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Nanni Balestrini’s “Tristano”: the love story with 100 trillion possible plotlines

Digital technology has finally made it possible for Tristano to be printed as the author intended. But should it be judged on its central device alone?

A fifteenth-century illustration of the legend of Tristan and Isolde.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

First published in Italy in 1966, it has only been in the last decade that digital technology has made it possible for Tristano to be printed as its author Nanni Balestrini intended. Each of its ten chapters has fifteen pairs of paragraphs, arranged differently by an algorithm in each published copy. These are numbered on their covers by Verso Books, who have issued four thousand of its possible 109,027,350,432,000 variations in English for the first time.

In his foreword, Umberto Eco – a member of Italy’s Neoavanguardia movement with Balestrini and others, founded in 1963 – suggests that “originality and creativity are nothing more than the chance handling of a combination”. Eco provides a potted history of the literary idea of infinite possibilities of letters and words, particularly fashionable during the seventeenth century. Eco suggests several ways to approach Tristano: by reading a single copy and treating it as “unique, unrepeatable and unchangeable”; or “considering it to be the best … possible” version; or by reading several and comparing the outcomes.

Eco doesn’t discuss post-war attempts to use modern printing techniques to allow readers to create their own variations of texts. B S Johnson’s famous “book in a box”, The Unfortunates, where the loose chapters (besides the first and last) could be read in any order, remains best known in Britain, but it was preceded by Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1(1962), with its 150 unbound pages aiming to demonstrate that what matters most in life stories is not the events themselves but their order. Saporta’s book recently became available as an app, which sends readers a page on demand; the appearance of Tristano in its intended form adds to the sense, explored in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing (2011), that digital technology could radically change the way that authors construct texts and how readers receive them, and the relationship between the two.

Balestrini’s note explains that he first experimented with the “combining possibilities of an IBM calculator” in 1961 for Tape Mark I, where fragments of poetry were sequenced according to primitive computer algorithms. His use of the same method for Tristano has already generated considerable controversy – but it would be facile to judge it purely by the means of its construction. What of the text itself?

The story is very simple – it is based on the medieval tragedy of adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde, rewritten numerous times since the twelfth century with differing details but the same structure, its familiarity giving Balestrini more licence to play with its formation. The opening chapters develop the central characters – confusingly, both called C – and their relationship, but important details will emerge at different times for each reader: in my copy, edition 10625, the man’s inability to handle money was revealed at the very end of chapter one, and my conception of his character and its likely development would almost certainly have been different if I’d learned this within the first few paragraphs.

The disjointed narrative puts greater focus on Balestrini’s poetic prose, which feels very much of its time: the detached observation of the nameless central characters and the uncertainty about who is narrating owes a considerable debt to nouveau roman pioneer Alain Robbe-Grillet, particularly his Jealousy (1957). There are many subtle nods to Jacques Prévert’s quietly heart-breaking poem Dejeuner du matin, and if I had not known that Balestrini was Italian, I would have assumed he was French: intertwining the failing relationship and the collapse of Resistance and revolutionary ideals, his style and tone frequently recall the ecstatic monologue used as a voiceover in French artist Gil J Wolman’s film L’Anti-concept (1952).

At points, Balestrini makes his disdain for story-telling conventions explicit, with mixed results – one paragraph in chapter five offers a forensic, Robbe-Grillet-style description of the surroundings, closing amusingly with “All this does not have very much to do with our story but it doesn’t matter”. Sometimes, this is overly didactic: we already know from Balestrini’s composition that “We are not obliged to read everything that it is possible to read. A book is endless books and each of them is a slightly different version of you.” At times, the text feels like it was not just arranged but written by a computer. Lines such as “Autism that is the conviction of being a superman who is not subject to the laws of society” could easily have come from RACTER, the English prose generator program that produced The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed in 1984, with empty aphorisms such as “My desire to incite myself in my dreaming is also a reflection of ambiguity”.

These are only occasional, and the emotional highs and lows of the story are all the more touching for being framed within Balestrini’s subtle, understated language. It’s sad that Tristano’s central device may lead critics to judge it by unfair standards, making the perfect the enemy of the interesting, or exploratory, as if any experiment that does not induce a total revolution of the form is worthless. Endless novels present fixed versions of events, and it’s baffling that those few to challenge this should attract opprobrium, as did Johnson in particular, purely for doing so – Tristano is particularly successful in raising the idea that the structures that authors choose are not always necessarily the best possible.

Although I’m not sure that Tristano makes its reader “the co-author” – surely that’s the algorithm – but it provokes plenty of thought about how to read, obliging people to form opinions after covering each chapter, rather than as they go along, and to think about the nature of the novel’s conclusion. I always linger over a final paragraph, re-reading it several times, feeling that it will cement a book’s meaning in my mind, but here, as throughout, Tristano raises more questions than it answers. Should an ending always be definitive? Why? And what does it mean if it isn’t?

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times