Where would we be without ongoing battles between professional journalism and blogging? We wouldn’t have the word ‘pooterish’ to describe the post I’m about to write, and what a loss that would be. I rather shot my bolt on the reviewing front this week because the only novel I read in full was the one by Cristina Garcia. I’ve been writing, which always drastically reduces the amount of reading I get done, and picking about in books here and there for my academic work. I’m changing direction in my motherhood reading now and starting to think about lost children. So I’m halfway through Carol Shield’s novel, Unless, which is very intriguing, and have lined up ahead Margaret Forster’s Over (in which a family comes to terms with the death of a daughter) and Amanda Eyre Ward’s How To Be Lost (main character thinks she catches sight of her missing sister, many, many years after she disappeared). I’m also thinking about good mothers, and have spent part of the morning watching Simpsons cartoons with my son (whose memory of their plots is pretty impressive). I love the one where Bart sells his soul to Millhouse for five bucks and then suffers all kinds of odd consequences, like being unable to see his breath on a pane of glass, or activate those sliding doors in stores. At bedtime Marge hugs him and says ‘Bart, your hug seems a little off. Is anything the matter?’ Just as he’s about to confess she shushes him with the words ‘A mother can always tell.’ Then she hugs him again, thinking about it. ‘It’s not fear of nuclear war. It’s not swim test anxiety. It’s almost as if you’re missing something.’ When Bart suggests he hasn’t got as soul Marge cracks up. ‘Oh no, sweetheart, you’re not a monster,’ she says, and exits smartly, leaving poor Bart staring wide-eyed into the darkness. I do like that bit.
The only other book I can report on is about dreaming, called Seeing in the Dark. It’s written by an academic, Bert States, but in a very accessible way. It’s beautifully written, actually, but it’s been annoying me a lot. States, a literary critic by trade, has become captivated by the process of dreaming and the range of scientific and neurological ways in which we might be able to account for it. The book is essentially a long drawn-out argument for the meaninglessness of dreams. They may be intelligible, States says, but they are not intelligent. They have nothing to tell us and are resolutely nothing more than the mind objectively processing images, unaware, as it were, that it has a witness.
Now I have nothing against this argument per se (except I should come clean at this point and say I don’t agree with it), but I don’t appreciate the way that States phrases it. To give him credit where it’s due, he is very polite about interpretative models of dream analysis, but his understanding of dreams is doubt-free and absolute, despite the fact that he begins the book saying that, fundamentally, we still have no idea why we dream, how dreams are created, or what work they achieve (if any) in the mind. Having got this out the way, he spends the rest of the book saying how things are – dreams are without meaning, dreams are nothing more than supercharged neurons colliding. As far as I know there is no hard and fast evidence to back up this approach, any more than there is for declaring that dreams do have insight to give us on the hidden parts of ourselves. I think there’s value in both approaches, but I also think they work best when helping to inform each other.
To be brutal, I have a problem with this kind of scientific approach because it takes hypotheses as the truth when they are often only best guesses. If you look back over the history of science, it changes, and absolute truths end up giving way to even more absolute ones, in tautologous succession. My experience has been that the best scientists are ruefully aware of the limitations of their knowledge, and do not make claims for their research that go beyond the cautiously conditional, but the popular conception of science loves answers and certainties. In a world of stem cell research, genetic engineering, and nuclear and biological warfare, I can’t help but think that keeping the nice, humble phrases ‘it doesn’t always work’ and ‘we don’t know the consequences’ in frequent use would be a good thing. Although he dislikes the misuse of science, my husband does fundamentally disagree with me about the dominance of scientific thought in our culture, being very much of the technical persuasion, and this leads to many lengthy and, frankly, fruitless discussions, as we are neither of us about to be convinced by the other. Perhaps any person just leans towards either the scientific or artistic perspective on the world, towards a preference for either answers or ambiguity, and there’s not much to be done about it.
Pushing the soapbox to one side, I’ll end with a photo of the new bookcases we’ve just had put into our sitting room. They were finished yesterday, and I spent the afternoon shelving books. I’m at the stage of just sitting and sighing over their beauty at the moment, and look – empty shelves! I really must try to be good and restrained as I am running out of free walls in the house.