman that he’ll want to collect his thoughts: “Perhaps, I thought, this was a room specially set aside for thought collecting prior to a meeting with Bill Gates.” Meanwhile, the academic Samir Zeki is a “small, bald seventy-year-old with a gleaming, Yoda-ish face…His room, like every other room I have ever seen in UCL, is a mess – piles of books, furniture near collapse and all illuminated by the weak glow of a pale, greyish sunlight of a type that I have only ever seen in this place”. Appleyard could, if he chose, write a very amusing book on the scientific community in the sort of deadpan English gonzo style peddled on television by Louis Theroux.
But The Brain is Wider than the Sky isn’t that and nor is it popular science, though there is much scientific and philosophical exposition. As his blog readers will attest, Appleyard has an exceptional writer’s gift for elegant concision, being able to capture the essence of a difficult idea and express it – and then its counter-idea – in a minimum of words. For example:
Teleology is the belief that nature itself is goal-directed, that it is moving towards something, whether that is the kingdom of God or the just society… A hard-line teleologist might argue that the ape was purposefully moving towards evolving into a human… But this, to the materialist, is mysticism. On the other hand, teleology is all around us. A mouth and teeth assume a future which involves food… without this form of teleology, the world becomes incomprehensible.
Over the course of a 200-plus page book this has a gripping but slightly dizzying effect, as Appleyard loves nothing more than spinning merrily across centuries of theory in dense, linked paragraphs. This was true of the sci-fi-packed Aliens (his best book, prior to this one), of How to Live Forever and, especially, ofUnderstanding the Present, his remarkably prescient but confusing 1992 anti-scientism history of science. Yet Appleyard is not a populariser in the manner of, say, Richard Dawkins, aiming to simplify arcane or complex subjects for the layman. If anything, he’s the opposite: a complicator of pre-popularised science, forever pointing out ways in which proponents of scientific theories make over-simplistic claims, and often doing so by reference to rather melancholy poetry. In this sense,The Brain is Wider Than the Sky is the book he’s been working towards for years, since simplification is its subject and poetry is at its heart (the title comes from Emily Dickinson).
Appleyard has an exceptional writer’s gift for elegant concision, being able to capture the essence of a difficult idea and express it – and then its counter-idea – in a minimum of words
The emergent thesis of the book is that virtually all areas of human activity– from finance to aesthetics – are unfathomably complex, yet science and technology continually seek to simplify human behaviour – or, at more of a stretch, ‘human nature’ – for the convenience of problem-solving machines (he cites the example of the automated ‘Press 1 for further options’ call centre systems). In doing so they either threaten what is worthwhile about humanity, or else disintegrate into philosophical incoherence.
Neuroscience is the key example: fMRI technology seeks to link physical bloodflow in the brain with intangible mental properties like creativity or emotions, thus bridging the gap between the material and the immaterial and solving the’ hard problem’ of the correlation between mind and matter. Yet, as Appleyard points out, neuroscience doesn’t even have a viable theory against which to test its observations. Scanners show activity in the brain when subjects think creatively, but we have no idea whether the observable brain activity is causing the creativity or results from it. For the author this is consoling (a favourite Appleyard word) because human aesthetic and emotional capabilities are irreducible – Emily Dickinson’s poem cannot be meaningfully described in purely physical neurological terms, any more than the true value of the Mona Lisa can be meaningfully described in terms of the paint’s chemical properties, or Bach’s music in terms of sound wave frequencies. Where technophiles seek to simplify us, they should be resisted.
Not all of the chapters seem relevant to this thesis. I didn’t follow the point about immersive computer games, which don’t strike me as qualitatively any worse than other hobbies that obsessive people can get obsessed about (football fanaticism, fishing, or gambling, say). Nor do I worry too much about reality shows like The X Factor, the interactive element of which is supposed to be manipulating the public in disturbing ways. To my mind the red top tabloids are far more malign than any form of public or celebrity manipulation that TV or technology have yet contrived.
However, this doesn’t matter since yet another thing that this book is not, is a polemic. Appleyard’s villains are the utopian extremists such as Ray Kurzweil, confidently predicting the imminent ‘Singularity’ when computers will be more intelligent than humans by orders of magnitude. But he does not rail against his enemies, he exposes them by gently putting them in context (though he is much more combative on his blog, interestingly). Appleyard’s superpower is extreme sensitivity to the zeitgeist, and his role is to point out trends that are so big that we can’t see them. Judgement on those trends is secondary. This makes him hard to place and probably hard to sell, because we are so used to polemicists whose arguments can be neatly encapsulated in a blurb or review.
I loved the final flourish on extremophiles – those countless organisms that thrive in places previously deemed impossible, such as below the ocean bed or in incredible heat. Their discovery is what makes science great: it reveals the depth of our ignorance. In the end, where I most approve of Appleyard is that he is an unashamed generalist in an increasingly splintered and specialised academic world. He is interested in everything, so his books are about Everything. Where science and art try to ignore each other, Appleyard tries to get them to talk (he ends, optimistically, with the union of art and technology in David Hockney’s iPad paintings, one of which adorns the cover).
Intelligent generalism is the essence of The Dabbler, of course (and ‘The Yard’ was inadvertently instrumental in this site’s genesis, since many of the founders ‘met’ in the comment section of his blog). Specialists, particularly in science, tend to despise generalists for presuming to comment on subjects which have become their life’s work. But wise, disinterested generalists are essential to our culture’s wellbeing, because only by bringing perspective and context to the narrow obsessions of the experts can we hope to hold them to account.
James McConnachie, Sunday Times, 13th November 2011
In 2010, a South Korean couple were arrested after their three-month-old daughter died of starvation; they had been too busy nurturing a virtual child online, police said. In 1999, at Columbine high school, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were said to have learnt their killing skills from the “first-person shooter” game Doom.
a beautifully written defence of human complexity
These stories, for the science writer and cultural commentator Bryan Appleyard, are signs of a deeper danger than mere gaming addiction. We are in thrall to computer technology and the simple, deterministic world it emptily promises, he warns. Real, human existence is gloriously complex, he argues, and cannot be reduced to numbers. In pursuit of his argument, Appleyard leaps around from Silicon Valley think tanks to neuroscientific laboratories. It’s like a computer-age equivalent of a tour of Britain in the early years of the industrial revolution.
Appleyard is an admirably sceptical guide, and he has a superb journalist’s eye for detail. He begins with an acerbic 1994 visit to Bill Gates at Microsoft’s Seattle “campus”, where he concludes that the company’s technological ambitions are “a dream of people who were not well rounded”. Next, Appleyard undergoes an MRI brain scan. He notes, with a characteristically soulful flourish, that “the laptop on which my soul is to be anatomised” has pictures of the scientist’s baby as its wallpaper. But he is disappointed by the scan’s conclusions, castigating the fashionable “superstitions” of neuroscience, whose “latest speculations are reported as if they are fully established facts like the discovery of a new continent or planet”.
At a time when “it still requires almost industrial-age engineering for the computer to understand a little English”, he observes, our brains produce consciousness “from about 1.3 kilograms of mainly fat and water” — using the same power needed to illuminate a 12-watt bulb. Despite this as-yet-unbridgeable gulf in performance, he meets technophiles who await with messianic fervour the approaching “singularity”: the moment when a computer will develop consciousness, and boot itself into ever higher levels of intelligence. It is “hard to see”, Appleyard says, “how what we now take to be humanity could survive the transition”.
For the most part, Appleyard lets his subjects expose themselves. Jane McGonigal, a gaming researcher, believes online gaming could solve world poverty — if only we could raise the total hours spent doing it from 3 billion to 21 billion a week. Google’s “chilling” Eric Schmidt wants children to have only two states: “asleep or online”. A particularly incisive chapter reveals how the self-deluded quants of the banking industry “lost themselves in a game of machines and fantasy mathematics”.
In the original, Jeremiah-like sense of excoriating the vanities of the world, Appleyard is an engaging prophet. Looking to the future, a final chapter proposes art as “the complex solution to the complex problem of our existence”. We must become like David Hockney, who creates pictures on his iPhone, “neither entranced, like the geek, nor mistrusting, like the Luddite…the artist at peace with the machine, his servant”. We must not, warns Appleyard, let our technology seduce us, or bully us either.