April brings three visions of human beings as machines—along with an outstanding novelby Hermione Eyre / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
None of the major publishing houses is promoting a religious tract this Easter. Intellectual life was once preoccupied by man’s relationship with God, but this has been superseded by another fascination: man’s relationship with machines. Are they made in our image, or we in theirs? Three of this month’s most exciting publications consider human bodies as machines—whirring, hydraulic-hearted, spring-operated automata, whose malfunctions (violence, grief) seem to be pre-programmed.
Peter Carey, twice a winner of the Booker (now Man Booker) prize, has written 18 novels but never before has his lead character been an articulated duck. The Chemistry of Tears (Faber, £17.99) is a novel that flickers before your eyes like a zoetrope. There are two voices. One is contemporary—a conservator, brittle and broken-hearted, who has nothing to live for but the duck-shaped Victorian automaton she is restoring. The other is a 19th-century frock-coated magnate, an Edward Gorey illustration come to life, who commissioned the toy to entertain his dying, consumptive son. Carey is palpably pulling at our heartstrings—manipulating “those intensely complicated factories, the tear glands.” But just as we come to see this book as a delicate engine made of words, it staggers to a halt, leaving subplots spinning ineffectually. These include the 2010 Mexican oil spill, and smuggled blueprints for an internal combustion machine, and it is disappointing to see them left hanging. Carey also seems to lose interest in the human characters. But he does permit one transformation. Dutifully following a classical character arc, the duck becomes a sinuous, silver swan. This novel is a pleasurable firework display, but sheds little permanent light.
When William Harvey became a member of the College of Physicians in 1607, the theory of humours—the view that human health was affected by four bodily fluids known as “humours”—held sway. By the time his life’s work was done, “the new generation of young anatomists, who often invoked Harvey as their exemplar and inspiration, investigated the body as though it were an elaborate machine, explicitly rejecting vitalist and Aristotelian principles.” Thomas Wright’s lucid biography Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) puts its hero deftly into his cultural context. The heart was considered by early modern medicine to be a thinking, understanding organ; the flow of the river Cam helped Harvey to reconceptualise it as a pump. Harvey’s vivisections are unflinchingly described here. It is tempting to turn quickly on to the anatomical lectures, theatrical events where professional fools cracked jokes, and lute music accompanied the bringing forth of each animal carcass. The character of Harvey himself comes through as steadfast, if slightly chilly. He performed his own father’s autopsy, and he was the kind of man who spent his weekends “scouring woods in search of dog, crow, kite, raven, bird, or anything to anatomise.”
New work by Susan Sontag is always a cause for celebration, although As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) the second instalment of her diaries, is a mixed bag. This edition, reluctantly put together by her son David Rieff, lacks a foreword or contextualising chronology. Part commonplace book, part notebook, these collected jottings are sometimes so slim (“The Beatles—their quaeternity”) that they read like satire (“Monet’s Water Lilies would look pretty much the same upside down—space is verticalised”). Some of the introspective, emotional passages feel painfully adolescent, while others are transcendently original, vivid and honest—minutely observant of bodily consciousness. Sontag is modern to the core: “Only by understanding body as a machine do we give human beings their humanity.” She flits around like the spirit of the age. We find her on a 25-hour Dexamyl writing binge; taking a classic 1960s intellectual’s sojourn in Tangiers, all kif and kaftans; falling in love with Parisian women; writing about LSD (“Everything is physics”); visiting Vietnam; becoming disaffected (“Sceptical. Be sceptical. The key message of the 70s”), all the while gradually bringing into being the Sontag we loved to fear. “I’m polite to too many people because I’m not angry enough,” she notes, resolving “To be noble-minded. To be profound. Never to be ‘nice.’”
Philip Hensher’s Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, £18.99) is something completely different. It is Hensher’s retelling of the childhood stories of his husband, Zaved Mahmood and his upper middle class Bengali family, living in Dacca, then part of Pakistan. Born during the civil war in 1970, Mahmood spent his first years being cajoled and fed by all the family, to stop him crying and betraying their whereabouts to soldiers. When the new country of Bangladesh was formed in 1971, he was one of its babies. Warm, poetic and precise (Hensher has done a magnificent “ghosting” job) this has touches of Midnight’s Children, except mercifully truncated. Without false nostalgia, it evokes a land where river dolphins are numerous, and children spend days propped in the fork of a mango tree, munching and reading. It is quite literally a labour of love.