Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Consciousness as Content: Neuronarratives and the Redemption of Fiction

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Consciousness as Content: Neuronarratives and the Redemption of Fiction

Article excerpt

The opening chapter of David Lodge's 2001 novel, Thinks ..., presents a self-conscious exercise in stream-of-consciousness narration. Ralph Messenger, Lodge's co-protagonist, is a cognitive scientist endeavouring to understand and describe the workings of the human mind. As the work begins, we encounter Ralph as he dictates his own thoughts into a tape recorder--a quaintly retrograde piece of equipment given his position as the head of a fictional British university's Centre for Cognitive Science. One of the aims of the exercise, he reveals, is "to try to describe the structure of, or rather to produce a specimen, that is to say raw data, on the basis of which one might infer the structure of ... thought" (1). Ralph is acutely aware of the "artificiality" of his experiment, recognizing the fact that his consciousness of the exercise will inevitably change the nature of his thoughts and his thought process. He wants "random" thoughts, but his project necessarily imposes some kind of order on those thoughts; it is nearly impossible, it seems, to be aware of one's thinking without allowing that awareness to alter the process itself. As he admits later in the novel, "The brain does a lot of ordering and revising before the words come out of your mouth" (172).

Ralph's experiment is artificial on a second level as well. Although the reader ostensibly takes the place that would be occupied by a specific narratee, Lodge is obliged to construct and reveal Ralph's thoughts in a way that makes them accessible to us. Thus, Ralph's opening monologue provides more information than would be necessary if no audience--other than Ralph himself--were anticipated. The first line of Lodge's novel, in fact, introduces this somewhat artificial manner of narration: "One, two, three, testing, testing, recorder working, OK ..." (1). Shortly thereafter, Ralph reveals the aim of his exercise, an aim that will prove crucial to the unfolding of the novel's main plot: "Where was I? But that's the point, I'm not anywhere, I haven't made a decision to think about anything specific, the object of the exercise being simply to record the random thoughts, if anything can be random, the random thoughts passing through a man's head [...] at a randomly chosen time and place" (1). Such information appears not "naturally," but rather as the result of a conscious decision on Lodge's part to orient his reader.

The subject matter of this novel--the structure of human thought--necessitates this type of orientation. Traditional stream-of-consciousness narratives, to which parts of Lodge's Thinks ... bear some resemblance, endeavour "simply" to represent natural human thought. At their most basic level, these narratives aspire to mimesis, the realistic depiction of an individual's consciousness. Thought, therefore, is crucial to the narrative, and the human psyche is certainly one area of the novelists' interest, but cognitive science was not yet a central concern, since cognitive science itself did not yet exist. Lodge's work, in contrast, approaches consciousness from a scientific angle, one made possible by the scientific advances of the last several decades, and one that obliges him not only to represent thought, but also, as Ralph puts it, to describe its structure. As a result, Lodge must both represent and explain.

The problem of explaining human consciousness, or at least of explaining what scientists know of human consciousness, within the framework of a literary text presents the novelist with some interesting and revealing narrative challenges. Chief among these, I believe, is the issue of how to convey to the lay reader scientific information that he or she likely lacks, but that is essential to the narrative itself. And Lodge is not alone in facing this dilemma; indeed, in 1995, Richard Powers published his own neuronarrative (the term I will use to describe a work of fiction that has cognitive science as a, or the, main theme), entitled Galatea 2. …

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