The Unbearable Lightness of Being Opaque to Ourselves: Milan Kundera on Writing and the Key to Great Storytelling
This might be the most transcendent capacity of consciousness, and the most terrifying: that in the world of the mind, we can construct models of the real world built upon theories of exquisite internal consistency; that those theories can have zero external validity when tested against reality; and that we rarely get to test them, or wish to test them. Just ask Ptolemy.
In its clinical manifestation, we call this tendency delusion. In its creative manifestation, we call it art — the novel, the story, the poem, the song are each a model, an imagistic impression of the world not as it is but as the maker pictures it to be, inviting us to step into this imaginary world in order to better understand the real, including ourselves.
Because we are always partly opaque to ourselves even at our most self-aware, fiction and real life have something wonderful in common, wonderful and disorienting: the ability to surprise even the author — of the story or the life.
Both are a form of walking through the half-mapped territory of being, real or imagined, making the path in the act of walking and so revising the map with each step.
In both, we can set out for one destination and arrive at another, or as another.
In both, we are propelled partly by our directional intentionality and partly by something else, something ineffable yet commanding that draws its momentum from the energy of uncertainty.
The great Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera articulates this something else with uncommon clarity in The Art of the Novel (public library), published two years after The Unbearable Lightness of Being — the 1984 classic that might be read as one long elegiac entreaty for embracing the uncertainties of love and life, challenging Nietzsche’s notion of “the eternal return.”
With an eye to storytellers’ ability to surprise themselves in the telling as the story crosses the terrain of imagined existence under its self-generated momentum, Kundera writes:
Kundera locates that suprapersonal wisdom in “the wisdom of uncertainty” — something his poet-contemporary Wisława Szymborska named as the crucible of all creativity in her superb Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Richard Feynman’s astute observation that uncertainty is the prerequisite for truth and morality, in science as in life, Kundera writes:
Great storytelling, then, deals in the illumination of complexity — sometimes surprising, sometimes disquieting, always enlarging our understanding and self-understanding as we come to see the opaque parts of ourselves from a new angle, in a new light. Kundera writes:
So understood, storytelling becomes a way of walking with uncertainty and sitting with nuance, which is in turn a way of broadening the possibilities of existence in each of our lives. Echoing Adrienne Rich’s notion that all forms of literary imagination are “the arts of the possible,” Kundera writes:
A quarter century earlier, James Baldwin had captured this in his lovely notion that the artist’s role, the writer’s role, the storyteller’s role is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”
Complement this portion of Kundera’s altogether illuminating The Art of the Novel with Iris Murdoch on storytelling as resistance, Toni Morrison on storytelling as sacrament to beauty, Susan Sontag storytelling as moral calibration, and Ursula K. Le Guin on storytelling as transformation, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story.
“Every story is a story of water,” the Native American poet Natalie Diaz wrote in her stunning poem “lake-loop.” Water is central to the creation myths of every indigenous culture, central to Bruce Lee’s metaphor for resilience, central to the pulse-beat of life on this Pale Blue Dot.
“Like all profound mysteries,” the Scottish poet and mountaineer Nan Shepherd wrote as she regarded the might and mystery of water, “it is so simple that it frightens me.” Across the Atlantic, contemplating the ocean as a lens on the meaning of life, the poetic marine biologist Rachel Carson reverenced Earth’s waters as a portal to comprehending “our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea… in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality.”
A generation after her, Ellen Meloy (June 21, 1946–November 4, 2004) — another uncommonly lyrical observer of the natural world, who channeled the native poetry of its processes and phenomena in her perceptive prose — celebrated water as a portal to transcendence in a passage from The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky (public library) — the slender masterpiece that came to life months before her untimely death.
Midway through her exquisite inquiry into the conscience of color, from chemistry to culture, Meloy writes:
In a sentiment evocative of Rachel Carson’s scientific-poetic serenade to the blues of the sea, Meloy adds:
Complement this small fragment of Meloy’s wholly soul-slaking The Anthropology of Turquoise with We Are Water Protectors — an illustrated celebration of nature, Native heritage, and ecological responsibility — then revisit Olivia Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.
Trees, Whales, and Our Digital Future: George Dyson on Nature, Human Nature, and the Relationship Between Our Minds and Our Machines
Long ago, in the ancient bosom of the human animal stirred a quickening of thought and tenderness at the sheer beauty of the world — a yearning to fathom the forces and phenomena behind the enchantments of birdsong and bloom, the rhythmic lapping of the waves, the cottony euphoria of clouds, the swirling patterns of the stars. When we made language to tell each other of the wonder of the world, we called that quickening science.
But our love of beauty grew edged with a lust for power that sent our science on what Bertrand Russell perceptively rued as its “passage from contemplation to manipulation.” The road forked between knowledge as a technology of control and knowledge as a technology of acceptance, of cherishing and understanding reality on its own terms and decoding those terms so that they can be met rather than manipulated.
We went on making equations and theories and bombs in an attempt to control life; we went on making poems and paintings and songs in an attempt to live with the fact that we cannot. Suspended between these poles of sensemaking, we built machines as sculptures of the possible and fed them our wishes encoded in commands, each algorithm ending in a narrowing of possibility between binary choices, having begun as a hopeful verse in the poetry of prospection.
Every writer, if they are lucky enough and passionate enough and dispassionate enough, reads in the course of their lifetime a handful of books they wish they had written. For me, Analogia (public library) by George Dyson is one such book — a book that traverses vast territories of fact and feeling to arrive at a promontory of meaning from which one can view with sudden and staggering clarity the past, the present, and the future all at once — not with fear, not with hope, but with something beyond binaries: with a quickening of wonderment and understanding.
Dyson is a peculiar person to tell the history and map the future of our relationship with technology. Peculiar and perfect: The son of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and the philosophically inclined physicist Freeman Dyson, and brother to technology investor and journalist Esther Dyson, George rebelled by branching from the family tree of science and technology at age sixteen to live, as he recounts, “in a tree house ninety-five feet up in a Douglas fir above Burrard Inlet in British Columbia, on land that had never been ceded by its rightful owners, the Tsleil-Waututh.”
In this tree house he built with his own hands, Dyson shared the harsh winters — winters when a cup of tea poured from his perch would freeze before touching the ground — with a colony of cormorants roosting in the nextcrown fir. There, he watched a panoply of seabirds disappear underwater diving after silver swirls of fish he could see in the clear ocean all the way up from the tree. There, he learned to use, and to this day uses, his hands to build kayaks and canoes with the traditional materials and native techniques perfected over millennia. With those selfsame hands, he types these far-seeing thoughts:
Born in the third epoch but identifying with the ways of the first, Dyson finds himself challenged “to reconcile the distinction, enforced by the American educational system, between those who make a living with their minds and those who make a living with their hands.” The challenge feels personal — we have each touched it in some aspect of our lives — but it is a universal challenge rooted in a long-ago bifurcation in our civilizational sensemaking: the split between digital computers, which process one thing at a time in succession, and analog computers, which process the dizzying everythingness of everything all at once. Our brains are analog computers, constantly orienting to reality by weaving a topology of connections into a three-dimensional map of patterns. Our machines hum to one-dimensional algorithms of sequential logical steps. Theirs is the time of bits, ours the time of atoms, the time of Kierkegaard, who knew that “the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity.”
To be sure, there is ample digital coding at work in nature, in the building blocks of life itself — the DNA code used for information storage and information editing across time and generations. Trees, too, are digital computers, integrating myriad continuously changing inputs — available sunlight, available water, soil composition, atmospheric chemistry, wind direction, proximity of other trees — into the single-channel output of growth rings spaced in precise one-year intervals. They embody what may be the fundamental difference between the analog universe, in which time is a continuum, and the digital universe, in which there is no time — only the illusion of time woven of discrete steps, sequential but timeless. In his tree house, the teenage Dyson lived amid growth-rings dating back to the year 1426, a time when none of his European ancestors had set foot or the mind’s eye on those shores.
Imagine coming of age in such palpable contact with the continuity of time against the selective fragmentation we call history. Imagine becoming, in that crucible of awareness, an uncommonly insightful historian of science and technology.
Dyson traces the birth of the digital universe to Leibniz, who developed binary arithmetic after pondering the hexagrams of the ancient Chinese I Ching, then built on his already revolutionary work on infinitesimals to enlist the functions of binary arithmetic — functions analogous to the logical operations “and,” “or,” and “not” — in building the first universal language of binary code: a system of black and white marbles rolling along mechanical tracks, not unlike the zeroes and ones churning the Internet, that would encode into an alphabet of primes the real alphabet and all the concepts with which language is tasked. Leibniz envisioned the result as “a new kind of instrument which will increase the power of the mind much more than optical lenses strengthen the eyes.” This rudimentary digital computer would “work out, by an infallible calculus, the doctrines most useful for life, that is, those of morality and metaphysics.”
So began the modern mythos of computation as a controlled instrument for meaning-making, which we call artificial intelligence — the cult at whose altar we daily lay our faith in the ever-swifter logical processing of information, only to find ourselves empty-palmed for meaning and increasingly out of control. Dyson writes:
Every technology is a technology of thought that carries with it the ideologies of its time. Dyson builds this cautionary model of the future upon the foundation of the past, stratified with the same human tendencies that are now shaping our machines. He paints neither a techno-utopia nor a techno-dystopia but something more nuanced and complex, a kind of ominous autonomous techno-colonialism rooted in the ruthless colonial past: The first high-speed wireless communication network in North America, which manifested the contours of Leibniz’s vision and furnished the rudiments of the Internet, transmitted Morse code over sunlight across 60,000 square miles in a campaign to track down and capture the last free-roaming Apache: nineteen men, thirteen women, and six children.
Not one person alive in the spring of 1886 when the network first began firing — not Thomas Edison, who had just shut down his Menlo Park laboratory and married his second wife, not Walt Whitman who was facing his mortality while contemplating “the similitudes of the past and those of the future” — could have envisioned what would become of these rudiments, just as none of the early digital programmers high on their technicolor dreams envisioned how the algorithms they were composing might one day come to colonize the species that made them. Dyson writes:
Pulsing beneath the history of our technologies of thought is the intimation that our unexamined belief in the digital universe as more efficient, powerful, and altogether superior to the analogy might be the product a colossal and catastrophic civilizational blind spot. Dyson challenges some of our basic intuitions and assumptions about analog and digital computing by contrasting our communication systems with those of whales — our evolutionary elders, predating our minds and our machines by fifty million years, whose songs were the only nonhuman sound we encoded on The Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager spacecraft to carry the signal of who and what we are for a thousand million years, to some other civilization in the unfathomed reaches of spacetime.
An epoch after Einstein and Tagore contemplated the notion of a universal mind in their historic conversation, after the physicist John Ambrose Fleming — inventor of the vacuum tube and popularizer of the term “electronic” — exhorted humanity to regard the universe “not as a collection of Things or Events existing apart from any awareness of them by observers, but as manifested Thoughts in a Universal Mind,” after modern neuroscientists predicted the inevitability of a planetary übermind as the next step in the evolution of consciousness, Dyson points to what may be the most astonishing, supernatural-seeming analog sensemaking mesh-network of minds in nature:
These questions of consciousness and networked communication, central to our notions of artificial intelligence, grow even more rife with astonishment when we consider trees — organisms that, unlike us and unlike whales, lack minds as we understand them, minds as systems of operations conducted on nervous systems and brains, instead operating by what poet Jane Hirshfield admired as a “blind intelligence.”
Looking back on his time in the Douglas fir tree house, where he lived decades before Suzanne Simard published her epoch-making research on how trees communicate with one another, Dyson writes:
With this telescopic view of time and with the hindsight of half a lifetime, having lived through the birth and euphoric adolescence of the modern digital age, Dyson suggests that the digital world will inevitably follow the trajectory of the living world as nature devised it, our algorithms commencing a kind self-referential evolutionary process that will soon altogether slip from our imperious creator-hands to take on a destiny of their own:
Nature evolved its analog computers — the nervous systems and brains that encode, store, and use information absorbed from the world, including the brain with which you are parsing this thought — so that organisms can learn to govern their own behavior and control their environment. Digital computers, being the product of our evolution-honed analog minds, cannot but follow the same course. Dyson writes:
And yet something essential and essentially human is lost in our foundational assumption undergirding the digital world, in the strange certainty that binary arithmetic could ever fully represent the way we think. It is the thing all the poets and the rare poetic physicists have pondered all those epochs: the hunger for meaning beyond truth, for the beautiful beyond the binary. Dyson writes:
An exquisite mosaic of meaning, this book of subtle and unsythnesizable splendors chronicles and questions the choices we made as a civilization — not always consciously and not always conscientiously — that took us to where we are and shaped what we might become. But Analogia is also Dyson’s tender love letter to his parents, his love letter to the natural world, and his sensitive appeal, drawn both from a dispassionate scholarship of history and from the passions of his own life, for recognizing that the flow of information will neither drown out nor slake the longing for illumination in our primal search for meaning; an appeal for remembering that while the life of the mind filters our experience of the world, the mind is both function and functionary of the life of the body — not digital, not mechanical, but pulsating with analog aliveness, animated by the selfsame forces that rib the whales and ring the trees and constellate the atoms of long-dead stars into these cathedrals of consciousness that consecrate the subjective interpretation we call meaning.
Two generations ago, cybernetics pioneer Norbert Weiner made his cautionary case for “the human use of human beings,” prophesying that the world of the future — which is now our present — would be “an ever more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.”
Humanity was then too high on those early digital hopes and hubrises to heed his caution.
We now have another chance to listen, another chance to course-correct toward a future that cherishes whale songs above even the most efficient logical sequences of bits, another chance to branch off from the evolutionary tree of digital determinism that we ourselves have seeded.
A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:
AND: I WROTE A CHILDREN’S BOOK ABOUT SCIENCE AND LOVE