David Lodge on consciousness and the novel

From David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel:

A good deal of the recent scientific work on consciousness has stressed its essentially narrative character. Antonio Dmasio, for instance, in his book The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion, and the Making of Consciousness, lays great emphasis on this. What happens when an organism interacts with an object is, he says, “a simple narrative without words. It [has] characters. It unfolds in time. And it has a beginning, a middle and an end. The end is made up of reactions that result in a modified state of the organism.” As the word “organism” implies, Demasio is not talking about exclusively human experience here. The process also occurs in animals. But, he says, “the imagetic representation of sequences of brain events, which occurs in brains simpler than ours, is the stuff of which stories are made. A natural preverbal occurrence of storytelling may well be the reason why we ended up creating drama and eventually books.” (By “books” he must mean novels.) “Telling stories,” he says, in a striking fomulation, “is probably a brain obsession … I believe the brain’s pervasive ‘aboutness’ is rooted in the brain’s storytelling attitude.”

Human consciousness, as Demasio makes clear, is self-consciousness. We not only have experiences, we are conscious of ourselves having them, and of being affected by them. He draws attention to the paradox noted by William James, that “the self in our stream of consciousness changes continuously as it moves forward in time, even as we retain a sense that the self remains the same while our existence continues.” Demasio calls the self that is constantly modified the “core”self, and the self that seems to have a kind of continuous existence the “autobiographical” self, suggesting that it is like a literary production….

We are conscious of existing in time, moving from a past that we recall very patchily, and into a future that is unknown and unknowable. We are, says Milan Kundera,

resigned to losing the concreteness of the present … We need only recount an apisode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest of memories … We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries on day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what it has forgotten. The present–the concreteness of the present as a phenomenon to consider … is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination.

Kundera is surely right to say that literature, and especially literary fiction, compensates us for this leakage of information. It allows us vicariously to possess the continuum of experience in a way we are never able to in reality….

(Pages 14-5, 31-2, footnotes omitted.)


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