Thursday, January 07, 2021

Post 7500 - Full Circle (or reversal): Newton, Lewis, Stoppard

And a whole lot of other guys...

There was a single-panel cartoon in the 1980s which I put on my office door, of a elderly man and his wife siting on beach chairs as he scowls out at the ocean.  "I've come full circle.  I think things are as they seem." This is the type of "thinking that we so desperately need today in these trying time of crisis and universal brouhaha."

It is productive surprisingly often, and worth a good many literature papers, to compare a writer's earliest work with his last. I wrote a few years ago that Thornton Wilder's last book, Theophilus North, was the inverse of his first The Cabala. While all of CS Lewis's works can be found in one way or another in Till We Have Faces, one of the strongest parallels is with his first book The Pilgrim's Regress.  Tom Stoppard started as an absurdist playwright, heir to Beckett and Ionesco.  In the Theater of the Absurd, sensible sounding things are seen to have no meaning, as in "Endgame," or "The Chairs," or even more especially "The Bald Soprano," in which the dialogue is built from the language book Ionesco was using to learn English. In Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" he keeps dragging us into odd corners with wordplay.  Is this a game or is this dialogue? Was that a meaningful plot hint or is he suckering me into thinking so? In "The Real Thing"  the first scene in the play, a couple fighting about unfaithfulness, is itself a scene in a play-within-a-play, which we don't discover until scene two. He then plays with this further, as the lives, actions, and accusations in the interior play interpenetrate those in play we are supposedly watching. Stoppard even makes fun of himself in this.  In "After Magritte" a series of puzzling, unlikely descriptions of an event that all the characters have witnessed and are strenuously arguing about is revealed in the last scene as the lights go down to be a simple, pathetically comic event they have all misinterpreted.

He comes full circle in 2015. The mind-body problem is the subject of his one-act "The Hard Problem," a series of arguments among researchers about whether consciousness exists or all is mere complexity of brain connections. (As with most Stoppard plays, the characters are embroiled in romantic and sexual interactions to keep audience attention up. This is not only good theater but a theme of his, marveling at the wild random chances of mating and new humans.) The main character is determined to show experimentally that there is a real consciousness in the human brain, while just about everyone else is determined to convince her she is simply wrong and a fool. She is beaten to earth but not quite defeated throughout, and as the paper she believes will vindicate her suddenly has to be retracted, she closes the play by leaving for another country and another profession in what seems complete loss - until we learn that there has been a thread of ridiculous coincidence running under the surface of the play, which seems to...tie everything together with meaning far beyond what could occur by chance. 

He started, then, in Absurdism, with the idea that humans overfit and perceive patterns, logic, and reasons that are not there but ends late in his career with the view that we underfit the data and refuse to see realities that we don't like. This theme is often found in religious literature, yet not only there.  It is the foundation of mystery and spy stories - protagonist perceives a pattern in events that the others around her miss, speculative fiction from Kinsella to Borges to Bradbury, and even some science fiction, such as Asimov's Foundation or Herbert's Dune. We do not clearly see the meaning.  Many of those who claim to see the meaning are lying.  It is tempting to throw up our hands and say there is no meaning, for anything else seems to undermine our free will.  And yet there is meaning, just not what was expected. Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker" series plays at both ends, destroying meaning in some places and discovering it by surprise in others, with humorous effect being his guiding principle on that. It's all over early heroic fantasy, with Gandalf noting that Bilbo was somehow meant to find The Ring, or Will Stanton born to fill a particular cosmic role in The Dark is Rising, or the "Redwall" series, where even mice and otters not only have a destiny, but the enactment of that destiny is unclear and uncertain and ultimately teaches a deeper lesson still.*

There is a tension, then, in our modern thought whether we are overfitting patterns to the data, leading to unwarranted belief in spiritual realities or even to paranoia, versus considering the possibility that we are underfitting the data to realities, refusing to see uncomfortable truths. This is a new argument, dating from - I don't know, Voltaire in literature but Descartes and Pascal in philosophy even entertaining the idea that all might be meaningless and illusion.  Though - this just occurs to me - Solomon anticipates this long before that in Ecclesiastes, and the idea of pointlessness and despair is present in the Greek philosopher Gorgias (4th C BC?) long before Nietzsche made nihilism popular.  The Buddha rejected the idea in a roundabout way, and among the seventy million schools of thought in Hinduism, only a few embrace any idea that our lives are meaningless.

The ancients, including our immediate predecessors the medievals believed in underlying patterns to the world which it was man's job to discern.  We would now say that they wildly overfitted, leading to belief in alchemy and astrology as sciences and believing that human personality must derive from a nice box of four humors. 

There has been only a bit of Lewis and nothing of Newton to this point, but this has gone long, so I am again in the position of finding a stopping point and declaring "This was Part I."

*Though Jacques denied that there was anything more than goodies and baddies in his books, he liked his characters and stories enough that they dragged him in to deeper meaning.  Something similar happened with Piers Anthony, who was merely trying to make Xanth fun and adventurous but found himself contemplating the nature of evil almost despite himself.

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