Musings on books, the near future, the process of writing, the Semantic Web, the origins of agriculture, evolutionary meme theories, the venture capital process and the occasional political rant; not necessarily in that order.
See my books at http://hyland-wood.org.
Thursday, December 11, 2014
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
The Testament of Gideon Mack [Amazon, Goodreads] by James Robertson has a single unambiguous theme: doubt. That is the only unambiguous feature of the book. Robertson manages masterfully to question every aspect of his own story until one is forced to question nearly everything. Upon finishing the book, I was almost certain that I had, in fact, read it.
The book's notional plot describes the fantastic story of the eponymous Gideon Mack, a Presbyterian minister in a small Scottish seaside village, and his encounter with the Devil. At least, it might have been the Devil. Mack thought so. Sometimes. He might have just been insane. Many of the signs were there, from the fantasies of his loveless childhood to his literal howling at the base of a standing stone that might, or might not, have been imagined. Mack wrote his testament and it supposedly made its way to a publisher who doubted whether he should publish it. The publisher's notes frame Mack's version and supply both context and, following Mack's death, a conclusion of a sort. In a nice twist in the endnotes, the supposed publisher assures us that each sale of The Testament of Gideon Mack will benefit an aged care home in the fictional town described in the story. Robertson leaves us little choice but to doubt his word from beginning to end. This is fiction that will demand that you think.
Mack himself is a classic anti-hero, a characterization that Robertson uses in a footnote to describe another author's character. Robertson draws on many literary references. His characters read, and are influenced by, novels and histories both real and fictional. The author himself holds a Ph.D. in history from Edinburgh University; His dissertation on the works of Sir Walter Scott, a fellow Scotsman and author of such famous early nineteenth century works as Ivanhoe, echoes in The Testament. The women in Mack's life, Jenny the unloved and now deceased wife, Elsie the lover, and diseased Catherine the disputant, find their archetypes in nineteenth century English and French literature such as Gustave Flaubert'sMadame Bovaryand Lord Byron's Don Juan.
The real publisher, Hamish Hamilton in Scotland, part of Penguin Books, assures us in a standard disclaimer, "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental." I would personally be saddened to think that our playful Dr. Robertson did not sneak in an intentional resemblance to a living person or two, just to carry his device to its logical conclusion.
Robertson authored two novels prior to The Testament and has authored two since. Hamish Hamilton is publishing a new short story by Robertson every day of 2014, each one 365 words long. None of the dozen or so I read included Robertson's broad Scottish vernacular. The Testament relies upon it. Having a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary handy is critical for American readers and others who are unfamiliar with the meanings of hunkers, boaks, or a smirr of rain. He is forced to explain commonly used words such as kirk (church) and manse (minister's house). Where the Scots Gaelic becomes too thick, Robertson helpfully supplies footnotes from his fictional publisher. The scene feels Scottish, from the persistent rain and angry young men to the shale beaches and craggy topology. The result is a novel that is fresh and genuine in its love of setting.
Robertson is also a partner in the grant-funded Scots language children's publisher Itchy Coo. Itchy Coo's Web site proudly offers a Hame page and an Aboot Us description. A character in The Testament amusingly pokes fun at authors who try to set Scots down in print. In fact, The Testament fairly brims with jibes at authors. One character is a perennially unpublished novelist. Another complains that "everybody thinks they have a novel in them" before declaring that writing is "a refuge from confusion". The process of writing does facilitate a certain clarity of thought, in my experience, if only because one must decide what to say.
Robertson holds out much hope for the written word, as if warding off a merely spoken evil. Mack laments the premature telling of his story by saying, "if people could have read this full and honest account rather than heard me announce it amid the din and confusion of that day, then perhaps they might have reacted with more open minds." At least three of his characters are writers.
The core of the book, though, is our relationship to truth. What is it? Can we know it? Would we understand it if it were presented to us? Why do people believe as they do? What are the costs of their beliefs? The Testament asks the big questions, explores them from many angles, and leaves you to answer them as you see fit. Robertson explores truth from many angles, including the ability to trust "facts" as they are presented, asks what we can truly perceive, informs on the limitations of human thought, wonders about the wisdom of teaching fairy stories to children, and worries about passions left uncontrolled.
Mack's justification for writing his testament is repeatedly referred to as a drive toward truth. But the absolute truth can be amazingly harmful to a community, as Robertson explores. Mack is shunned by everyone by the end of his truncated life for his effort. Robertson's story does not lend credence to Sam Harris' more recent thesis that we should all just tell the unabashed truth at all times (in Lying [Amazon, Goodreads]).
Naturally enough for a book set in Scotland, the central pole around which the book swings in its discussion of truth is religion, and its antipode, doubt of religion. "What is religion if not a kind of madness, and what is madness without a touch of religion?" Robertson asks.
We are told, "Human beings are at one and the same time utterly splendid and utterly insignificant." Could there be a more succinct description of the confusion of our times? Our Western civilization has advanced from an ego-centrism under the sky of the only world to one in which we are simultaneously the only intelligent life form we know and yet a mere speck in the vastness of an impossibly large universe. Robertson plays on our confusion from all angles. He gives us the character of Peter Macmurray, elder of the church and Mack's institutional nemesis, who represents the authority of religious institutions, and the character of Lorna Sprott, a fellow minister who is both a true believer and a sad alcoholic crushed under the authority to which she has submitted herself.
Robertson's tight writing shines in his description of Macmurray: "By day he is an accountant and by night, as Jenny used to say, he adds the saved and subtracts the damned, and always comes out with a minus figure."
Robertson deeply questions the role of the Church of Scotland and its relationship with Scottish culture. The nasty element of control in Western religions does not escape Robertson's notice. He has Mack speak of "the overwhelming weight that bears down on most people who enter a church - the weight of years of learning not to disrupt, not to object, not to speak out against authority." At one point he declares that, "The great age of religion had passed", only to suggest that the Kirk could still have a role in society. It is this Gaelic sensitivity to culture and identity that makes The Testament a wonderfully human book. Robertson recognizes and acknowledges non-traditional roles for traditional institutions but can only hope that they will come to see the world in the doubting way that he does. To not is tantamount to denying our recently-won knowledge and risks living with a permanently entrenched cognitive dissonance. Such dissonance is clearly evident in America's science-denying evangelicalism. Robertson informs us that the same stresses exist within other societies.
Lest one consider Robertson's religious beliefs clearly defined, he dithers. His characters are true believers, agnostics, fakers, atheists, vacillators. Elsie's husband John exclaims, "There are no answers, don't you see?", but John is a troubled and desperately unhappy man. He has not replaced religion with a working philosophy that might, as Aristotle suggested, provide him a replacement comfort. Robertson subtly pokes at the religious who express belief in the Devil while steadfastly finding Mack's claims to have met him utterly ridiculous. "The whole religion thing - not being able to reject it and not being able to embrace it", as Elsie says, seems to come closest to his position.
"The present", Robertson says, "was a mere waiting room for the future." That lovely observation is the exact opposite of the mindfulness of the present encouraged by Buddhism. It is also perhaps an unintended or unwanted consequence of our society's current affair with invention and discovery. The scientist or the engineer works toward a future in which theEureka moment will happen. The teenager waits for the new model mobile phone. The salaryman waits for retirement. We are a society of delayed gratification. Those who defer gratification until after death are religion's real losers.
There are many minor recurring themes in The Testament. Perhaps the most central to the book's exploration of truth is the tendency of people to see intelligent action where it is not. This is known to psychologists as hyperactive agency detection. If I suppose a tiger is responsible for the rustling of leaves I just heard and I am right, I might save my life by running away. If I am wrong, little harm is done. This instinctive survival trait causes no end of confusion for the modern person, living as we do with the distinct absence of tigers.
Gideon Mack's life is dominated by hyperactive agency detection. Upon seeing a bee fly out of a drawer, Mack "wondered if there was a message in it; any kind of meaning at all." When confronted with the appearance of the standing stone, he noted:
"It seemed to me that the Stone had provoked this crisis, had engineered it in some way."
"Because the Stone prevented it."
"Perhaps the Stone was wielding some strange power over events and had brought her to my door at this moment."
"The Stone did not want to be photographed. I no longer wished to share the Stone with anybody."
The last, of course, makes one immediately think of J.R.R. Tolkien's characters Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and the One Ring.
Later, in a museum exhibition, "I got up on the wooden step, and this seemed to trigger the tape." Mack jumps to unfounded conclusions quickly, seemingly just to avoid missing one. Robertson, whether consciously or not is impossible for me to say, seems to warn against such actions.
Failures of imagination, and another attendant willingness to jump to conclusions, similarly haunt Robertson's characters. Chance appearances of plot devices seem "incredible" to them. When faced with an experience that he cannot readily explain, Mack races to cognitive closure. He seems unwilling or incapable of keeping an open mind until additional facts are acquired. The unnamed being that he (possibly) encounters must be the Christian Devil. God must exist if the Devil does. All of this is wrapped in layers of tortured logic by means of justification. When Mack feels that he could not have reasonably survived his near death experience, he proclaims, "I was of the opinion, therefore, that I must be dead."
Robertson's characters are not an unrealistic stretch from everyday human experience. We have all met the gullible, but Robertson's exploration goes deeper than pedestrian gullibly. He probes the limits of humankind to judge likelihood. It is something that we do poorly.
Radiolab, a weekly radio show syndicated across the United States by National Public Radio, recently illustrated our intuitive problem with comprehending statistics in an episode called Stochasticity. Stochasticity is a florid academic word for randomness. The study of stochasticity provides techniques to understand events whose results can only be measured statistically. We cannot know whether a particular coin toss will result in a "heads" or a "tails", but we can know that, given a high number of tosses, the results should be about half of each.
My caveats (a high number, about half) are important and point to our difficulties in understanding the random world. Radiolab interviewed Deborah Nolan, a professor of statistics atUC Berkeley, who demonstrated how poor we are at understanding random acts. She asked a group of students to make up a list of 100 coin tosses. Simultaneously, the Radiolab hosts were asked to toss a real coin 100 times and record the results. Nolan immediately spotted which list constituted the real coin tosses. How? By choosing the list that contained a run of seven "tails" in a row. The students felt that such a run would not appear to be random, but real random sequences include such apparent patterns quite often. Our misunderstanding of randomness stems from the simple fact that the human cortex is a very effective pattern recognition engine. We seek patterns for our own survival. They guide our actions. Lack of patterns, randomness, confuses us. We seek, and often find, patterns that do not exist.
The phenomenon of seeing patterns that aren't there is common enough that there is a word for it: apophenia. Psychologists associate the onset of such persistent delusional thinking with schizophrenia - unless it is associated with an established religion.
Pascal's Wager appears and reappears throughout The Testament. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously argued that everyone should believe in God because "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing." The problem with Pascal's Wager is that it postulates a lack of cost to belief in a god. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Pascal did not acknowledge that belief requires a separation from reality, and that bad things happen to the human brain when it is forced to close cognitive dissonance based on too few facts. Wild leaps of the imagination or other mental gymnastics are required to make sense of nonsense. Robertson compares authorial leaps of imagination, which are the very basis of creativity, to leaps of faith. But in admittedly extreme cases, leaps of faith may also lead to anything from standing on a street corner with a sign reading, "The End is Nigh" to suicide bombing to the Toronto family that left a corpse in their house for six months expecting resurrection. We do ourselves no favors by encouraging delusion.
Or do we? We often think of evolution as a search algorithm that fits an animal to its environment. People have been around long enough to evolve to fit people-dominated environments. We have evolved to cooperate with other people. Sometimes, really quite often in fact, that means that we need to compromise our understanding of the world in order to get along with others. Robertson explores the prices of compromise and failures to compromise by presenting us with characters who span the gamut.
Both real and fictional Presbyterian ministers make their appearance in The Testament. Their interests, with the single exception of the true believer Lorna, transcend those of traditional Christianity. Robertson neatly brings in the nineteenth century minister Robert Kirk and his book of folk tales, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies[Amazon, Goodreads] to make this point. The book makes a variety of appearances across the generations. Robertson intertwines folk myths, mainstream religion, doubt, love, lust, friendships, vanity, and self-obsession into a tapestry that approaches the complexity of real-life thought.
It is almost not worth bothering to mention the fatherhood obsession shared by Gideon and, more subtly, his father James. It is too obvious. However, this does lead to some brilliant foreshadowing with Elsie's daughter Katie and her imaginary friend. The friend seems to be Mack's Devil, lending yet another bit of support for the reality of an illusion that one had just decided was an illusion. Similarly, Elsie's eleventh-hour admission of the length of her affair with Mack, and the depth of it, questions Mack's veracity just after others had established it. Robertson's misdirection took some careful construction.
Robertson, while pillorying religious belief, does not spare non-religious thought. The atheists in The Testament are generally unhappy, and the one professed agnostic is depicted as physically crippled and verbally vitriolic. Robertson asks, but does not answer, what makes one happy to live one's life. Perhaps, being Scottish, he has no idea. More likely he simply was not aware of modern scholarship which has started to unravel this conundrum, such as this study of coping strategies of the irreligious.
Robertson employs some beautiful metaphors throughout The Testament. My personal favorite is this:
"Walking through a deserted city in the hours before dawn is sobering way beyond the undoing of the effects of alcohol. Everything is familiar, and everything strange. It’s as if you are the only survivor of some mysterious calamity which has emptied the place of its population, and yet you know that behind the shuttered and curtained windows people lie sleeping in their tens of thousands, and all their joys and disasters lie sleeping too. It makes you think of your own life, usually suspended at that hour, and how you are passing through it as if in a dream. Reality seems very unreal."
Walking past the sleeping multitudes is a wonderful depiction of the atheist experience. One often feels the weight of the mass delusion that grips our world. Naturally, and very Robertson, true believers must feel the same way. One is left to make of it what one will.
My one substantial criticism stems from an experience that Robertson could presumably not personally explore. Mack's character undergoes a near death experience, but Robertson, it seems, could not pull from observation to make his description plausible. My own near drowning left me uncomfortable with Robertson's portrayal. Although I recognized Mack's reported lack of panic, I experienced no flashing of my life before me, nor a feeling that I had left too much unresolved. The immediacy of the situation dominated my mind, even as I began to think that perhaps I should try breathing water after all. Those who told me I could not could have been mistaken. I do not fault Robertson overly much for his reliance on clichés for this part of his story. I am glad for him that he has not gained the insight.
The Testament of Gideon Mack should not have been long-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. It should have won it. Perhaps it didn't because some members of the review committee were themselves religious. The book is designed in a certain sense to offend. It would not offend a doubter, but it threatens the homey comfort of the believer. "How can it be blasphemous? It’s the truth. There isn’t a word of a lie in what you’ve heard." Gideon Mack tells his friend and fellow minister Lorna. She replies, "Of course it’s blasphemous. It goes against everything we stand for. You simply mustn’t repeat it." I urge you to ignore her advice.