Friday, 25 June 2010

Literature and biology

The last two books I've read and the last film I watched have one thing in common - they were recommended to me by my own daughter. A gratifying point to have reached in one's life when one's own flesh and blood can point out to me glaring gaps in my literary experience, but discovering that a) I like the books very much and b) they are edifying. Moni has been recommending books, films and music to me since last summer when she suggested I read Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.

The books and latest film (I'll come on the titles later) have a common thread; the state of mind of the protagonist. Literary criticism of the second half of the 20th C. would often dip into psychology and psychoanalysis using Freudian tools to determine why the protagonist acted as he or she did.

Art describes life as the artist sees it; the science follows. And so looking at Albert Camus' L'Étranger in the light of current understanding of the human mind as well as advances in genetic science gives us new insights into how minds differ from one person to the next. The film, based on L'Étranger, is the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. I'm baffled as to why I've not seen it before, given my obsession with late '40s - early '50s USA and the fact I've seen every other Coen Brothers' film except the very latest one. An exquisitely filmed neo-noir movie, The Man Who Wasn't There is also about a man who kills yet is not a murderer yet is executed for murder. In both cases the protagonist/narrator is a deeply introverted man who ends up being the victim of keeping his thoughts to himself and demonstrates an extremely limited set of emotional responses to what's happening around him.

Putting the two into a clearly clinical context is Mark Haddon's 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Here, the protagonist/narrator is a 15 year old-boy with Asperger's Syndrome - an autism spectrum disorder. Because we know so much more today than we did in the 1940s, Haddon's protagonist has been diagnosed, and being highly intelligent, he understands the limitations of his own mind. Tomorrow's writers will be armed with the science that explains the behaviour. Shakespeare's protagonists have all been psychoanalysed. Soon we'll they'll have their genetic code unravelled. Will literary critics debate whether Lady Macbeth's obsessive behaviour was brought on by the codons in her mRNA being charged covalently with amino acids at their 3' terminal CCA ends?

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