David Foster Wallace and the Horror of Neuroscience

1. Despite never writing about it directly, explicitly—the way he wrote about cruise ships or Roger Federer or the eating of lobsters—David Foster Wallace had a keen and lifelong interest in the brain. There was an obvious personal reason for this: on most of the days of his life, he consumed brain-altering chemicals as a way to stave off suicidal depression. His first published short story is essentially an extended musing on the connections between chemicals, the brain, and subjective wellbeing. These interests continue to animate his early works; both The Broom of the System (1987) and Girl with Curious Hair (1989) are peppered with offhand but learned references to neuroanatomy. Paul D. MacLean’s once-popular triune brain theory appears in Infinite Jest, and there are also quieter references to Gilbert Ryle and Julian Jaynes—two other well-known theorists of the relations between neurology and the mind. As Wallace scholar Stephen J. Burn has put it, analyzing The Pale King (2011), Wallace nurtured a “career-long fascination with consciousness.” His 2004 short-story collection Oblivion has always been a somewhat confusing book: dense, obtuse, cold, fragmented, a little cruel. However, while penning a PhD thesis on the intersections between neuroscience, theories of consciousness, and modern Anglo-American literature—a Wallacian labyrinth of thought if ever there was one—I think I have come to understand Oblivion for what it really is: A work of horror fiction, whose unique brand of horror is rooted in Wallace's reading about the brain. In the eight years between Infinite Jest and Oblivion, Wallace's reading in neuroscience and consciousness studies intensified. His essay “Consider the Lobster,” published almost in tandem with Oblivion, displays a sophistication of engagement with neuroscience that outstrips any of his previous work, referencing nociceptors and prostaglandins and endorphins and enkephalins. The more precise direction of Wallace's reading is indicated by two books found in his personal library (preserved today at the Harry Ransom Centre at UT in Austin): the Danish popular science writer Tor Nørretranders’s The User Illusion, and Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wallace read both of these works of popular consciousness studies closely, and what he took from them is revealed by his annotations. In Nørretranders's The User Illusion, Wallace has heavily underlined a section where Nørretranders writes “Consciousness is a fraud.” On another page Nørretranders has written “Most of what we experience, we can never tell each other about—we can share the experience that through language we are unable to share most of what we experience.” In his copy, Wallace has underlined this paragraph, and written, at the top of the page, “Loneliness—Can't Talk About It.” In Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves, alongside Wilson's remark that “Freud's vision of the unconscious was far too limited,” Wallace's scribbled note reads “omniscient not on conscious thought but on unconscious drives” [sic]. Most of what we think of as self-directed behavior, explains Wilson, may well be actually “non-conscious intention.” These quotes give you a sense of these two books, both of which build on what Alan Richardson calls “one of the great lessons of the cognitive revolution”: “just how much of mental life remains closed to introspection.” As a brief summation, the unified thesis of Nørretranders's and Wilson's works looks something like this: We are not really in control. Not only are we not in control, but we are not even aware of the things of which we are not in control. Our ability to judge anything with any accuracy is a lie, as is our ability to perceive these lies as lies. Consciousness masquerades as awareness and agency, but the sense of self it conjures is an illusion. We are stranded in the great opaque secret of our biology, and what we call subjectivity is a powerless epiphenomenon, sort of like a helpless rider on the back of a galloping horse—the view is great, but pulling on the reins does nothing. If this description of reality feels familiar to you, it's because such a neuroscientifically inspired pessimism is a quiet but powerful strain of modern thinking. It lurks in the shadows of the breezy materialism professed by science popularizers such as Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson—who tend to shroud the meaninglessness behind a smokescreen of excitable awe. Raymond Tallis calls the worldview conjured by works such as Nørretranders's and Wilson's “biologic pessimism.” In its broad strokes, the shadow of biologic pessimism is what dismayed a young William James. Today, it informs the work of the philosopher John Gray, and has found its most popular advocate in the character of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, in HBO's True Detective. When Cohle explains to Woody Harrelson’s character that he thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” and that “we are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” what sounds like poseurish gloom is actually an entirely rational, reasonable interpretation of the modern scientific paradigm. As Wallace himself put it elsewhere, in his not-so-compact history of infinity, what science tells us is that “our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed” and “our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté.” The character of Rust Cohle in True Detective links nearly back to Wallace's Oblivion by virtue of the fact that the character of Rust Cohle was based to an almost plagiaristic degree on the nonfictional musings of another American fiction author: Thomas Ligotti. Ligotti, probably the finest living American horror writer, has built a whole fictional style upon the same pessimistic interpretation of the brain sciences that Wallace himself appears to have arrived at independently. And though Wallace, unlike Ligotti, is not known first and foremost as a horror author, he was in fact a lifelong fan of the genre. His teaching syllabi included Stephen King, he adored the work of Thomas Harris (particularly Red Dragon), and he praised Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as “probably the most horrifying book of this century.” Wallace was also a “fanatical” David Lynch fan, and wrote a long piece praising his work for being “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force.” For Lynch, Wallace wrote, “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now.” As it turns out, Wallace's assessment of the special atmosphere of Lynch's horror (published in 1996) functions as an uncannily accurate description of his own Oblivion (published in 2004). Oblivion was a strange collection that quietly baffled many readers, both when it was first published and to this day. But when you understand that the whole collection is about the horror of consciousness, what first appears as a fragmented piece of work achieves cohesion. With Oblivion, these two deep-set interests—the brain, and dispiriting interpretations of its nature and relationship to our subjective lives; and horror—collide. [millions_ad] “Mr. Squishy,” Oblivion’s opening piece, is infused with an air of subjectivity as helpless, capricious, and buffeted by winds of influence over which it has no control. The pitiable protagonist, Terry Schmidt, is tortured by his lust for a co-worker, and is driven to masturbation “without feeling as if he could help himself.” In his imaginings he cuts a pathetic figure, and he is troubled by “his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy.” The state of affairs, we learn, “made Schmidt wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will, deep down.” (Readers may know of Benjamin Libet’s famous experiments, often taken as strong neuroscientific evidence of the non-existence of free will.) Schmidt has “had several years of psychotherapy,” but remains helpless. So total is his isolation of self, that Schmidt is on the verge of “making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc's of castor bean distillate”—that is, committing mass murder via mass-poisoned commercial confectionary. In “The Soul Is Not a Smithy,” a ranging recollection of a day in the childhood of an unnamed adult narrator, filters through the claustrophobia of an anxious mind a pitch of ascending dread and doom, the presence of violent insanity, and a lethal culmination. Evoking directly Wallace's neuroscientific reading, the narrator muses that “that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of our awareness.” The big cruel joke of “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” is that the narrator's consciousness is so capricious and fickle that it has missed absorbing “the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in in my life.” The entire story is the narrator's attempt to learn about an event that he rather ludicrously has no real first hand knowledge of because of his inadequate brain. The flash fictional “Incarnations of Burned Children” seems to darkly riff upon this chronic mind-scatteredness which blights so many of Oblivion’s cast, by having the awful events of the story render the father's “mind empty of everything but purpose”—a state the narrators of the rest of the collection could never hope to achieve. Only under such awful extreme duress, it suggests, might consciousness reach something like an unfiltered, directional tone. “Another Pioneer” has at its heart the horror of (brain-based) self-consciousness: Within the nested story, doom for the jungle village follows the moment when the child messiah's “cognitive powers [bent] back in on themselves and transformed him from messianic to monstrous,” powers “whose lethal involution resonates with malignant self-consciousness”—a self-consciousness that was a constant theme of Wallace's work, and which the story declares can be found “in everything from Genesis 3:7 to the self-devouring Kirttimukha of the Skanda Purana to the Medousa’s reflective demise to Gödelian metalogic.” This crushing weight of self-consciousness is at the heart of Oblivion’s most famous story, “Good Old Neon,” which n+1 called the collection's “one indisputable masterpiece.” The pseudo-narrator of “Good Old Neon," Neal, has spent his life tortured by “the fraudulence paradox”: “the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside—you were a fraud.” The pressure eventually becomes so great that Neal kills himself. The crucial point is that all of Neal's extensive and extensively described suffering can be located in the makeup and character of the human brain, not society or culture. By the end of the story the strong impression is that Neal's condition is but a particularly acute version of a basic human predicament. As he puts it, it's “not as if this is an incredibly rare or obscure type of personality.” In the modern neuroscientific paradigm, Neal's suspicion that “in reality I actually seemed to have no true inner self” is absolutely correct. There is really nothing outlandish about Neal's fears; within Oblivion’s neuropessimism, they are simple truisms. We do experience time poorly; language is in many ways a weak tool. The same goes for his fear that he is “unable to love:” from a hard Darwinian viewpoint, we are all unable to love, really—or more accurately, what we think we are doing when we love is actually not loving at all as we understand that word. Neal recognizes this himself: “we are all basically just instruments or expressions of our evolutionary drives, which are themselves the expressions of forces that are infinitely larger and more important than we are.” In the title story, “Oblivion,” the protagonist and his wife are so incapable of accurately telling perception from reality that one or both of them can't tell when they are awake and when they are asleep. The narrator's “seven months of severe sleep disturbance” have made for a “neural protest” of symptoms that underpin the story's oppressive, nervous atmosphere. This atmosphere achieves full bloom in Oblivion’s closing novella, “The Suffering Channel,” which features the story's eponymous production company and their “registered motto” “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE'S NIGHTMARE.” (A quotation from the famous pessimist philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote books with such cheery titles as The Trouble with Being Born.) “The Suffering Channel” features various lonely people failing to connect via their “tiny keyholes” of self. The story's focus on defecating is really an extended metaphor for the interior, the private–that which is common to all, but which is very rarely (to contaminate the metaphor) pushed through the keyhole. Our inability or social aversion to share with one another the deepest workings of our large intestines mirrors our inability to share the deepest workings of our minds. What we have is scatological representation of what philosophers call the Hard Problem. All of the characters of “The Suffering Channel” labor under “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance”—in and of itself the overarching tragedy of the whole of Oblivion. 2. Ultimately, just as Wallace wrote that David Lynch's movies were about “not about monsters...but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force;” that for Lynch “Darkness is in everything, all the time—not 'lurking below' or 'lying in wait' or 'hovering on the horizon': evil is here, right now”–Oblivion is a collection about horror as the basic state of existence. The darkness and dread and horror of Oblivion is not in monsters or evil people; it is in the environment, in all of us, in our neurology and fraught consciousness and ill-evolved minds. Ligotti has written that all real horror writing, from Ann Radcliffe through to H.P. Lovecraft, is motivated by the specter of “the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not.” By these standards, Wallace, driven by his voluminous reading in the brain sciences, joins the club. In my thesis—academia being a world where the coining of neologisms is a mark of one's stunningly original thinking—I refer to this style of existential horror, rooted in an interpretation of modern neuroscience, as neurohorror. If there is a chink of philosophical sunlight, it is that Wallace may not have totally believed in the worldview of biologic pessimism. Oblivion and Wallace's final, tortuously produced, unfinished novel The Pale King were heavily intertwined. Wallace used the same notebooks for each, and funneled sections of one into the other as he went. Many critics think that the unrelenting misery of Oblivion was supposed to find its relief and counterpoint in its novelistic partner. As Wallace's biographer D.T. Max puts it, “while Oblivion was descriptive, The Pale King was supposed to be prescriptive. It had to convince the reader that there was a way out of the bind. It had to have a commitment to a solution that Oblivion lacked.” The neurohorror of Oblivion may have represented a flexing of Wallace's pessimist muscles, in advance of an attempt to overpower them. As Wallace himself said in an interview, “any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” I mentioned that the biologic pessimism that caught Wallace's attention mirrored that which preoccupied William James a century prior. Wallace's potential solution or counterargument also mirrored James's. Indeed, in the very same books that inspired Wallace's neuropessimism, we find him searching for a more sanguine and more Jamesian reading. On page 129 of Nørretranders, Wallace underlined “You can direct your attention where you like.” On 133, he has underlined “the headiness of attaining high, clear awareness,” and under a section explaining the cortex he wrote “change in attention cause activity change in cortex” (sic). The brain might be the problem, but it appears that within these books Wallace was searching for a way for the brain to also become part of the solution. Underneath a quoted passage from William James, he wrote “Able to Choose Focus of Attention.” This would become the backbone to the hard-won optimism of “This is Water.”As David H. Evans has written, James put “activity rather than passivity at the core of our relation to the world” by affirming the subjective power of “the possibility of choice”–choice in terms of, to quote “This is Water,” “some control over how and what you think” over “what you pay attention to...how you construct meaning from experience.” This basic stance can also be observed in other thought systems Wallace was drawn to during his life, notably Buddhism. The most pessimistic reading of all, though, must draw attention to the biographical elephant in the room: Wallace's suicide. In the end, it was his brain—suffering with terrible withdrawal after years of being awash in the chemical mix of Nardil—that killed him. He couldn't think his way out, couldn't “construct meaning from experience” in a way that made something other than suicide the best option. It's possible to see this as a cruel and tragic vindication of the neuro-determinism which colors Oblivion. He completed Oblivion, but wasn't able to finish its optimistic companion The Pale King, despite years of trying—there is a sort of horrible literary mirror of Wallace's own inner life there. Unlike in fiction—where, despite it all, at the end of HBO's True Detective, Rust Cohle is able to remark hopefully that “the light’s winning”—we don't choose our endings. Wallace dug deeply and unflinchingly into the real challenges of modern existence; he made us “face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.” It remains with the rest of us to figure out how to live with it. Image Credit: Pixabay.

On the Origin of Novels? Encountering Literary Darwinism

Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott's most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film's female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel's zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you're willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that's...[sardonic thumbs-up]...but how do you know?” This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet's university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus's exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas. Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren't most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books? Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read. Defined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring. Where a historicist critic might investigate Faust's roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.) This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens -- as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall's The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary's Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn't the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.” On the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which -- like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex -- enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that...allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd -- whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism -- states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.” Throughout all forms of their analysis, though -- from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship -- the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products -- Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis -- as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit's most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.” And this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism's most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!" The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people -- particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots...Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest...It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.” Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats's remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena. The problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I'm somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams...they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot -- should not -- penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter -- “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” -- can't help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There's no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels...wrong. What's more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn't have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky -- a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist -- was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide? Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky -- to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn't bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it's hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars. The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him -- he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay -- a meandering paean to biology -- McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo...one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.” How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos? A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don't know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist's dilemma; it's hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.) Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn't tell us how -- probably he doesn't know -- but somehow, for all of science's explanatory power, literature can't be explained away. The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything   absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months -- science, maths, history, law and all the rest -- you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.

On The Road, On The Screen

As most readers of The Millions will undoubtedly be aware, Jack Kerouac's On The Road is not so much a book as a sociological event. One of the most polarising works in the whole of the American literary canon, its cultural resonance continues to endure, and for many -- the bohemian, the backpacker, the dropout, the hipster -- it remains a sacred text. However, as well as being a work of great literary and cultural import, On The Road holds the dubious distinction of having made a journey to the big screen as tortured and as fractured as any other book one might care to mention. It has taken a total of 55 years, and almost as many screenwriters, to finally convert Kerouac's vision of “an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” to film. A cinematic adaptation of On The Road has been in the works almost since the day it was published. In late 1957, a matter of weeks after the novel's appearance, Warner Brothers offered $110,000 for the motion-picture rights. At the news that Paramount and actor Marlon Brando were similarly interested, Kerouac's agent attempted to incite a bidding war, and Kerouac himself wrote a letter to Brando imploring him to purchase the rights and co-star in it with him: “I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak...You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life.” Nothing came of Kerouac's request, with Brando supposedly believing On The Road to be too “loose” for a Hollywood makeover. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers refused to meet the agent's asking price of $150,000. A year later, a screenplay consultation with Twentieth-Century Fox was arranged, during which producer Jerry Wald insisted on the idea of Dean Moriarty perishing in a violent climax at the close of the movie. A somewhat cynical way of cashing in on the recent real life death of James Dean, this proposed ending was unacceptable to Kerouac, who terminated the consultation. In 1958, Kerouac agreed to sell On The Road's film rights to a small film studio for just $25,000, but not long later the studio went bankrupt. By 1960, the American media machine had grown tired with On The Road's slow progress towards the screen, and in October of that year, CBS began airing a new television series called Route 66. The show was a not-so-thinly-veiled capitalisation on Kerouac's hugely popular novel, featuring a pair of young American males (“Todd” and “Buzz”) roaming the interstate in search of adventure: In one episode, a dreamy 'Buzz' declared “...you live it the way you feel it. When it moves, you go with it...I been looking ever since I can remember.” After it aired, Kerouac tried to sue the producers of Route 66 for plagiarism, but was advised by lawyers that such a lawsuit was destined to fail. Towards the end of the '60s, the film rights to On The Road fell into the hands of independent film-maker D. A. Pennebaker, who had just found fame with his groundbreaking Bob Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back. However, Pennebaker quickly decided that -- beyond an opening scene featuring the various characters sitting in a parking lot -- he had no idea how to make the film. In 1969, following a long descent into isolation and alcoholism, Kerouac passed away. Interest in an On The Road adaptation waned. It wasn't until 1979, when the film rights were purchased by Francis Ford Coppola, that On The Road looked set for the screen again. However, what followed was 30 more years of frustration, confusion, and discarded scripts. Coppola's struggle to turn the novel into a workable screenplay -- involving aborted collaborations with around a dozen separate writers, as well as a brief flirtation with the idea of shooting the whole thing on black-and-white 16mm film -- is well-documented. Even Coppola himself had a try: “I tried to write a script,” he said in 2007, “but I never knew how to do it.” Fast-forward to 2012 then, and, finally, a cinematic adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On The Road has been written, shot, edited, and packaged, and is set for release towards the end of May. A trailer has even been released, and the film itself selected to compete for the coveted Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The team who have finally pulled off this once-seemingly-impossible artistic feat is an interesting one: Walter Salles, the director, was hired by Coppola after he saw Salles' 2004 Che Guevara biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries -- Salles, incidentally, calls On The Road “a book that's had a very deep impact on my life.” Meanwhile, screenwriter Jose Rivera -- who collaborated with Salles on The Motorcycle Diaries, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process -- started out as a playwright, and has studied under Gabriel García Márquez. So, after such a long and difficult journey to the big screen, what are the main existential challenges faced by Salles' film, its possible pitfalls? And, conversely, what opportunities can this adaptation grasp; what absences might it fill? Can On The Road still mean anything in 2012? If so, what? And how? 1. Pitfalls From Language To Image? A large part of On The Road's powerful and ongoing appeal undoubtedly stems from the lyricism of its language -- as opposed to its linearity, or even narrative coherence. Translating this to the screen could quite simply be impossible. Indeed, one suspects it is the reason that, up till now, so many screenwriters have failed in turning Kerouac's text into visual form. Influential film critic Robert Stam might lament the fact that many adaptations are judged strictly against the “fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of [their] literary source[s],” but that is undoubtedly the way of things. And as seen in other adaptations of challenging texts, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1997) or Ulysses (1967), even when an idiosyncratic style is converted to the screen with great care and attention, the success is rarely total. To quote Regina Weinreich, in her essay “Can On The Road Go On The Screen?” (from What’s Your Road, Man?): ...many critiques of the novel cite its episodic structure as a failing. In terms of a film, the key scenes on the road in a moving American landscape, in a jazz club, at Old Bull Lee's, would have to be made visual in an extended narrative...The novel resolved those aesthetic issues in its language, in its use of repetition, of key phrases triggering verbal riffs, in Kerouac's expansion of language as a storytelling medium...Can the medium of film be stretched in the manner in which On The Road expanded narrative possibilities for literary fiction? Dead As History? It might seem like an odd point to make -- considering plenty of films set hundreds if not thousands of years ago are made every year -- but it is possible that, as far as cinema is concerned, On The Road is (uniquely) out of date. The novel made a splash in 1957 because it tapped into a generation's growing sense of restlessness and existential yearning -- not to mention because it rebelled against the stuffy, conformist atmosphere of the post-war era. Now, 55 years on, while the novel might still succeed on other levels, there's no denying that its content seems far less transgressive. As Kerouac scholar John Leland states in Why Kerouac Matters, “We're no longer shocked by the sex and drugs. The slang is passé and at times corny.” Is there a risk, then, that On The Road's reference points (not to mention mise-en-scène) will render its adaptation a dispatch from a cultural milieu long since past? Kerouac's text is intimately involved with its highly tangible present; its power lies in its immediacy, its urgency. But this is 55 years later, and half of America's 20-somethings have done a coast-to-coast road trip. On The Road is about the “now in this exact minute” -- but that now is now very much then. On the other hand, to utilise an atmosphere of glossy mid-century nostalgia -- such as that so effectively deployed by  ABC's Mad Men -- would be highly disingenuous towards the text. Is a retrospective telling, therefore, perhaps destined to be a diminished one? 2. Opportunities Plot Found While On The Road is undoubtedly a frenetic, challenging story -- Kerouac himself assured Brando, in that 1957 letter, that he “[knew] to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure” -- Salles and Rivera appear to have struck on what might be a way to tell it. Rivera says he has based the screenplay on the novel's multi-layered theme of “finding a father.” While a departure from the novel, this at least sounds like something which might convert into a story arc, and give it some cinematic shape. It also ties into (one of) the true heart(s) of the novel, and would suggest, thankfully, that we are to receive a film that is about more than sex, drugs, and driving. Furthermore, Rivera has based much of the script on material collected by director Salles during his meticulous retracing of Kerouac's route across America, and his interviewing of Beat figures including Carolyn Cassidy, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Diane di Prima. Both men, in other words, have done their research. Salles, meanwhile, is encouragingly bullish about the notion that the film is in any way out of date: This is the journey of a group of young men...who confronted a society that was very impermeable at the time...Those were the McCarthy years -- the Beats collided against a social and political reality that was defined by the culture of fear. It's not very different from what we live in now. At that time, you'd hear: "Don't do this! Don't do that! The Reds are coming. The Atomic bomb!" Now we hear, "The terrorists are coming. Don't do this! Don't do that!" It's the same state of terror. So the theme of On the Road is more contemporary today than it was 10 years ago. It gives you the possibility to understand today's America by jumping 50 years in the past. Cinema Loves a Road Movie An obvious one, but it's true. Cinema might not have a great record when it comes to adapting Kerouac movies for the screen -- witness not just On The Road's crooked journey, but the travesty that was The Subterraneans (1960) -- but it does have a great history of producing good road movies. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) are hardwired into the psyche of cinema. The ideal of The Road -- with its connotations of exploration, pioneership, and personal freedom -- is such a generally appealing one that the term “road trip” is part of common usage. And while Kerouac's winding and delirious prose might be a challenge for the camera, sweeping shots of gleaming convertibles beneath a Midwest sunset aren't. Nor -- and it was one of the reasons Kerouac himself was so fond of cinema -- is the depiction of live music, including jazz. Indeed, images such as “Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety -- leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world,” seem almost made for the screen. Kerouac wanted it to be a film This might seem like something of a maudlin justification, but the fact is that Kerouac wanted On The Road made. Badly. Kerouac was a great lover of cinema -- his personal letters are filled with praise for various films -- and some of his writing spills over fully into cinematic-like writing. For example, in the “Joan Rawshanks In The Fog” section of his novel Visions of Cody (1972), the narrative focus explicitly takes on the role of a camera, and its rhythm that of a screenplay. Indeed, even in 1959, while his agent was wrangling over the rights to On The Road, Kerouac was adapting and providing a voiceover for the bizarre but surprisingly popular Beat film Pull My Daisy (1959).  And in chapter 13 of On The Road, Sal and Dean actually go to Hollywood -- where Sal declares “Everybody had come to make the movies, even me.” Ultimately, some Kerouac fans might feel that -- even 55 years later, and despite the author's lifelong sensitivity regarding the nature of the adaptation -- On The Road is due for the screen. The Beat Renaissance You could debate whether this is a blessing or a curse, but 2012's On The Road adaptation would seem to tap into a recent (and ongoing) renaissance of Beat material. In 2007, the novel's 50th anniversary, Viking published the “original version” of the novel, as typed by Kerouac on a 120-foot-long scroll. Over the next two years, the scroll itself went on a lengthily intentional tour. Meanwhile, in 2010, Allen Ginsberg's Howl -- the other chief text of the Beat generation -- received an interesting and experimental cinematic makeover, with James Franco making an excellent Ginsberg. Further still, as you read this, an adaptation of Kerouac's last (and desperately sad) novel, Big Sur, is in the final stages of post-production. It won't ultimately affect the quality of the film -- and even the casual cynic could see this timing as less serendipity, and more hard-headed commercialism of the sort that Kerouac diehards detest -- but at least Salles' On The Road is appearing at a fitting moment, when it would appear it has a wave to ride, and some wider interest to tap into. After all, if On The Road is to continue to have a cultural legacy, then what it needs more than anything is exposure.