A dark universe of the imagination

The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars is a wonderful, strange, genre-defying book

Adam Zeman

Mysteries of consciousness: ‘Glastonbury Tor’ by Garry Kennard from “The Darker the Night, The Brighter the Stars” (©GARRY KENNARD)

This is a wonderful, strange and genre-defying book, but its interweaving themes are true to its title. The Dark Night is the bleak, stumping fact of death: death in general, but one death in particular, that of Paul Broks’s beloved wife, from breast cancer; the Bright Stars are just those, as Broks is a star-gazer, and a lover of astronomy. Neuropsychology is his trade, the study of the neural basis of the mind and its disorders; the book is an odyssey, both because it charts his life, from boyhood memories of Airfix models and dreams of football stardom to adult loves and fascinations, but also because it foregrounds the pervasive role of myth and legend in our thinking.

At the centre of Broks’s fascination with neuropsychology lie three fundamental questions, the Three Horsemen, so to speak, of mind and brain. The first Horseman on his neighing beast is the nature of selfhood:  we “all imagine inside others and ourselves” a “magical, essential core”, the self, the soul, the — possibly immortal — kernel of our individual being. Yet the study of the brain, and brain disorder, shows us over and over again that this self is composite and tragically prone to fragment and degrade. The second is the nature of consciousness, of subjectivity: we take ourselves to inhabit private worlds of experience, inaccessible to all but the experiencer, but science finds it hard to accommodate these private realms in the single public space that it investigates: aspiring, in the words of Thomas Nagel, to a “view from nowhere”, science seems to lack a vocabulary adequate to our individual perspectives. The third, the most headstrong of the Horsemen, is the nature of the Will: we experience ourselves as being at the helm of our lives, and it’s easy to infer that our free will can cause “a change in the physical world at a particular time and place”, but “it simply can’t. It just feels that way.”

Self, Consciousness and Will have preoccupied philosophers forever. More recently, they have come under scrutiny by the powerful tools of neuroscience. Broks introduces much of the standard thinking and research on these great mysteries in the course of his book, but does so using a deliberately recursive and digressive style, laced with humour and pathos. This mirrors the recurrent cycles of thinking on these themes over the centuries, the endless efforts to unpick what Nietzsche called “the knot of the world”, but also gives them a moving, and amusing, human context — which is, of course, also their ultimate source. Among the many excursions, heroic adventures, date nights and trips to the pub, real, imagined and mythical, that enliven The Darker the Night, I especially enjoyed the story of Lewys and Ava: their passionate love is nearly destroyed by the disturbing results of Lewys’s profound researches into the science of consciousness, only to be rescued at the last moment by a startling revelation which I cannot possibly share in this review — though it will probably tease you and please you as it did me.

The mysteries of consciousness are framed here at all times by the presence of death. Broks very slightly deflects the personal force of the story by giving his late wife a fictional name — he explains this, and the book is dedicated to her in her real one — but this move may have made it possible for him to achieve his rare degree of honesty and eloquence in the face of emotional pain. “Kate” is very much alive here, a humorous, occasionally tetchy, flesh and blood creation, a ravenous reader of novels, a little impatient with her husband’s endless philosophising and star-gazing, but presumably not too impatient, as she gives him a book about the neuropsychology of selfhood for Christmas. Her haunting words, spoken within days of her death, reverberate through the pages of the book: “It won’t be long now . . . But I’ll tell you something. You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t.” Why should it take impending death to teach us this? As Schopenhauer wrote of the prospect: “The heart rebels against it, and feels that it cannot be true.”

Kate, a partial invention, and Ava, a total invention, mingle with Ariadne, Theseus, Pan and a large mythic cast in these pages. The result is a great deal of fun but the underlying point is a serious one, and highly topical in neuroscience. Much of what we take to be present in the world is a projection of our knowledge and expectations: a simply drawn illusion makes the point nicely here — try as we may, we cannot overcome the brain’s (mis)interpretation of the image. The recent anguish of three Australian cricketers over an objectively diminutive offence teaches a related lesson. As Broks writes in his Prologue: “There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imagining and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits.”

The idea that we predict the world and ourselves into being is at centre stage at present in consciousness science. When Broks, who develops a concept of “imaginal reality” in the course of the book, writes that “the universe is an act of imagination”, or the neuroscientist Chris Frith that our experience is a “fantasy that coincides with reality”, they echo the Romantic philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or of William Blake, who told his dissatisfied patron, the down-to-earth Reverend Trusler: “You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me, this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination.” Since encountering myself in Paul’s book — I know him and have a walk-on part — I have been toying with the idea that he may in fact have invented me.

One final theme threads through the pages, the theme of coincidence and chance. Chance rules our lives: had Broks refused his friend’s offer of a drink one fine evening, he would have met his intended date rather than, by chance, encountering Kate. When the morning after the funeral of a close friend’s wife, a bird flies in through an open window, sings sweetly and departs, no one can escape the thought that the song was a farewell. This book is indeed framed by death, but it powerfully evokes the beauty and absurdity, the sadness and the mystery, the beating pulse of life.

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