A Not So Starry Night

Reviews / by Richard Panek /

Michael Frayn steps out of character to ponder our place in the universe.

You like the way Michael Frayn writes.
Michael Frayn likes to write about philosophy.
Therefore you might like the way Michael Frayn writes about philosophy.

This syllogism would appear to be the logic behind The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe. Frayn is a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and translator who has reached a worldwide audience through two works in particular, the plays Noises Off and Copenhagen. He read philosophy at Cambridge in the 1950s and in the 1970s published a work of philosophy, Constructions. What’s more, his writings often sport a philosophical turn of mind. Noises Off wasn’t just a farce; it was a farce within a farce—a deconstruction of a farce. Copenhagen wasn’t just a character study; it was a study of character in uncertainty—featuring the two physicists who gave the world the quantum concept of uncertainty. So, we might think, what more engaging guide to lead us non-philosophers on a tour of philosophy?

In particular, Frayn proposes that he lead us through nothing less than the whole of our species’ relationship to the universe, both in the 13.7-billion-years-old-and-born-in-a-Big-Bang and in the Michael-Frayn-chose-marmalade-over-honey-at-breakfast-this-morning senses of the word. He begins the tour with science, “a palace of thought,” and in the first third of the book, he methodically walks us through rooms of an increasingly fundamental significance: first the laws of nature, then cause and effect, then space and time, and finally, the power of numbers to capture it all. At each stop he invites us to examine the tapestries on the walls, and then to look closer, and closer still, until we see not the pattern but the weave, not the weave but the thread, the now we can never definitively experience, the there that dissolves into Planck-scale discontinuity. Look closely enough, Frayn argues, and the laws of nature “have no existence independent of the concepts to which they relate,” and “the supposedly universal causality on which the laws of nature depend has no more existence than the laws themselves,” and so on, each subsequent seeming understanding of the universe finding expression “only in the context of human thought and human purposes.”

And so we leave behind the halls of pure science for the more interdisciplinary throne room of the mind. Frayn guides us through motivations; decisions; the fictions we tell ourselves in an attempt to make sense of the outside world; the words, syntax, and analogies we use to tell those fictions; the thoughts that give rise to the words, syntax, and analogies; the question of “how does a thought get thought.” Here, too, Frayn pauses at each stop just long enough to point out the illusions that support our sense of reality, until at last he is able to ask: What claim can we make for the universe, other than
that it exists in the mind, and vice versa?

The nature of the relationship between the mind and the universe is, as Frayn concedes, “the world’s oldest mystery.” And Frayn understands that he’s no philosopher: “I shouldn’t have the courage to make any such claim,” he writes. “I can imagine how scornfully it would be dismissed by most professional philosophers.” Instead, he compares The Human Touch to “the stories we read, or the pictures we look at, or the music we listen to. All these things are as important as you personally happen to find them, no less and no more.”

Fair enough—he’s creating art. And the book is artful. The writing is pleasantly direct and clear, the choice of analogies helpful, the language playful. But the book lacks an essential ingredient of art: tension. The question of the mind’s relationship to the universe might be, as Frayn says, “something that I have been puzzling about for most of my adult life,” but we don’t get to see that puzzling. Instead, we get predigested arguments leading to conclusions that feel long foregone. Worse, we don’t get to see what we’ve presumably come for: the puzzling of a writer—the puzzling of this writer. Instead, we get philosophizing that could just as easily belong to someone who read philosophy at Cambridge in the 1950s and then didn’t go on to write Noises Off and Copenhagen.

Even in a chapter entitled “Stories” and subtitled “the truth-functions of fiction, the fiction functions of truth”—topics that might speak to his own literary experience—Frayn remains elusive. The closest he gets to adopting a guise other than impersonal guide is a one-paragraph aside on what he calls a “curious thing: as my novels have moved into the present my plays have moved into the past.” But then he fails to provide an example, let alone an account of his struggle to match tense to material, let alone any philosophical musings the struggle might have occasioned. Take away Michael Frayn, novelist and playwright, and there goes the promise implicit in the first line of the syllogism.

Contrast this hermetic approach with that of the scientists who actually did the science that shook our understanding of our relationship with the universe, and who knew that their experiences—their puzzling—would illuminate larger philosophical issues. During the last 30 years of his life, Einstein wrote essays and delivered talks that almost always began with a close consideration, based on his own experience, of the relationship of scientist to science, observer to observation. Or consider the philosophical writings of Frayn’s Copenhagen characters. Werner Heisenberg’s Physics and Beyond includes a riveting account of a pre-uncertainty conversation with Einstein that changed his own thinking about the roles that speculation, abstraction, and language play in scientific observations. As for Niels Bohr, the revolutionary concept he introduced in 1927 at the International Congress of Physics in Como, Italy, perhaps comes closest to Frayn’s idea of a universe/mind “co-determinacy:” complementarity, which Bohr later described in one of his many essays on the implications of the concept for physics and philosophy as a recognition of “the impossibility of a strict separation of phenomena and means of observation.” How you interpret the universe depends on where you draw the line between you and it.

Such writings are romps. Intellectual romps, yes—cerebral, esoteric, demanding. But they are infused with and animated by the scientist’s sense of discovery. These guys had a story to tell. Once upon a time their universe surprised them, and after that their conception of the universe was never the same, and they can’t quite get over it. They invite us to stand with them, shoulder to shoulder, as they piece together what happened, how it happened, and what it might mean in the grander scheme of things.

Not that Frayn ignores us, exactly. But he doesn’t engage us, either. He variously writes: “You object,” “You protest,” “You want to complain,” “You wave your hand tolerantly,” “You gesture impatiently,” “You dismiss this as of no account,” “You feel very strongly that I’ve got the whole thing back to front.” God, what’s wrong with us?

But wait—it’s not us. We take a step back and look around. Who’s he talking to? Our guide has apparently invented an interlocutor with roughly the same intellectual acumen as the fictitious Simplicio, the stubbornly anti-Copernican stand-in for Pope Urban VIII who finally landed Galileo before the Inquisition. Our response is less extreme but no less punitive. We withdraw, leaving Frayn to inhabit a nesting doll of paradoxes of the kind that he would find irresistible: He’s not there, and he’s talking to no one.

Noises Off was a farce first, Copenhagen a character study first. The Human Touch, however pleasant or playful, is a philosophical tract first, last, and only.

Originally published April 8, 2007

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