Those Barren Leaves

In the last month I’ve read Double Blind, the new novel by Edward St Aubyn. I understand this did not get good reviews, but I have not read them. I do not think this is as good as his best work but it is an interesting snapshot of the concerns that have been running through the comment pages of the Guardian and other smart papers and magazines for about the last 30 years.

I have no idea whether St Aubyn qualifies as “middlebrow” or “highbrow”, or if those terms are even being used non-ironically when they crop up nowadays. Virginia Woolf tried to put up a fence between the two domains and her punishment was to be swallowed by middlebrow culture herself, entombed as another “classic” writer on the same shelves of unread Collected Editions, alongside Jane Austen and Shakespeare. I think he is “serious” or “literary” fiction, a genre marked by dealing with Big Ideas but in a conventional, marketable narrative style. If it fails Woolf’s test for the “pursuit of an idea” then perhaps the ideas being pursued are just too diffuse or elusive for any novelist to catch up with them.

The ideas in Double Blind concern life and death and science and religion and commerce and lots of “debates” that are great fodder for dinner party chat. They have been in St Aubyn’s fictions before. St Aubyn’s novels fall in to 2 groups: the ones with Patrick Melrose, and the ones without. The non-Melrose novels struggle with the absence of the central character St Aubyn knows intimately, since his early life story is clearly based around that of his creator. An upper-middle class English boy who was sexually abused by a father who also treated his wife very badly, as shown in the genteel brutality of Never Mind (1992). Young Patrick was able to progress through public school and Oxford in the late 70s but his psychic traumas brought him in to drug addiction and the exhilarating ride around New York in the early 80s that takes up Bad News (also 1992). The bad news of that story was that the old monster had died and young Patrick would have to make something of himself in a world he was absent from. Some Hope (1994) shows him finally off the drugs, getting through law school and finally settling in to the privileged career and life that was available all along, even without the detour through narcotic oblivion.

A Clue To The Exit (2000) only featured Patrick in a brief cameo appearance, but its narrator had a very similar background and was just standing in for him so that he didn’t suffer the terminal illness that drove the plot. On The Edge (1998), a story set amongst New Age/quasi-mystical communes and the phonies that profit from them, could have benefited from Patrick’s presence. St Aubyn himself might have agreed, since the 4th Melrose novel, Mother’s Milk (2005), seems to repeat much of the scenario but adding Patrick and his family life into it. At Last (2012) had the middle-aged Patrick dealing with another death and thinking about his own mortality. I think it is an absolute certainty that St Aubyn will be required to produce a 6th novel about Patrick’s life in a geriatric home, and it is not inconceivable that the character will survive his author’s death, in a highly speculative, mystical manuscript intended for posthumous publication. That’s his most commercial property. The other works that lack Patrick are Lost For Words (2014), a comedy about literary prize judging panels – nicely amusing but not exceptional – and Dunbar (2017), a recreation of King Lear as a story about a modern media magnate vacating his corporate throne. The latter could be a test-run for that Patrick-with-dementia novel we’re going to get later on.

Double Blind has another of those megalomaniac billionaires, along with an array of smart people who all knew each other at Oxford. The fact they all met at the older university, not the former Polytechnic, is not a detail that needs mentioning in the Aubynverse. The story commences with the ecologist Francis surveying a “rewilding” project at Howorth, an estate that formerly practiced “intensive farming” until it was noted that “the old oaks at Howorth were sickening and beginning to die back”. Francis has also met and started a relationship with Olivia, a research fellow in genetics who is now working on a book that is sceptical of simplistic genetic models of development. Models such as those touted by her former mentor Sir William Moorhead, a very obvious parody of Richard Dawkins. Moorhead has written contentious, polemical tomes such as The Insatiable Machine and The Sublime Is Ridiculous, expounding his contempt for religion and all non-science and insisting on a strict genetic explanation for all aspects of human life that are worth talking about. Moorhead is also a sexual predator and a prime target for any Me Too movement that would sweep through science departments, although he has already moved in to the private sector. He is involved with one of the biotech companies taking money from the superstar venture capitalist Hunter Sterling. Hunter has also recently hired Lucy, Olivia’s best friend from Oxford, to join his business as a high-level consultant. Lucy had trained as a research scientist but quit to go in to the world of business consultancy, and spent years in New York with a boyfriend from a wealthy family whom she finally abandoned. Sterling also has interests in new robotics and AI ventures, and the possibilities of advanced Virtual Reality (“Happy Helmets”). He is aware of work on new treatments for schizophrenia, depression and other chronic conditions arising from this research, but it doesn’t have such great commercial potential.

Olivia was an adopted child, the parents she grew up with are professional psychoanalysts with little patience for the pretensions of neuroscience or neurochemistry to solve problems in living. She has a good relationship with her half-brother Charlie. Her father is currently providing therapy to a very disturbed young man called Sebastian, and he comes to think that his client may have a background connection to their adopted child. Francis is also aware of the latest modern research into the sub-surface connections linking woodlands with “a vigorous mycorrhizal network under his feet, the product of symbiotic association between fungi, foraging for nutrients in the soil, and the roots of these young trees.” His own views on ecology have adapted over time.

He belonged, like Olivia, to a generation that felt it had been born on a planet irretrievably damaged by human greed and ignorance. The previous generation had perhaps been preoccupied by the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but for Francis, who was only five when the Berlin Wall came down, there was clearly no need for any war to lay waste to the biosphere; all that needed was business as usual.

Business does not proceed as usual for Lucy, for almost as she has started in her new role guiding Hunter through the wonderland of cutting-edge research, she is diagnosed with a brain tumour, and needs special treatment of her own. “Alternative therapy” is not considered as an option, but the brusqueness and coldness of modern medical practice is displayed.

The story is structured in to 3 Parts. Part One takes us to the point where Lucy is starting her treatment, and Hunter invites all the characters for a grand party at his residence in the South of France. Part Two takes us through the party, which includes a private performance by Kraftwerk. The comic figure of Father Guido also appears, frantically trying to repair the damage caused by allowing Hunter’s people to record the brain patterns of the contemplative Blessed Fra Domenico. In Part Three we have a final congress of the characters at Hunter’s mansion in London, where Sebastian and Olivia have the close encounter that was obviously determined to happen the moment it was flagged that they were part of an extended network. Sebastian would not have had been given so many lines if he was not going to turn out to be another part of the smart set after all. He may not have gone to Oxford but he is one of the better class of fungi linking the rhizomes.

As with his other novels, it’s the party scenes that work best. That’s where the characters are trying to show off and present themselves in quick, telling moments, and the surrounding commentary by St Aubyn provides the acid bath to dissolve any pretensions not cut down in the repartee. When 2 St Aubyn characters have to have an extended conversation in a quieter place by themselves then it’s heavier going. The narration can only be thuddingly descriptive of what is being felt and thought by people whose emotions seem to come pre-processed, already rinsed in several rounds of therapy (“The sudden pressure had forced her to recognise that their relationship had long depended on the trance of habit and the fear of loss”). This stands out when our narrator gets a rare opportunity to pass judgement on a morally inferior character, who is absent from the scene and probably didn’t even go to Oxford:

Olivia knew from her brother that it had not been easy for him to make the visit, despite its blatantly compassionate nature. Lucy occupied a place of special jealousy in his girlfriend Lesley’s pantheon of rivals. She suspected that Lucy was ‘the real love of Charlie’s life’ and that she was just ‘good wife material’ – Lesley was one of those people who thought that originality consisted of a fluent and knowing use of cliché, vigorously imprisoned with inverted commas to make sure it couldn’t escape the further boredom of being vaguely ironic. Although she was right about Charlie’s nostalgia for Lucy, Olivia fervently hoped that she was wrong about being ‘good wife material’ for her brother.

Hunter Sterling is not exactly Patrick Bateman of American Psycho but they may have attended the same prep school, before the tech-billionaire spent time at Westminster in old London. He has Patrick’s capacity to step in to a detailed and lucid dissertation on cultural and political trends, which is only displayed once in his narrative:

’… The government says it’s pro-business, but when it comes to the secrets of life, capitalism is left begging on the sidewalk outside the party.’

’Especially when it gets daily results from a three-billion-dollar, publicly funded research programme while only publishing its own results once a year,’ said Hunter. ‘It’s confusing to let people patent someone else’s work. Besides, socialism in America was never intended for some schmuck to shadow the most conspicuous global science project of all time; it has to be ideologically purified by only being given to its most ferocious opponents in the Pentagon or on Wall Street. If someone wants to start an illegal war or get bailed out after bringing the world’s economic system to its knees, then, by golly, if the beneficiaries are already rich and powerful, we can show the world what a welfare state really means.’

The title Double Blind of course has multiple meanings. It refers to the “double blind test” process in scientific evaluation of pharmaceuticals, but it also suggests these characters may have multiple forms of blindness, not perceiving parts of the world around them. What are these blindnesses, and who has them? The obvious baddie would be poor old Sir William Moorhead himself. We know he’s a wrong’un because we got told that every time he’s mentioned. We never see any examples of his tirades against religion, but it’s clear that he’s offended against the sacred beliefs that the Guardian Belief section upheld for many years. We can draw together three separate lines expressed in this book. First of all, there is what we could call “the crisis of methodology”:

While proper scientists defended true methodology by pouring boiling oil and dropping rocks on the besieging hordes of pseudoscientists, with their diets and their herbs, their acupuncture needles and their Ayurvedic spices, their meditation practices and yoga positions, it turned out that some parts of the citadel they were defending were rotten by their own ‘double blind’ standards. A ‘replication crisis’ was rippling through one discipline after another.

Aside from this is a second line of thought, what we could call “the poverty of reduction”:

She picked up her proofs again. Her book on epigenetics suddenly seemed like a refuge rather than a chore. Since the millennial utopianism that had greeted the completion of the Human Genome Project twenty years ago, the search for genes that corresponded to every desire and disease, every inclination and physical feature, had been, with a few exceptions, a failure… Ah yes, here it was, the key paper in Nature on missing heritability (Monolio, et al.), that ended with the sublime sentence, ‘Given how little has actually been explained of the demonstrable genetic influences on most common diseases, despite identification of hundreds of associated genetic variants, the search for the missing heritability provides a potentially valuable path towards further discoveries.’ In what other field of science would something be demonstrable ‘given how little has actually been explained’?

A third thread is what we could call “the problem of incompleteness” personified in sad old William Moorhead:

’Ho ho ho,’ said Francis. ‘He’s spent his career as a public intellectual pouring scorn on all fields of human enquiry that are not susceptible to the scientific method, without applying the scientific method to itself, saddling us with “missing heritability”, generated by genetic dogma, not by evidence; “dark matter” generated by the need to balance equations; multiverses, also without a shred of evidence, generated by a Many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory. It was great when empiricism displaced ignorance, but now mathematics has usurped empiricism…’

But also the poor old dear happens to like listening to choral music, which is a terribly inconsistent thing for an atheist to do, apparently. How deeply must one share the faith of an artist in order to be entitled to appreciate their works? Do you have to be Orthodox to listen to John Taverner? Probably not.

I’m not a fan of the New Atheists, but I think for quite some time now the anti-Dawkins bores have been even more tedious than their great enemy. I understand we are to take them as more “philosophically sophisticated” than the NAs, because they tell us they are, but I never see this in any of the “debates” they join battle in. We usually get garbled versions of the 3 threads mentioned above, but never with the clarity that St Aubyn renders them in.

The ideology of this novel brings these together with one further ingredient usually missing from the invective of the C.S.Lewis/G.K.Chesterton cultists waging war on Dawkins: a disdain for any deep involvement with actual religious faith. We hear about Ayurvedic spices and yoga in passing, but nothing about the traditions they come from or give them a meaning that western cultural tourists do not stop to appreciate. The only religious figures in this book are the priests, played as traditional English stereotypes of the Romish church: a hapless innocent, and a conniving bureaucrat (with mutterings about darker conspiracies, hoarded wealth, power-grabbing and buried crimes). This outlook, which we could call either Modern Liberal Spirituality, or just Anglicanism-Without-God, likes to present itself as a movement of intellectual fugitives running from persecution, even though it is in fact the received wisdom of the entire British cultural establishment. It is a movement that defines itself against enemies that never quite live up to their role. Dawkins doesn’t actually think there are discrete genes for all aspects of behaviour, detached from environmental influences; there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who would take issue with the pretensions of evolutionary psychology (a distinct project). Sir William Moorhead can’t help having an incoherent set of beliefs: he’s a gestalt creature, a hideous experiment made by blurring together Dawkins and Steve Pinker and a string of other templates. In case you didn’t get that you’re supposed to dislike conventional religious authority as much as its haters, Fr. Guido obligingly reflects that Sir William has much in common with the Pope: “…these two dogmatic, ill-tempered men were really spiritual twins”.

There is no way that the Church could get a good notice from liberal spirituality, since the latter conceives religious faith as a “field of human enquiry” or “quest for meaning”, not a state of rest or perhaps even another case of “the trance of habit and the fear of loss”. Lives less important than the ones that make regular international flights have to make do with the trance and the fear. The quests and enquiries are personal endeavours of the individual subject, who signals for assistance when needed but is never so bound to a time or place as those great trees we are to admire. If they are meant to symbolise a natural order that crude reductionism cannot account for, then it is also an order entirely unlike, and in no kind of correspondence with, the privileged human lives shuttling around and above it. There are snakes appearing at several points in this narrative, including at the Gaian Eden of Howorth, but if they are meant to be symbols of evil then they have no power, since evil is not a recognised category in this world, only bad humour.

Of the three threads of liberal spirituality, it is not clear why we should take any of them as posing intractable problems for any other philosophy, or at least not problems that this spirituality owns the special answers to. On the crisis of methodology: it seems to be have been limited to the results claimed by experimental psychology and perhaps sociology. It is not suggested in this narrative that Lucy try an alternative treatment for her brain tumour, although it is not a secret that the orthodox medical approaches do not always work and can only be experimental when tried on patients in extreme circumstances. Pharmaceutical psychiatry may have limited effectiveness, but how well does psychoanalysis fare? In fact, what is its claim to authority? At one time Freud was riding alongside Darwin and Marx as one of the Godless horsemen attacking Faith and Tradition in the cause of Progress and Science; the most interesting thing about Freudianism now is that it has been repurposed as a warhorse against the notional materialist imperialism. Psychoanalysis is the scientism that forgot its own origin story, in just 100 years.

On the problem of incompleteness, there are two points here: that actual existing science does not stay within the playground perimeters defined by the positivists and the gentlemen-empiricists who never did much of it themselves. That is correct as far as it goes, which is only in to the realm of social models of epistemology and away from naïve confirmation or falsification. The other point would be the insolubility of the “child’s infinite regress” of Why-questions that St Aubyn mentions during an interlude – but that is a problem for any variety of rationalism, including the modern popular ones that fancy bringing God in as an all-purpose universal solvent is an improvement on the Godless brands. Perhaps it would be better to not fixate on “ultimate questions”, which in any case is forcing religion in to a shape it does not fit into as it was never made for it. The asking and answering of questions is only one part of the faith, it is not the centre, and it is limited to a set catechism defined by the Church itself… that is what even simple Fr. Guido could have explained, if anyone asked him.

The most interesting thread in liberal spirituality is its grasp of the poverty of reduction – however, it is not clear how far actual working scientists are committed to the “world-view” glibly attributed to them. As we are often told, we live in a culture of hyper-specialisation in which the Universal Men or deep generalists are no longer possible. I used to work with someone who had a Astrophysics PhD, and he mentioned at one time that he didn’t understand the methodologies for getting some of the results claimed in the very latest solid-state physics, an area far away (literally) from his area, yet still notionally within the same discipline. The domains of Physics, Biology and Psychology have limited points of contact and are too divided in their own autonomous regions to ever launch serious imperial campaigns to annexe each other’s territory. Lucy gets to acknowledge this in passing:

’Everything in science is too specialised,’ said Lucy. ‘People assume that scientists are intellectuals, but very few of them have an overview, or a critical approach to their methodologies, they’re just too busy securing funding or tenure or zapping individual cells…’

Is it true that the Human Genome Project promised to make good on a dogmatic claim about genetic reductionism? Criticism of genetic reductionism is not new, the sceptical biologist Barry Commoner, who was not exactly a crank, got a platform to say that in Harpers magazine back in 2002, and it was responded to in Nature soon after.

An alternative explanation for the indifference that has greeted the downfall of the central dogma is that, in the strictest sense, it isn’t true. Crick’s original proposal had nothing to do with the relationship between an organism’s genome and its inherited traits; it simply stated that information flow in the cell goes from nucleic acids to proteins. The obvious exception to this statement is the prion hypothesis, whose father, Stanley Prusiner, was awarded a Nobel Prize, a rather odd way for the scientific community to express its disapproval of heretical ideas.

Knocking down the experts in a field, or the entire field itself, with a single powerful “Gotcha” observation, will always offer the great attraction of intellectual triumph without hard, constructive work. If the field has already been popularised in simplistic terms then the goal seems even easier to the outsider with little idea of how it really works within.

But there are still the set of puzzles that make up the topic called “philosophy of mind”, and St Aubyn seems to be aware of the literature and the topics.

Hunter had told her this morning about the way that Saul used to get obsessed with the ‘explanatory gap’ between experience and experiment, between science in its current form and subjectivity in its perennial form. To them, it had been a talking point, but to Lucy it had never seemed more urgent or more real. A physicalist, like Moorhead, who was content to reduce consciousness to cerebral activity, created the problem of why there was any consciousness at all, why the brain bothered to generate this distracting display when it was doing all the real work on its own. The so-called ‘zombie problem’, which might keep zombies awake at night, didn’t worry Lucy any more than the problem of why her television went to the trouble of generating the news. It was simply a false description. Who was it who had said ‘Consciousness must be a strange kind of illusion if you have to be conscious to have it’? Consciousness was primary and everything else we knew, including data about cerebral activity, derived from it.

There are a lot of things going on in this passage, the first of which being that the hapless scientists like Moorhead are getting assigned a commitment to hard physicalism, which they might not have claimed and don’t need. The much-maligned “skeptic” such as James Randi, scourge of table-tappers and cold-readers, is only committed to reducing the paranormal to other psychological categories, such as hallucination, deceit, or some complex involving self-deception. They do not need to commit to the further step of insisting on a reduction of psychology to physics, even if some of them might agree with it in principle. But it is not the case that orthodox religion would be well-disposed toward spiritualism or ghost-hunting either. This is a feature of the liberal spirituality: in charging against the spoilsport materialists, it doesn’t notice the devout spoilsports who aren’t inclined to view faith in the resurrection of Christ and the life everlasting as on a par with sugar pills and magic tricks.

Whether the Darwinists have to be hard physicalists is not clear, although quite a few creationists seem to assume a primacy of physics, with their old warhorse argument that evolution runs against the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. If that argument were correct (it isn’t) then the rational response would be that we have firmer evidence that evolution has occurred on Earth than that there is any such “law of nature” applying throughout an unexplored universe. Young Earth Creationism features some of grossest examples of scientism, but simply straps on to them an ideological filter selecting in favour of modern US conservative shibboleths.

The problem of consciousness is getting lost in the lines between cerebral activity and the presentation of the visual field to a singular subject, but the subject may not correspond to a singular entity wholly transparent to itself. One philosopher who wrote a lot about “the subjective view” as a problem for materialism, whom St Aubyn may well have read, is Colin McGinn, author of The Character Of Mind and other works. He is not mentioned by name, although some of his more recent ideas seem to appear in this narrative. In chapter 11, a drug-fuelled Hunter is overwhelmed by his buzzing cerebral activity following chatter with Saul about non-reductive hierarchies and emergence, and begins to ponder some basic categories of physics, such as motion and space and solidity.

Added to the incomprehensibility of motion that had afflicted him in the car, now that he was at rest, he was being persecuted by the incomprehensibility of space. When an object, like the steel table in front of him, occupied a space, did the space get annihilated by the solidity of the mass? Or was it just denser space? Or was it a dented space, in the way that all massive object dent the fabric of space-time.

The sounds awfully like the “Deletion Theory” and “Dilution Theory” that McGinn punted in his Basic Structures Of Reality (2011). I only know about them from reading the terrible notice the book was given in the journal Mind. McGinn has not been averse to dishing out unfavourable comments on other philosophers. He said negative things about the old positivist A.J.Ayer, who also has a counterpart in the Aubynverse: Sir Victor Eysin, a dinner party guest of the Melroses. McGinn’s career has subsequently had difficulties, so there is a rather tasteless irony that the champion of non-reductionism has more in common with Sir William Moorhead than any of the figures who might be his inspiration.

Could there be another unnamed Oxford influence haunting this novel? Another thinker, worried about tech-utopianism and the decline of finer feeling in the age of mass culture? There are two hints:

’”The woods decay, the woods decay and fall… Me only cruel immortality consumes,” Lucy quoted wearily.

The full quotation is from Tennyson’s Tithonus, provided the epigraph and title for After Many A Summer, Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel about a crazed Californian millionaire who will spend whatever it takes to get at the secret of endless life. The other clue: Hunter and Saul are cruising the highways not far away from “San Luis Obispo… and the Hearst Castle, which always provoked him into imagining the same scenes of disgruntled grandiosity and encroaching madness from Citizen Kane” – which was always the universe of Jo Stoyte.

At least St Aubyn’s chattering smart people have some forms of employment. 100 years ago, when Huxley was living in the South of France he wrote a novel about some fools, failures and posers hanging around an Italian villa and maundering on about what it could possibly mean to wonder about what it could possibly mean. And then someone suddenly gets sick and dies.

The tragedy of bodily suffering and extinction has no catharsis. Punctually it runs its dull, degrading course, act by act to its conclusion. It ennobles neither the sufferer nor the contemplator. Only the tragedy of the spirit can liberate and uplift.

And we also end with a dialogue on the metaphyics of mind and body.

Calamy was silent for a moment. ‘It’s difficult,’ he said pensively; ‘it’s horribly difficult. The fundamental question is this: Can you talk of the soul being at the mercy of the body, can you give any kind of explanation of mind in terms of matter? When you reflect that it’s the human mind that has invented space, time and matter, picking them out of reality in a quite arbitrary fashion – can you attempt to explain a thing in terms of something it has invented itself? That’s the fundamental question.’

…’But what bosh all your mystics talk about it,’ said Mr Cardan. ‘Have you ever read Boehme, for example? Lights and darknesses, wheels and compunctions, sweets and bitters, mercury, salt and sulphur – it’s a rigmarole.’

’It’s only to be expected,’ said Calamy. ‘How is man to give an account of something entirely unlike the phenomena of known existence in a language invented to describe these phenomena? You might give a deaf man a most detailed verbal description of the Fifth Symphony; but he wouldn’t be much the wiser for it.

The fundamental question will always be around the modern novelist, even if his immediate family was full of distinguished biologists and he was friendly with Bertrand Russell. The title, as with so many of his books, was taken from someone else, in this case Wordsworth:

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

Of course he’s using “leaves” to mean pages of a book, not leaves on a tree, like in the photo, another double meaning to play with.

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