Friday, 6 August 2010

Four ways of reading the unfamiliar

On commenter Charles's recommendation I bought Charles Fernyhough's The Baby in the Mirror and have read five chapters so far. It is a fascinating book about early child development as seen from the point of view of a neuroscientist and parent.

In becoming aware of the way the baby learns to put the world together I also become aware of the way I am reading the book. I think there are at least four distinct ways.

1. As plain language: the baby (newborn / neonate) is capable of doing this, that or the other. So, for example, at an early stage the baby sees an object but then immediately forgets it. I register this as pure information.

2. As tone: this is the autobiographical part, where the author speaks intimately of the baby (Athena) and the mother (Lizzie) telling us where they are or what they happen to be doing. It is an assurance of normality much of the time. The writer isn't a mad scientist experimenting on his child - he has deeply tender feelings about the baby and exercises his curiosity with appropriate warmth. Good guy, normal.

3. As analogy: this is the poetic aspect of the book. Fernyhough is consistently seeking parallels. For example, he compares the adult brain to an office block that shuts down at night, whereas the child's brain is an office where 'the cleaners are wandering around all day long. The supervisor has gone missing. The technicians are reinstalling software and upgrading the phone system even as a poor drone is trying to work.' This analogy is extended. It amuses me, and I recognise the analogy as a picture that echoes certain brain functions - I don't mean that it is like them, but that it directly copies them. It is a kind of literal analogy.

There is a pleasure in reading that, but there is a greater pleasure in finding an analogy such as, 'At four weeks she was like a beached foetus, vainly practising her underwater moves while waiting for the tide to come back in' where the parallel is still in some ways literal but there is an element of lyricism in it. The swimming movements of the foetus and the tide carry powerful transformatory associations.

And there are the hidden analogies too, those smuggled into sentences, such as '...the way she trawled her slow, unblinking gaze across the ceiling, while her arms rehearsed delicate flamenco moves' where the enriched language enters the reader as an extra delicious dimension.

This is poets' work. In fact it rather reminds me of Peter Redgrove's poetry in some places, and I wonder whether he has read Redgrove's poem 'The Visible Baby'. I'm on home ground here.

4. As pure science: and this is the nub, because here a whole range of neurological terms and processes appear under their formal names. This is the part that is like a lecture. It is, however, a lecture in a subject of which I am ignorant. I have a vague idea of the areas of the brain, and know roughly what a neurone is, but the rest is just words to me. I wonder if I ought to have a large diagram of the brain at my side, or whether I ought to have read a little primer in neuroscience first. The words drift by in their lab coats filing in through a big main entrance then getting themselves lost down corridors only they know, and into offices and labs I have never seen. Even to describe their effect on me I have to resort to the analogy method of part three, in other words to seek some familiar ground.

But then I wonder what I am doing, or, rather, what is the reading process I seem to be undergoing? Essentially I am seeking information of the first kind, and am pleased to make the acquaintance of the author via the second kind, where he is successfully doing his best to persuade me that this is a human transaction after all, and we could talk about it over a coffee in a friendly way and maybe watch a game of football or talk about the poems of, say, Don Paterson, which he clearly has read. He could in fact shift onto my ground. He is not a remote boffin.

What then of the words I don't know? The boffin words. Here is where I think I am very like baby Athena. These words are objects belonging to a whole category or system and I am as likely to forget such objects as is baby Athena to forget those she has seen when her attention is turned away from them. They no longer exist. Words without recognisable objects are hard enough, but when they form parts of clearly logical systems, learning just a word or two seems hopeless. Nevertheless, I read on, and when I come across the unknown words I hope to be accumulating some crude but usable elements of the system - much as baby Athena does -without taking on too much extra work. And I remember how that was precisely my difficulty with physics at A level. Unless I understood it all - system, first cause, the lot - it was just a bunch of what semioticians call floating signifiers that didn't so much float as drown.

So I find that my chief pleasure in the book comes from parts 1 and 3 above, and number 3 particularly because I don't feel the analogies are there merely as folksy sugar to make the medicine go down as, say, part 2 might be - not that it is, though it is the primarily success of part 3 that persuades me it isn't mere sugar. I am drawn to the third kind of reading because I am convinced that Fernyhough's analogies are genuine discoveries by a human being who is, at heart, as deeply puzzled as I am, as is only right to be.

It is not so much at the assurance level, but at the metaphorical level, those chance meetings down the tunnels of dark and light in our imaginations, that we become human beings to each other.

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