Master of artifice: Anton Chekhov pictured in Russia in 1897. Image: Corbis.
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My grandfather’s Chekhovian death in the deep blue sea

A seafaring Chekhov story dredges up some family history.

My grandad was born with a caul – a strange, papery bonnet, the remains of the amniotic sac. In those days there was a widely held superstition among sailors that if you were born “in caul” you could never drown. I never met him but I suppose that if you were, as he was, a sailor at war, it was comforting to believe that you weren’t going to drown. Having survived the Battle of Jutland, he got married. He was late arriving for his ship, the HMS Hampshire, which sailed without him, and he was thrown into the Bridewell. All but 12 of the Hampshire’s 600 hands were lost, including Lord Kitchener. Maybe Grandad thought his caul – his luck – had saved him.

He got safely through two world wars. In the end he died in peacetime. His ship – the Cydonia – was blown into an unexploded mine off the Pembrokshire coast. He was the stoker. His epic, sweaty, hellish job was to keep the fires going. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty at the time. He was covering for someone else. He didn’t drown when the engines blew. He was boiled alive.

I lived with my grandmother – his wife – when I was small, in a little flat on Stanley Road near the docks in Liverpool. Apart from the odd excursion to the city centre (two stops away), I don’t remember her ever straying beyond the little network of streets that was her parish. Yet there was a glass cupboard in the corner of the parlour that was stuffed with the fine, untouchable things that Grandad had brought back from his voyages in the South China Sea or across the Atlantic. A pale tea service so delicate it seemed to tremble like a sea creature behind the glass, a chunk of coral, a shell with Psalm 107 burned into it and a varnished porcupine fish.

That’s about all I know about my grandad.

My father barely knew him either – he was at sea for most of Dad’s childhood and then he was dead. So Dad didn’t talk about him much. My grandma didn’t talk about anyone much. So I hardly ever gave my grandad a second thought. One day I was at a film festival doing press for a film I’d written. In the interval between interviews, it looked rude to pick up a book, so I noodled around on my phone and found a short story by Anton Chekhov that I had not read before called “Gusev”. Technologically, sociologically, geographically and emotionally I was a solar system distant from my grandma’s flat. But one paragraph in, for the first time in my life, I saw in my imagination Grandad. Everything about the story lead me to think of him.

Gusev is an orderly heading home to Russia in the sickbay of a tramp steamer. Talkative and feverish, he annoys one of the other passengers – Pavel Ivanitch – by worrying that the ship will be broken on the back of a big fish, or that the wind will “break its chains”. As he slips in and out of consciousness, he has visions of life at home. Heartbreakingly, these visions feature a pond – a domestic, manageable version of the sea. Eventually, he dies and his body is sewn up in sailcloth and tipped overboard. It splashes into the sea and the foam makes it look as though he is wrapped in lace. He disappears beneath the waves. Then Chekhov produces his amazing ending, following Gusev’s corpse as it sinks to the sea floor, past startled pilot fish and a curious shark.

My grandad’s corpse, like Gusev’s, would have rolled around on the bottom of the ocean. There’s also the fact Gusev is returning from a war and that he is dreaming of home, that he didn’t belong out there on the sea. On top of all the parallels, though, Gusev seems like a real person and this seems like a real incident. This happens so often when you’re reading Chekhov – that feeling you’re reading about something that really happened. How does he do this?

Chekhov was out and about in the world with his eyes open. In 1890 he spent three months trekking across Siberia to get to the penal colony at Sakhalin. On the way, he wrote extraordinary, vivid letters to his sister. He came back on a steamer and there were two passengers on board who were extremely ill. The character of Gusev has the kind of oddity you feel comes from observation. He dislikes Chinese people intensely and gets into trouble for beating up four of them. When Pavel Ivanitch asks him why, he says, “Oh nothing. They came into the yard so I hit them.” When he is dead, trussed up in the sailcloth, Chekhov describes him with a vivid but undignified phrase. He looks like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. And, of course, he dies – what could be more “real” than that? Chekhov was a doctor. It’s a serious matter when a doctor lets a person die, even if that person is fictional.

The landscape, too, is drawn from observation. In another of the Siberian letters he describes crossing Lake Baikal and looking down into its crystal-clear waters. The first time I read it, I felt a shock of delight: this must have been the inspiration for Gusev’s watery descent.

The extraordinary thing about any Chekhov story is that when you begin to read one, you have no idea where it’s going to end up. You can easily imagine the story that Maupassant, for instance, would have made of my grandad’s life. The Macbethy irony of his believing that just because you couldn’t drown you wouldn’t die at sea and then – ha ha, cruel fate – he’s boiled instead. He should have known! But for me the most arresting thing about his life was how utterly unpredictable its consequences were. If he hadn’t jumped ship that night, been prepared to be locked up for an extra night with his wife, I wouldn’t be here writing. I wouldn’t exist. Nor would my children, my siblings, my cousins. Dozens of people are only alive because of his tipsy whim.

“Gusev” is unpredictable in the way that life is. It starts with a kind of comedy routine between the ignorant Gusev and the superior Ivanitch but ends up with that soaring, sacramental prose poem. Writers who try to imitate Chekhov sometimes mistake this unpredictability for randomness, a trudging “realism”, or worse, “honesty”. But Chekhov isn’t a journalist or a memoirist. He began as a hack, writing skits and sketches. “Oh with what trash I began,” he wrote later. He can write anywhere – for instance, on a tramp steamer; about anything – for instance, a garrulous sick passenger. These are the things that being a hack teaches you. He also has a hack’s repertoire of tricks and techniques. Chekhov’s unpredictability doesn’t come from rejecting artifice and contrivance. It comes from being an absolute master of artifice and contrivance.

If you go back through the story you will see that the unexpected ending is perfectly set up. In Gusev’s nonsense about wind and chains and giant fish, in his remembered pond, the sea is always threatening to overwhelm the story. This is also true tonally. Gusev and Ivanitch are convincing individual characters but as they bicker, they move further and further apart until each comes to stand for a different view of life. Ivanitch dismisses Gusev’s chances of ever grasping the point of life. “Foolish, pitiful man,” he says, “you don’t understand anything.” Yet Gusev reaches out for understanding:

A vague urge disturbs him. He drinks water, but that isn’t it. He stretches towards the port-hole and breathes in the hot, dank air, but that isn’t it either. He tries to think of home and frost – and it still isn’t right.

Chekhov’s great tenderness is that his story seems to be reaching out for a shape and an ending, just as Gusev tries to reach out through his fever for a meaning. They’re in this together.

Then there’s the ending. In one sense it shows us Gusev as nothing but a piece of meat, dumped over the side, sinking to the bottom. But we’re also overwhelmed by the sense of the grandeur and beauty of the food chain, of what a magnificent thing meat is. It’s impossible to read that section without being pulled up short by how ridiculous we are – like a carrot or a radish – but also how beautiful – wrapped in lace. It describes life reduced to its components but it also recalls, inevitably, Psalm 107 – the psalm that was inscribed on my grandad’s shell.

“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. He was the writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony This is an edited extract from “Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers”, published by Comma Press on 30 January (£9.99)

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge