Notes towards a supreme fiction

"The reviewing of novels," wrote Cyril Connolly, "is the white man's grave of journalism; it corresp

If Karl Marx and Adam Smith were right to believe that science is not a pure enterprise but the reflection of a society's values and outlook, what does its current popularity tell us about society? Not much we didn't know already: that we live in a materialistic culture, that we place our trust in facts and objects rather than ideas and people, that we fear rather than include the irrational in our lives, that we think there must be an explanation for everything. But what if we were to discover that our faith in science was based on an illusion, of the kind that Sigmund Freud describes, that "commend themselves to us because they save us pain and allow us to enjoy pleasure instead"?

What might the illusion be? One answer comes from an unexpected quarter, in the form of two recently published collections of literary essays. In David Lodge's Consciousness and the Novel (Secker & Warburg, £18.99), writing in the intelligent and intelligible, civilised vein that is his hallmark, Lodge discusses the contrasting attempts of novelists and, more recently, scientists to explain human consciousness. Among cognitive and neuro-scientists, consciousness was the hot subject - at least in publishing terms - for most of the Nineties. The scientific drift is summed up by Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994): "'You', your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules."

Lodge's interest in the subject was roused when it struck him that this hypothesis had thrown down a "strong challenge to the humanist or Enlightenment idea of man on which the presentation of character in the novel is based". As he says, to cognitive materialists such as Steven Pinker and V S Ramachandran, the human mind is no more than a machine, its sense of itself a mere epiphenomenon caused by an excess of brainpower over and above our evolutionary needs. No self, no soul. Some more recent work has stressed the fundamentally narrative nature of the brain's activity, but even those scientists who agree that we project and protect ourselves by telling stories about who we are regard those stories, and those selves, as ultimate illusions.

Lodge's counter-case is strong. Novelists, he says, along with lyric poets, provide a bridge between first-person (subjective) and third-person (scientific) views or narrations of the world. In conveying individual, open-ended experience in all its inconclusiveness, creative writers model the world more fully and helpfully for the consciousness that apprehends it. Drawing on the achievements of Marvell, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and various others, he edges the hard materialist fringe out of the picture. "If the self is a fiction," he writes, "it may perhaps be the supreme fiction, the greatest achievement of human consciousness, the one that makes us human." (Or as the French poet Paul Valery put it, more wryly, "'L'Homme pense; donc je suis,' dit l'Univers.")

Yet, for all Lodge's championing of the novelists' corner, one senses a sympathy with the scientists. Informative and well-argued as his essay is, it has the tone of detached exposition with which we are very familiar from his fiction. Indeed, Lodge did fictionalise what he had learned about the consciousness debate in his most recent novel, Thinks . . . , which I enjoyed as I usually enjoy his novels: with a devil on my shoulder, a devil of impatience hurling silent taunts, urging him or his characters to lose control. Lodge is not known for including a deep emotional heart in his fiction. Cleverness, civilised satire, intelligent gags, yes; passion, no. Likewise his essays: in his preface to Consciousness and the Novel, he quotes some words of Gertrude Stein's, to stand as an epigraph for all his literary criticism: "What does literature do and how does it do it. And what does English literature do and how does it do it. And what ways does it use to do what it does." Well, the old inaccrochable certainly knew how to repeat herself, but it did not disguise her bafflingly mechanistic view of writing - a view that, however distantly, one feels Lodge shares when he writes of his desire to construct "a poetics of fiction" which is a "systematic and comprehensive description of the [ways] through which novels communicate their meanings".

Perhaps Lodge's objectivity, his substitution of explanation for appreciation, system for passion, are a case of "we grow up among theories and illusions common to our class, our race, our time", as Cyril Connolly wrote in 1938, halfway through Enemies of Promise. "We absorb them unawares and their effect is incalculable." It was Connolly who also wrote that "Anxiety is my true condition", who was afraid of suicide and prone to morning tears. A "lazy, irresolute person, overvain and overmodest", he would have been no match for Lodge in the professorial stakes. If Lodge is, like us, a materialist, Connolly, to complicate matters, was one, too. He was excessively material in his longings for manor house in France and helicopter and book-lined belvedere. It was the ultimate reason he failed as a novelist: the world that a writer creates was not available to him, because he was happy with the one that already existed, if only he were rich enough to have it.

But there's a crucial contrast to be drawn between his writing and Lodge's. The absence of emotion that runs through Lodge's essays is interrupted only once, when he agrees in the piece entitled "Lives in Letters: Kingsley and Martin Amis" that he felt the same about seeing his father on his deathbed as the younger Amis did; whereas Connolly's two volumes (Selected Works, Picador, £20 each) are crammed with his moaning and yearning, with a restless staring into the world and a gloomy relish at nearly all he sees. Connolly's work, in fact, is absolutely defined by that conjunction with his life, the two spinning out in a confessional honesty that is severe and often painful, as whenever he attacks the journalism from which he failed to escape ("The reviewing of novels is the white man's grave of journalism; it corresponds to building bridges in some impossible tropical climate"). The same quality is often simply very funny (in his parodies), and equally often funny and painful (see the devastating analysis of literary corruption in the "Blue Bugloss" section of Enemies of Promise).

This contrast between two writers working in the same sub-field of letters - the literary essay - can be read as simply a restatement of the old polarity between head and heart, gown and town, but I believe it goes deeper. Part of Connolly's achievement, for me, is to make me nostalgic for the 20th century, for its aspirations and its geniuses, its very particular messes and its localness. (His diary of 1929 made me remember perfectly Paris in the late Seventies after I graduated, a city of cosy darkness and filth in the outer arrondissements. One cannot find this city now in Chirac's Paris.)

Connolly's brilliant analysis of styles, Mandarin v Vernacular, his long and generous pamphlet The Modern Movement, his analysis of English poetry from "Paradise Lost" to "The Waste Land", and practically every one of his reviews, communicate a literary partisanship whose contagiousness is rarely forgotten by anyone who reads him. Though Lodge covers much of the same 20th-century ground, I feel little of the same excitement.

No, the contrast is between the rich, roiling, polyglot, flawed (idealist, elitist) current of mid-century, pro-European heterodoxy and the literal, materialist culture in which we at present thrive. The same closed attitudes abounded in Connolly's time. The epicentre of literary materialism was Bloomsbury, its high priestess Virginia Woolf; Connolly despised Bloomsbury's "fastness of private virtue and personal relations", preferring the leafy, open sanctuary of Chelsea in which "leisure, however ill-earned, has seldom been more agreeably and intelligently made use of". Lodge, on this point, is Woolf's defender, mentioning twice her "wonderful diaries" (which is a singular judgement, given that I've never found a single joke in the five volumes and that they make plain her talent for disdain and exclusion).

Let us play Fantasy Culture for a moment. What is the role of the literary essayist today? To believe, perhaps, that the world is most intelligible when seen through the metaphor of literature; to resist cultural orthodoxy; to excite the reader (in particular, his or her talent for resistance). And why is any of this currently important? Because materialism abhors a metaphor. It shrinks everything. Its cultural atmosphere is one of ever more global and commercial yardsticks, and therefore restrictions, which inhibit the free play of the spirit and our vision of the future.

Interestingly, in an essay entitled "Writers and Society", Connolly viewed the Second World War in exactly the same light. "War . . . means less time, less tolerance, less imagination, less curiosity, less play." His answer was to write a 30-page nostrum for the future in Horizon, consigning Joyce and Proust temporarily to the scrap heap for their leisurely wastefulness, giving dictatorial powers to a Word Controller to protect a wartime vocabulary exhausted by journalism, and calling for a renaissance, a new place for art "in our conception of the meaning of life".

Because, for all his moaning and longing, Connolly was a passionate believer. By comparison, despite all his explanatory virtues, Lodge is a sort of rhetorical shopkeeper, trading his words. For readers, there is a world of difference between the two. John Banville wrote recently how he used to read Connolly's weekly reviews in the Sunday Times and could "still vividly recall particular pieces, and the excitement with which I read them". I remember the same feeling on reading the first page of The Unquiet Grave, with its austere declaration that "the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece" and that "no other task is of any consequence".

Excitement is Connolly's legacy. A literal world surrounds us, and science overtakes us (of whose excitement, as with other modern entertainments, we partake only as consumers). But passion is not quite dead - if only to judge by the achievement of Picador's former publisher Peter Straus, in getting these sumptuous volumes of Connolly back into print. Now we could use a few more essays on writers and society, even in a world alternately preoccupied by the enjoyment of its pleasure and tantalised by the threat of another war.

Julian Evans wrote and presented The Romantic Road (Radio 3)