“You know I was there for the origin and birth of Superman and Batman?” he asks me.
By this he doesn’t mean he was there with Jor-El, Superman’s dad, as the planet Krypton was about to explode and the future Man of Steel was launched into interstellar space.
We had been talking about his favorite childhood reading, which ranged from the “Horatio Hornblower” naval adventure series, to Tolstoy, and the nearly forgotten Rafael Sabatini, author of the cape and sword historical potboilers Captain Blood and Scaramouche, the latter a favorite of my father’s as well for its still brill opening line: “He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad.”
The key word here is “born.” Doctorow likes origin stories. He helped immortalize those of the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight when they were only available as flimsy, hard-to-find ’40s collectibles. It was at a time, in the mid-’60s, when Doctorow was still a novice novelist, yet already a highly respected editor. A time before The Book of Daniel, his electrifying novel based on the real-life electrocution of the Rosenbergs, the accused “atom bomb spies,” made Doctorow known more for his fiction than for his editor’s pen. Before Ragtime, his next book, put him in the pantheon of contemporary American writers.
“When I was in the publishing business in the 1960s,” Doctorow says, “I decided it would be a good idea to publish the origin stories of all these [comic book superhero] characters in beautiful four-color hardcover editions. And I did that. It was the first serious treatment of comics. It was called The Great Comic Book Heroes. I got Jules Feiffer to do an introduction and it went shroom! like that, to the top of the bestseller list.”
Something — shroom! — like what happened to Doctorow with Ragtime, and I wonder if there was a connection. There definitely is a connection to the Superman origin story in his final novel, Andrew’s Brain. Jor-El, as I’m sure you recall, tried to warn the inhabitants of the planet Krypton of an oncoming catastrophe, and no one listened.
Doctorow sees another kind of catastrophe looming for the human species. Not the external environmental one so much as an internal cerebral one: a catastrophe to all human consciousness. And almost all reviews of Andrew’s Brain have missed the message, ignored the urgency, just as the Kryptonians did with Jor-El and the Trojans did with Cassandra, the prophetess who futilely warned of the fall of Troy in The Iliad. The reception of Andrew’s Brain, while largely laudatory, failed to get what Doctorow was trying to warn us about. An end to the supremacy of human beings as dramatic and terrible as the triumph of Skynet in the Terminator films. Something no Bat Signal can summon a savior for.
But let’s talk about history before we talk about the future. Let’s talk about how the whole scope of Doctorow’s work has earned him the right to a hearing for his apocalyptic, Cassandra-like warning.
It’s almost forgotten how radical Doctorow’s Ragtime was when it came out in 1969. It’s often forgotten what a scandal it caused.
Scandalous to the legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, the high priest of the literary world then, for instance.
“Shawn,” says Doctorow, “wouldn’t allow a major review of the book. He thought it was immoral what I had done.”
“In what was the immorality?” I ask.
“Well it was having people say what they were not historically known to have said.”
“They couldn’t be fact-checked!”
He laughs. “That’s right. And the irreverence of it because … it’s a naughty book.”
“What was the naughtiness in your view?”
“Well, the mock historical chronicle of it. The irreverence and the underlying kind of … this erotic undercurrent with Emma Goldman giving a body rub to Evelyn Nesbit.” (FYI, for those not cognizant of these figures, Nesbit was a famed turn-of-the-century socialite involved in a sensational love triangle murder, and Goldman a notorious radical woman who hung out with anarchist bomb throwers whose milieu Ragtime circles about.)
Doctorow takes a whole host of real-life characters, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and reimagines them in this naughty (but sophisticated) way. The book was an instant sensation, garnering both literary acclaim and popular bestsellerdom, and went on to be a (quite good) Miloš Forman film, and then a Broadway musical that ran for years.
Putting words in the mouths of historical figures. American novelists had done it — I can think of John Barth’s insanely great satirical epic of colonial Virginia tobacco speculation, The Sot-Weed Factor, and his obscene rendition of the John Smith/Pocahontas relationship. Maybe it seemed scandalous because Doctorow was having serious fun with figures who had only recently left the stage of history. Whatever it was, it struck a nerve with its transgressiveness, it had something of the edge of “fan fiction” when it first came on the scene in the ’90s.
In fact there’s lately been a widespread debate in the historical profession about whether fictional alternates to academic history should be given respect for reaching more than an academic audience in novels such as Doctorow’s, even comic books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
He’ s aware there are critics of such inventions. I’d read something he’d written about the relation of Shakespeare’s history plays to his source, the prosaic 16th-century chronicler Holinshed.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. Maybe I was defending myself,” he says.
He talks about his confab with the King Richard III Society in the UK.
“They feel that Shakespeare unfairly maligned him and the proper fellow was a good king and didn’t go around slitting children’s throats or anything like that. I use that as an example of how … what is more valuable, the facts about King Richard or the lies that Shakespeare purveyed?” he says. “My point is, well, what would you rather have? The truth about Richard or Shakespeare’s play?”
What a good question! But there were some who thought what Doctorow was doing was beyond the pale.
“At that particular time in American literary life, it seemed quite new. And it certainly opened the gate to a lot of writers since then.”
And gave Doctorow the license he’d begun to take with the Rosenberg figures in The Book of Daniel to make a career of taking mythic American moments — as he does in World’s Fair — and mythic American figures like the gangster in Billy Bathgate, even mythic American hoarders like the Collyer brothers and their Fifth Avenue mansion cave reimagined in Homer & Langley, for his subject.
Nonetheless, despite his sensitivity to American myth — or because of it — he’s somewhat avoided the spotlight himself.
He tells me the story of what happened as soon as he got wind fame and fortune were going to descend upon him with the reception of Ragtime. He didn’t soak up the literary laurels in New York but packed up his family and holed up in Utah to teach at a university there.
“Did you feel the danger of becoming a celebrity?”
“Well,” he says, “America never gives you anything without you having to pay for it.”
He discloses another thing I wouldn’t have expected from someone regarded as the epitome of the hyperskeptical Upper West Side literary sensibility (though he was now living in Midtown East): he made the Utah decision because of a quasi-mystical signal.
“We were trying to make the decision about where to go and my wife and I decided we’d consult the I Ching,” the esoteric Eastern compendium of cryptic sayings I associate more with the hippie chicks I knew who “threw” the tokens that specified a prophetic passage.
“The I Ching said we should cross a great water, which I took to mean the Mississippi.”
The Mississippi: this brings us to Doctorow’s Mark Twain thing.
It’s intimidating to talk about American literature with Doctorow since he’s a triple threat kind of guy: great literary writer, much-lauded literary editor, and deeply erudite reader of literature, particularly American literature. Indeed I’m tempted to call him The Great American Reader.
I was glad at this point that Doctorow’s wife Helen appeared and offered us a choice of teas. I chose one called “Tension Tamer” because, to be frank, as copious a reader as I am, I had no pretensions (except pre tensions) of knowing American literature in the deep way he does.
Mark Twain, for instance, figures conspicuously in Andrew’s Brain.
“You call Twain, at some point, ‘the great soul of American literature,’ right?” I asked him.
He offers a slight correction. “I said that he’s the … of all the American authors, he seems … we like to think of him as the carrier of the American soul.”
“‘Carrier of the American soul,’ meaning?”
“I mean no one else in our literary history has that kind of mass, the great affection of the American people, generation after generation, I think. Maybe part of it is because he paid attention to boys and explained children to adults and adults to children. When I read Tom Sawyer as a child, there was great satisfaction that knowing that Tom would succeed at the end and triumph and that his naughtiness was not just approved but forgiven by the adults. But there’s also some satisfaction from the point of the child who sees that adults are very fallible.”
“It’s a vindication of individuality and rebelliousness?”
“Yeah, that’s there, but also the idea that they’ve finally found forgiveness; that the whole town turns out because they think Tom has drowned is very satisfying to the young reader.”
Not so the ending of Huck Finn though. Doctorow thinks it fatally flawed! Something he has one of his characters rant about in Andrew’s Brain.
“He [Andrew, his main character] was talking about Huck Finn. That he felt that bringing Tom Sawyer back into the book was an enormous mistake and a cheap way of ending.”
“What should he have done? Ended it before Tom Sawyer [came back]?”
“Well, you know, Twain stopped writing that book for seven years. Because he didn’t know how to continue it. And then he came back to it again and this was his solution. There are some people trying to find, to justify, an ironic [view of that], but I just thought it was a … it was, it diminished and cheapened everything that Huck and Jim had gone through possibly by saying, ‘well, he’s [the slave Jim] already been freed,’ and so on. So I know that school. But there are people who find greater irony and sophistication in the ending and they justify it.” But he doesn’t.
But there’s another resonance of Twain in Andrew’s Brain that he claims he wasn’t aware of till I pointed it out.
There’s a point in the book where there’s talk about the problem of the Brain versus the Mind. A recurrent theme. How the three-pound piece of meat inside the skull can give rise to consciousness, to the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, or whether there is a Mind whose consciousness is not just some product of the meat.
It’s a problem — materialism (meat) versus dualism (non-physiological, non-deterministic consciousness) that obsesses Doctorow as well as the main character, Andrew, in Andrew’s Brain.
He has Andrew asking whether it is true of mind and brain that “never the twain can meet”?
I asked Doctorow if the presence of Twain in the book was an allusion to the “never the twain can meet” (meat?) problem in his book.
“So there’s Twain there, right?”
“I never made that connection,” he says. “That’s very good.”
I try not to beam like a prize pupil, suspecting he could be putting me on. But he goes on.
“Mark Twain is one of the leitmotifs in the book. Andrew’s fixated on this writer. He’s critical of him as living within the limits of a social construction of reality but finds, finally, redemption.”
Doctorow is not a fan of “the social construction of reality,” the way society conditions us to see things. This may be the most radical thing about him. You don’t see it in the comfortable bookish solidity of his apartment, but he’s steeped in the discipline of epistemology, the skeptical investigation of how we know what is real, really real, and what is the product of conventional “social construction,” an illusion. It’s almost as if he’s been influenced by his late friend Peter Matthiessen, the novelist Zen teacher — who turns out to be a neighbor of his at the Doctorows’ summer place in Sagaponack.
In any case there was another moment like that one with “never the twain can meet,” when I ask Doctorow about a key incident in the new novel — the Bunsen burner incident. I had a sense that it was a kind of hidden lynchpin to the novel, one that connected Andrew’s peculiar narrative to American history in a way critics had failed to see.
The Bunsen burner incident. On the surface, Andrew’s Brain is the labyrinthine story of a most unfortunate soul. Andrew is a lapsed professor of literature with a messy history with women who does something hideous and literally poisonous. The novel is told in the form of Andrew’s long narrative “confessions” to a figure he calls Doc who may be a shrink or a CIA interrogator or both, in some mysterious place of confinement.
Doctorow confided to me the real-life source of Andrew’s self-torment. It’s a terrible story.
Back in the ’60s, “the man I was working for, as a reader for a film company, was a really decent, kind boss. And he told me one day over lunch that he administered a wrong kind of medicine to his infant child — utterly by mistake — and the child died.”
How do you live with something like that? Poison your own child, not out of malice but accident. With Andrew of Andrew’s Brain it can’t even be called carelessness: what he did was “dropping what he thought were prescription eye drops into his son’s eyes, not knowing that the prescription had been wrongly, mistakenly filled with a liquid that would kill the boy.”
What’s terrible about the story is that you don’t know — he doesn’t know — exactly how bad he should feel. Horrified, haunting loss yes. Guilt? Not clear. He didn’t deliberately set out to kill his child. Should he have exercised more due diligence — asked the pharmacist (with every prescription filled) “have you made a mistake that will kill my child?”
That little story, Doctorow says, was the germ, the drop of poison, that served as the germination of an entire novel.
But there was more. “What interested me more,” says Doctorow, “was that this wasn’t the only disaster in his [the film company guy’s] life. That this good, kind man had a history of leaving a wake of disasters of one sort or another in his life. And I wondered about that.”
Wondered what exactly?
“How the kinds of things you usually associate with evil can occur in the life of a good man. One who was well disposed to be a kind, decent fellow who would never otherwise have this CV.”
Here’s where the shape of American history is adumbrated in this novel. There’s a historical metaphor here. It’s like Doctorow has absorbed the moral contours and contradictions of American history so deeply that they are embedded in what at first does not seem explicitly historical.
There’s a perceptive line about that from the brilliant novelist Don DeLillo, who said Doctorow’s focus is “the reach of American possibility in which plain lives take on the cadences of history.”
Yes, “how the things you usually associate with evil can occur in the life of a good man.” Can a well-intentioned person, like Andrew, cause evil to happen, yet not be evil, can it somehow be his karma that it happen recurrently? Recurrently hurt people while trying to help them? It brought to mind the great Graham Greene quote about America, or really about a well-intentioned American, The Quiet American, as Greene’s novel of Vietnam is titled.
The Quiet American is one of the idealistic early CIA types in Vietnam whose well-intentioned attempts to do good go horribly awry in the novel. And later, in history. The phrase “good intentions” appears a dozen times in the novel. An allegory of the recent moral dilemmas — the cadences — of American history, if you consider 500,000 American lives lost in Vietnam for a well-intentioned lost cause something “gone wrong.”
All summed up by the famous devastating quote in the book about the well-intentioned Quiet American:
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”
Substitute “nation” for “man” and it’s a familiar critique of American foreign policy, one that is alive and kicking today in the argument over “democracy promotion” — should we intervene in, even impose our “good intentions,” in foreign lands by force when trying to do good has so often turned out terribly bad.
“Some commenters on your book, I said to Doctorow, “have said it’s not typical of your ‘historical minded’ books but in fact it seems to be historical in the deepest sense in that history is created by human nature and its contradictions, and this is an investigation of the contradictions of human nature.”
“That’s good,” he says, and adds an interesting phrase: “It’s a national novel.”
“A national novel.” I think he’s right about that. And not just in a generalized way, although its specific content is somewhat veiled.
Half-hidden in brief glimpses like the Bunsen burner incident. It turns out his protagonist, Andrew, and his President George Bush figure were college roommates at Yale. Oh there’s no doubt it’s a George Bush figure, though Doctorow gives him a different name. He’s the president who gave us the war — good intentions (at least some believe) gone horribly wrong (most believe).
And Andrew is narrating this entire novel in a kind of extended dialogue interrogation/psychotherapy session with someone he calls Doc in what Doctorow conceded to me toward the end of the interview was a “black site” where war on terror suspects are “renditioned” to keep them out of the American legal system and often in the hands of governments that have no qualms about far more extreme methods of torture than authorized here. It just occurred to me that the “Doc” in the novel could be understood as Doc-torow interrogating his own character. Anyway, Andrew seems to have been renditioned because of an act of misbehavior in his former roommate’s White House, a place he was drafted to work in, apparently in an effort to silence him about the Bunsen burner incident.
“In the inorganic chemistry lab,” Andrew recalls, “I was standing right where it happened with a shard of beaker sticking in my cheek and blood running down my chin. Something had exploded.”
The implication was that Andrew had taken the rap for the explosion for the George W. figure. And perhaps worse, more dangerous to the presidency, he says he had actually taken his exams for him. That would have been a campaign-killer.
It struck me particularly because I’d heard about the “branding incident” that took place when he was president of the DKE fraternity at Yale, some stupid pledge thing that involved a branding iron, a burner of sorts, which the Bunsen burner and the George W. figure reminded me of. I think he escaped any harsh penalties though the frat itself may have gotten some sanctions.
“Am I reading it right,” I asked Doctorow, “that Andrew took the rap for his college roommate in that Bunsen burner incident?”
Andrew is temporarily expelled for it. Which led to his college roommate escaping a black mark and getting to the White House, in a way, because he’d skated on the blame for the Bunsen burner explosion and got someone to lie for him. And cheat on tests for him I might have added.
“Andrew gets to the White House after 9/11,” Doctorow points out. “Yes because they want to keep a possible source of embarrassment to him [the president] within their close purview. ”
“But if Andrew hadn’t taken the rap for the George Bush figure back at Yale it might have thrown him off the track to become president.” And perhaps some other president might have heeded the warnings about an al-Qaeda attack in the summer of 2001.
“I see. That’s true,” says Doctorow. “You’re finding things in this book that I didn’t see.”
“I sort of saw this as a 9/11 novel.”
“That’s good, that never occurred to me.”
I somehow doubt that. He’s like one of those great humble teachers who makes his students think they’re smart.
And it’s there, and it does make this a kind of 9/11 novel, an Iraq War novel, a novel of recent history, a continuation of Doctorow’s engagement with “the cadences of history.” A national novel. Like Andrew, 43 only had good intentions, but as someone says in the Graham Greene novel, “innocence is insanity.”
But it’s not so much the past as the future that has Doctorow worried. To say he’s worried underestimates the kind of urgency he has. He’s practically like Jor-El in predicting a planetary catastrophe. An inner planetary kind of terror. The terror of the dread Singularity. When machines achieve consciousness. And the fatal blow he’s convinced it will deal to human Being. His Jor-El/Cassandra fear.
To understand it, it helps to trace Doctorow’s intellectual history. The cadence of that history.
I knew he’d gone to New York’s elite Bronx High School of Science. And after that, Kenyon College.
Kenyon is one of those super-intellectual niche colleges in the heartland, famed among literary scholars as the American home to New Criticism, the doctrine of extremely close reading, whose avatar was the poet John Crowe Ransom and whose influence was spread by the erudite Kenyon Review.
“I did a 30-page paper on an 8-line lyric by Wordsworth,” he says, that sort of thing. But clearly the New Criticism left its mark on him, and it often has been great training for writers in the art of ambiguity and literary legerdemain.
“Alright, let’s go to philosophy of the mind,” I said. “You studied that at Kenyon. And who were the guys that touched you the most in that respect?”
“Actually, we didn’t call it philosophy of the mind. We called it epistemology.”
Epistemology is the study of how we can — or can’t — know what we know is real or true.
“Kenyon at that time had the best two-man philosophy department in the country. Two great teachers, one named Philip Blair Rice and the other Virgil Aldrich. Between the two of them metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and aesthetics — what was called value theory — was pretty hot then. Things fashionable in philosophy, as in everything else, you don’t hear people talking about value theory.
“I think it’s coming back,” I said of “value theory.”
He laughs. But it’s true the argument over “value” — whether we can make any objective judgments about aesthetic value, why we should declare a Degas or a Jackson Pollock more worthy than an Elvis on black velvet — has been heating up again among those who care about how we judge American culture.
“And then they brought in an existentialist from Belgium. And that capped it for me. That visiting professor gave me everything I needed to tie all the rest of it together.”
“Tell me more about that.”
“Well, now this was in the ’50s. Postwar existentialism was very prominent which is why they brought in this guy from Belgium. So we read Sartre and Heidegger, and it seems to me at the time the existential idea was valid and made me very comfortable.”
“Comfortable, how so?”
“Well, the idea of that kind of freedom in an indifferent, godless universe.”
“Isn’t that supposed to make you anxious,” I said, thinking of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death and other works of the anxiously gloomy early existentialist.
“But that was also in Melville, of course, when he talks about the whiteness of the whale and how whiteness is the absence of pure evil, because it’s the absence of color but it ‘paints the world as a harlot.’
“And I’ve done very casual reading over the years in philosophy of mind. Do you know Thomas Nagel? He wrote a famous article about how it feels to be a bat.”
I’d read about the “bat” essay and loved its wiggy but brilliant challenge to the claims of contemporary neuroscience. A challenge to those who believe consciousness can be generated by matter alone. Nagel argues that if we could conceivably reconstruct every neuron and neural connection in the brain of a bat — a large but finite number — essentially replicate a bat brain, we still would not have the faintest idea of “What it feels to be a bat.”
It’s an argument used by those who believe the mind and the brain are distinct entities and never the twain, etc. Dualists dueling those called materialists who say the brain is nothing more than electrified meat, and “the illusion of consciousness” (and free will) is somehow created by purely deterministic physiological processes. But Nagel is asking the primal Bob Dylan question — “how does it feel?” — and saying it’s something we can never know through purely physical investigation. We can never know what another consciousness feels like by knowing everything material about it.
Clearly Doctorow has considered Nagel’s bat question carefully.
“He’s great. And this new book is fascinating although people are disappointed and it seems to take a position somewhere between creationism and materialism, calling Darwin into question because it doesn’t explain consciousness. You can’t get from Darwin to consciousness.”
He means that one of the yet-to-be solved mysteries of evolution is how consciousness evolved.
He doesn’t discount a Darwinian solution emerging. “A classmate of mine at Kenyon is evolving a theory of how exactly you get from what he calls ‘species awareness.’”
Indeed in the new novel there is speculation about the collective consciousness of ants as mediated by their “pheromonal fog,” the cloud of scent molecules that emanate from every member of an ant colony and which serves as a collective brain for them all. The brain outside of the body. It’s cool. The nose knows.
I asked him if he thought evolution had explained how we go from non-consciousness to the most minimal consciousness. “That’s a big gap between mere stuff and Mind. Would you call yourself, as opposed to a materialist, a dualist?”
“I’m prepared in my amateur way to side with the materialists who haven’t yet figured out how the brain becomes the mind. I’d rather be there than with the Cartesians who claim there’s a body here and a soul there.”
“Right. There’s problems with both. Did you grow up with a religious background?”
“I grew up in a half-religious household. My family was divided, the women were pious and the men were skeptical. So I grew up in that tension. My grandfather, my father’s father, gave me at my bar mitzvah a copy of Tom Paine’s Age of Reason. But the point is I grew up in this tension, and I think it was very useful to go back and forth in sort of alternating time … it’s just where a writer should be, it seems to me.”
“It’s where …?”
“Where a writer should be.”
“In that tension?”
“I wanted to ask you more about Kenyon and the New Critics and what you think has become of the study of literature.”
“I found the New Criticism — it’s easy to make fun of it — but it has been extremely valuable to me as a writer. We were doing … we were writing literary criticism there the way they played football at Ohio State.
I liked the analogy. Three yards and a cloud of semicolons.
“By the time I was studying with John Crowe Ransom, he had softened a bit,” he says. “[But] that kind of attention to text and the idea that as a reader you needed nothing beyond that text in your understanding of it; you didn’t have to know who the author was, or when the author lived, or what his politics were, or any of that biographical criticism that had been dominating in the 19th century. And I found that reasonable and useful. And that kind of close attention to a lyric poem I found possible to also direct to a work of fiction.”
“Ah. In other words … your own fiction?”
“It taught me the value of … that you couldn’t be sloppy. You had to be precise and exacting in your own writing. Of course I’d done very popular criticism over the years of other writers. Usually I’ve been asked to write an introduction to someone’s work. Whether Sinclair Lewis or Melville, Dreiser, or anybody. And I do include biographical detail so I’ve come away from that strict [New Critical stance].”
“You mentioned Sinclair Lewis and Dreiser. Dreiser’s a favorite of mine. Who are your favorites of, say, the first half of the 20th century?”
“Well, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was actually published in 1899 but that to me is the greatest first novel ever written by an American.”
“Yeah. He’s considered a clumsy writer. There’s nothing clumsy in that book. It’s … one of the characteristics of good fiction is that there’s a kind of level to it of the way time passes.”
That’s something I’d never really paid attention to, but will from now on.
“And there’s a control of all the effects and relationship between the scene and montage and everything, and only a very good writer keeps that all under control. And he was only 28 when he wrote that book.”
“Really.” (I know I’m repeating myself but I found some of the things he says about American literature revelatory.)
“And it’s the voice of a 70-year-old man. It’s really incredible. He came up out of the newspaper business as so many good writers have, until the university took over creative writing. The others of course I grew up on were Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and Saul Bellow’s Augie March was very important to me.”
“Important how so?”
“Well, his first two novels are almost dyspeptic kind of.”
“Dyspeptic.” I think it’s his way of saying too constrained to the point of constipation. “They were tight little books and then he broke out in his third novel with this sense of freedom finally that there were no rules except as you made them up yourself. That was very important to me.”
He tells an affecting story about the moment he knew he had broken out.
I finished The Book of Daniel out in Irvine, California. And when I finished it — I wrote it with a typewriter — I went for a walk; we lived on the beach and I left Helen to read the book. She’s sitting by the window with the sun coming in and I was gone for about three hours and … volleyball players, every inch of that beach and a half-mile into the water was filled with people. And I came back and the manuscript was turned over. She had finished the book and had tears coming down her face.”
“That book can do that,” I said from personal experience.
“And it was one of the happiest moments of my life,” he laughs.
“You made your wife cry.”
In a good way.
Not to spoil the mood but I feel a kind of responsibility to pass on Doctorow’s Jor-El warning, even if I don’t completely understand it. I would nonetheless contend that — coming from a person as steeped as he is in the contemplation of the Mind and its possibilities, the close reading of consciousness, of that twain of brain and mind and the mysteries of their relationship — attention should be paid. It seemed like a message he wanted me to convey.
I asked him to expand upon the idea voiced in Andrew’s Brain that once a computer was created that could replicate everything in the brain, once machines can think as men, when we’ve achieved true “artificial intelligence” or “ the singularity” as it’s sometimes called, it would be “catastrophic.”
“There is an outfit in Switzerland,” he says. “And this is a fact — they’re building a computer to emulate a brain. The theory is, of course, complex. There are billions of things going on in the brain but they take the position that the number of things is finite and that finally you can reach that point. Of course there’s a lot more work to do in terms of the brain chemistry and so on. So Andrew says to Doc ‘the twain will remain.’
“But later he has this revelation because he’s read, as I had, a very responsible scientist saying that it was possible someday for computers to have consciousness. That was said in a piece by a very respected neuroscientist by the name of Gerald Edelman. So the theory is this: If we do ever figure out how the brain becomes what we understand as consciousness, our feelings, our wishes, our desires, dreams — at that point we will know enough to simulate with a computer the human brain — and the computer will achieve consciousness. That is a great scientific achievement if it ever occurs. But if it does, all the old stories are gone. The Bible, everything.”
“Because the idea of the exceptionalism of the human mind is no longer exceptional. And you’re not even dealing with the primary consciousness of animals, of different degrees of understanding. You’re talking about a machine that could now think, and the dominion of the human mind no longer exists. And that’s disastrous because it’s earth-shaking. I mean, imagine.”
“I try to,” I said, “but then [I don’t see how to get around] the problem with the qualia” — the experience of the color red for instance or the taste of chocolate, the ecstasy of love — “that always seems to be in the way of any simulation because you can make a mechanistic, materialistic copy, but can you reproduce subjectivity?”
“But if you really understand how the brain does it,” he says, “you can copy that and get the same effects.”
“But we don’t understand that yet.”
“No, and we probably won’t; I hope we won’t for a long, long time. But it’s kind of an appalling thought, and he [Andrew] worries about it.”
Doctorow worries about it. When I spoke to Jaron Lanier, he scoffed at the way the so-called “singularity” — the merging of man and machine intelligence when AI (Artificial Intelligence) is advanced enough — had become a kind of Silicon Valley cult. He was skeptical about its realization. But Doctorow sees it as a real threat.
“There is a philosopher today out in California whom I have great regard for,” he says, “named John Searle, who created a thought experiment called ‘the Chinese box’ to prove that a computer could seem to understand what it was doing without understanding what it was doing. It could be very effective and competent in its process and give you the illusion that it understood what it was doing without necessarily feeling it. And I think that stands now. That stands now. But these other guys are talking about the future. And it’s not movie stuff, it’s —”
“In other words, Searle was saying that a computer simulation [of consciousness] would always be an illusion.”
“Yes, right. But that’s now, but that’s now. And we may never understand the way the brain becomes the mind, but if we ever do, that’s the end of us.”
The end of us!
At the end of Andrew’s Brain, just as he’s about to perform a transgressive stunt in the White House that will get him renditioned — Andrew turns oracular about “the end of us” coming with the Singularity.
“Yes,” I said, “and with it that mythic human world we’ve had since the Bronze Age. The end of our dominion. The end of the Bible and all the stories we’ve told ourselves till now.”
He denounces the “heedless” who won’t listen to his dark prophecy.
I’ve thought about it and thought about it and I guess the best way I can relate to the Doctorow prophecy is through what he calls “movie stuff” — not just Skynet in The Terminator but also Blade Runner with its all too human “replicants.” A world in which it may not be possible to tell who or what is human.
And whether it will make a difference. I suspect the real fear is that they could replicate you, memories and all. And then which one would you be? Would you even know? It’s scary when you think about it: the idea of individual identity would be exterminated. Which does sound “catastrophic.” At least to the concept of “human being.” Which is just about as catastrophic as you can get.
But I also think there may be something self-refuting about Doctorow’s prophecy: Doctorow himself. Or all the writers he’s read, and edited — Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, William Kennedy, even Abbie Hoffman. I don’t think you could — or would necessarily want to — replicate Norman or Abbie.
And I can’t see a replicant writing Doctorow’s Book of Daniel. No replicant will write something with the power to make you cry.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars, among other books. LARB published the afterword to his new edition of Explaining Hitler last year.