Our Part in the Creation of a Universe
By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan. 505 pp. $32.50
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Bernard Jacobson
Questions, I often tell listeners when I am lecturing, are much more interesting than answers. For anyone who agrees with that pronouncement, this book will be the happiest of hunting-grounds. I have lived with it now for some weeks, and I should not care to hazard a guess whether the questions it raises number merely in the thousands or in the tens of thousands.
The Human Touch is the latest in a series of blockbuster volumes in which writers from whom you might expect something different - in 2004, the American Bill Bryson with A Short History of Nearly Everything, and more recently, the Australian-born Clive James in Cultural Amnesia - have taken on the cosmos, whether conceived physically or in intellectual terms.
With the Englishman Michael Frayn, it would be hard even to guess at what we might expect his next trick to be. The author of 10 novels and 14 plays, he has also published translations from French and Russian literature, created scripts for film and television, and written nonfiction books of essentially philosophical character. His gift ranges comprehensively from the profoundly serious (as in the award-winning play Copenhagen, which succeeds in discussing problems of physics for two hours without ever losing its grip, even on a scientific know-nothing like me) to the rib-ticklingly hilarious (as in the farce Noises Off). And he can often mine these disparate veins simultaneously, as in Headlong, a novel about the supposed finding of a "lost" Brueghel canvas.
Whatever else, then, he can certainly be expected to come up with the unexpected, and that is, indeed, the word for this fascinating treatise, profoundly conceived yet written with the lightest of touches and with many a flash of wit. His thesis - oversimplified here to the point of absurdity - is that the universe, in any respect in which it can be described in words or ordered through scientific laws, is a human creation. In examining this conviction through 505 closely argued pages (including 61 pages of notes that scrupulously document his encyclopedic reading), Frayn refuses to leave any obvious thought or any "received" idea unexamined. He doesn't just examine: Framing the argument for the most part in questions, he worries his material with the persistence of a terrier attacking a bone, turns every thought in every conceivable direction, rejects one facile conclusion after another. Some readers may find this infuriating. I found it absolutely riveting.
Does he succeed in proving his point? Of course not - in a context of all-pervasive unverifiability, such a success would rank as failure. His first chapter, "Prospectus," begins: "You look up at the stars on a calm, clear night . . ."; his last, "Conspectus," ends: "Look up at the stars on a calm, clear night. . . . " The questions in the book exist to be asked, not to be answered. For me, this is not in the least frustrating - the whole exercise is a mighty work of investigation that may well clear many a reader's head, as it certainly has cleared mine, of lazy thought processes unexamined for years.
On nothing is Frayn better than on such subjects as the laws of physics. "Laws," he pithily declares, "determine nothing, even if they express aspects of the universe which are themselves determined." But let me reassure you: He is no nut case. Among the book's many cogent propositions, the nub of that particular argument may be found in this passage:
So the supposedly universal causality on which the laws of nature depend has no more existence than the laws themselves, outside the manmade expression of it. . . . Something is out there, though, which is independent of us! That something can only be the universe itself, the great theatre of space and time in which the events given dramatic form by the concepts of laws and causality are played out. This must be a structure that endures, like any theatre, whether there is an audience in the house or not.
The laws of nature, in other words, are not something that makes what happens in nature happen, but merely the best humankind can do by way of describing and codifying such happenings. "[T]he world around us," Frayn observes, "is irregular and confused. Its most enduring and solid features turn out to be transient and deliquescent to the touch. Its fabric is a series of events, fleshed out in our minds from an even sketchier set of events" - events, not things.
"Too many nouns" was the rallying cry I adopted in my philosophy-student days. The world is better understood as process than as entity. When someone says, "Oh, yes, I have Mozart's 40th symphony," he is speaking very loosely. As Frayn puts it, "Music exists as a performance in time. Possessing a recording of it means that we can command that performance at will; but however often we do so command it, the performance still begins, occurs, passes, and ceases."
This brilliant, quirky philosophical inquiry seems closer to art than to science - often, in the pages of The Human Touch, one of Frayn's points arouses memories of something a poet or novelist has said. An allusion here or there may call up memory of something we have read in John Fowles (on the chaos of the 16th-century street scene, in The French Lieutenant's Woman), or William Golding (on the never-ending search for the real beginning of any event, in The Spire), or Wallace Stevens ("When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles," in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"), or Louis MacNeice ("a false coin / Presumes a true mint somewhere," in "Autumn Journal," I think).
"In the sense in which I give the world being," Frayn says, "I bring it into being with my birth, and extinguish it with my death" - or, as A.E. Housman put it, "Here is a knife . . . I need but stick it in my heart / And down will come the sky, / And earth's foundations will depart / And all you folk will die."
Science studies the world, and us. Literature shows us how to look at it, and at ourselves. The Human Touch offers a panoramic view across both kinds of observation. Read it, and you may come to look at the world differently.