Speech delivered to ‘Humanities in Public’ Grand Launch attendees, Thursday 19th September 2013:
It’s always been one of my major bugbears that you’re forced to make yourself either arty OR science-y. This starts back at school. The disciplines are presented as being mutually exclusive; as though creative and analytical thought always fits neatly in just one of two camps. And then you find that if you’re bad at one, it somehow makes you better at the other… You hear people saying things like I’m a writer, I’m rubbish with numbers! But why should this be true? I always think of Leonardo da Vinci and how he was a great mathematician, engineer, architect, painter… the list goes on. Where would they plonk him for his A-levels? In my opinion, constructing novels and short stories – and more on stories shortly – involves a kind of maths. You have x’s and y’s, point A’s and point B’s. If x happens at one point then y will be more effective at a later point. Things like pacing and drama are not moments of wild, arty abandon; they are strategic and technical.
The constant across the board is imagination – and by that I mean asking questions. Hypothesising is the same process wherever you find it. It’s about paying attention to what’s around you and wanting to stretch the limits, to see where things might go next, to understand more about how they’ve come to be at this point, in this particular shape.
That’s why this new festival will do great things. Empirical science might locate us in space, at one point, but the Humanities locate us in time, too. In history. In context. The Humanities give life a narrative. They satisfy the human desire for story. This isn’t just some whimsical desire, either. Things happen in the middle of other things. There is, to every story, to every “whole” – as Aristotle said – a beginning, a middle, and an end. This causality gives us our morality. It gives us our values and principles (the fear of death, of time running out – well, nothing makes you pull your socks up more than that one…). The Humanities highlight the fact that understanding is the goal of knowledge. They reveal and often dictate the decisions we make about the way we live our lives, they can expose the way we run our cities and governments – and, to boil it down to a crasser level, in this way they affect the way funding is apportioned to things like scientific research.
When Stephen Hawking said a few years ago that “philosophy is dead” I wondered – and not for the first time – what the hell he was on about. Don’t get me wrong, I love him, and I’m fascinated by so much of what he has to say, complex and brain-mashing as it is, but this seemed to me to be a problem of semantics as much as anything. He said that because philosophers aren’t using “hard evidence” provided by science they have fallen behind in terms of the credibility of their theories.
I have two issues with this:
1. What is “hard evidence”? There’s no such thing as “fact”. There are the most likely explanations for phenomena; the theories that have survived the minimum number of tests. But that’s about it. Right now it feels like were living in exciting times. The rules of physics are being questioned at a thrilling and terrifying pace. The discovery of the Higgs boson last year, or rather the “Higgs-like” boson (see how cautious scientists are? Nothing hard about them…) means we will hopefully have more of an insight into how mass and gravity operate in the universe, which is actually pretty basic and we don’t understand it, soooo you know, all bets are off. But it feels to me like we’re on the brink of a discovery so big it’ll be like when they found out the world was round instead of flat. What will that mean, though? What does anything mean, unless you can contextualise it within life and society? We only have these heads to live in, after all – these streets to walk down.
The second issue I have with the idea that “philosophy is dead” is this:
There are idiots in every profession. It’s wrong of Hawking to dismiss all philosophers as having closed their eyes to scientific developments, because it’s just not true. To me, this is old school academic snobbery. Just because the language of philosophy is everyday (as opposed to symbols), just because anyone can have an original thought, it doesn’t mean they’re any more hit and miss than the folks sitting waiting by the Large Hadron Collider.
Surely the key to understanding, to intellectual evolution (and maybe even to the way the whole shebang operates), is MULTIPLICITY – not cordoning things off, not saying “this is the only way”…
Also, and I don’t know how many of you are Star Trek fans, but science without art is just, well, a bit too much like The Borg… I want individual human responses to things, individual responses that hopefully chime in with other individual responses, or at least give other individual responses something to sound against, and come off more clearly defined. That’s why I like books – and specifically, fiction.
My first novel was called Hungry, the Stars and Everything – which is a bit of a tongue-twister. It’s a title I regret now. But I don’t regret (much) all the crazy things I put in it, ranging from Michelin-starred food, particle physics, rebound relationships, and Satan. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t easy to find a publisher. The book didn’t fit into any genre. The novel came out in the end thanks to an independent press. To me, it made sense to try and join up those seemingly random dots. The things I was passionate inter-connected in a story where characters were using these things to work out their lives and what they should do next. How finding love can feel like particles colliding Big Bang-style and creating a brand new universe to exist in – schmaltzy, but true – and molecular gastronomy can result in new sensory experiences that blow your mind. I’m still not sure how Satan fitted within it all, but you know, you live and learn.
My next book, Animals (I sensibly picked a one-word title this time) is coming out next May – and once again I went to science for many of my metaphors. I set the book in the summer of 2012, when the Higgs boson was discovered, and stole the idea of there being inexplicable forces at work in the universe and applied it to human relationships, to highlight how you can never really know another person; how they are always more than the tangible sum of their parts, even if you’re best friends, or engaged to be married. Ideas of mass and gravity also intrigue me and the two main characters in the book are mostly at odds with their own physicality. The slightly daft pitch is “Withnail with Girls”, and the two girls drink and take drugs and philosophise – often pompously, and drunkenly – about life and culture as ways of trying to transcend reality – with varying results. There’s also the theme of trying to unpick your own desires. How many people make big life decisions – marriage, kids – because they’re scared they’ll feel like a failure otherwise?
My third book, which I’ve just started, features lucid dreaming – did you know there are apps to help you do this? Lucid dreaming is where you’re aware that you’re dreaming. You can get apps that play a specific sound at a certain point in your sleep – not enough to wake you, but enough to awaken part of your conscious brain to be awake inside your dream. The aim is to be able to control your dreams. It’s all very speculative and no one’s quite sure what to think about it yet – there isn’t much of that “hard evidence” to back up the theories, although some recent studies show that people have been communicating with eye movements in their sleep-state. I’ve got an app – called DREAM: On, no really – and I’m trying it. It’s interesting to me because it relates to one of the themes of the book – teenage obsession. My main character is a 15-year-old who’s obsessed with her teacher (which I took in part from a news story last year, because I’m sick of teenaged girls being slammed as either temptresses or liars or victims, and I think feminism needs to work for them too – and fast). This girl’s imagination creates emotions that are so potent, she can’t ignore them – and she believes she is able to visit her teacher in his bedroom at night when they’re asleep. It’s a power thing, ultimately. And very very creepy.
Anyway, that’s enough plugs and self-fluffing.
The main thing I wanted to say was that I can’t imagine how boring my work would be to me if I couldn’t draw from across disciplines I’ve previously felt excluded from for ideas. Language itself flips between being a frustration and a joy – trying to find the words to capture something original – this is the ongoing challenge. It’s not good enough to just say novels are “about people”. People don’t live in vacuums. Even the loneliest character usually has some awareness of that loneliness. To see why people do what they do, to see why they move in certain ways, say certain things, laugh at certain things, context is crucial – and the Humanities provide that context in a vital and inclusive way. It’s about making so-called hard evidence, if such a thing exists, actually relevant.
Curiosity is key. The importance of asking questions. Joining up the dots. It’s in the guesswork that goes on at the edges of every industry, every discipline, every group of friends in the pub dissecting the day, every family at home round the dinner table trying to work each other out, everyone who’s ever put pen to paper or paint to canvas. Trying to make something new and make it fit somehow. That might sound like I’ve gone a bit magical on you – but you know what, it is a bit magical – and it’s no less magical when there’s a belated scientific explanation. We’re all just guessing all the time. You can guess however you like – guess pretty, guess hard, guess educated, but guess often. So here’s to the Humanities. Long may they keep us all guessing – and give the results of that guessing somewhere to go.
- Emma Jane Unsworth, Novelist
September 21st, 2013 - 17:15pm