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Dramatic revelations: the science of art.

THE search is on for a theory of everything. Scientists are on a quest to unify the little and large of theoretical physics: the microcosm of the sub-atomic world and the macrocosm of Einstein's universe. The prize is a total explanation for the behaviour of matter itself.

Not everyone, however, is impressed: 'Quarks, quasars--big bangs, black holes--who gives a shit?' asks the literary academic Nightingale in Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia. 'If knowledge isn't self-knowledge, it isn't doing much, mate'.

Nightingale's diatribe might be seen as a rather extreme advocacy for the primacy of Art over Science. But perhaps it does have some justification, after all. For, even if we do eventually manage to explain how matter works, how would that help us to understand how we work? Pardon the pun, but does it matter that much?

This isn't to say that the unification theory of theoretical physics is not significant in itself, only that the relative importance of the search for ultimate scientific explanations may have been blown out of all proportion. Possibly this is because there seems to be a popular misconception that the only area in which absolute reality can be clearly or comprehensively revealed is that of physics or Science, i.e. not that of philosophy or Art, whose concern is with man as opposed to matter.

We appear, in other words, to have little or no confidence in our ability to do with Art what we are trying to achieve with Science. This would explain the fact that Arcadia was widely welcomed on its opening in 1993 in terms of the contribution it made to the debate on chaos theory rather than for its artistic contribution, which is considerable. So great was the misunderstanding, in fact, that Stoppard felt impelled to try to put things right. 'My only interest in science is a philosophical interest', he said. 'My interest in chaos mathematics is an artist's interest, not a scientist's'.

Taking Stoppard as our cue, perhaps it is time to redress the balance in favour of Art. This is particularly apposite considering that we are fortunate to live in an age where Art may be approaching a watershed of knowledge. Perhaps now we can at least anticipate in the not too distant future a theory of everyone, as opposed to the theory of everything with which Science is currently concerned. This is not directly related to the Human Genome Project and our increasing understanding of the influence of genes on our behaviour, although this may prove to have some bearing on the final outcome.

What is at issue here operates on a deeper, more fundamental level, a level that relates to the nature of reality as it affects man, which is what Art is concerned with, as opposed to the nature of reality as it affects matter, which is the concern of Science. We are, that is, close to seeing the hard outlines of the nature of reality as it concerns man, just as we may be close to going that much further into the nature of reality as it concerns matter. And, in this respect, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia presents us with an appropriate starting point. For, in this search for human significance, for the meaning of human life itself, it's drama that is unmistakably playing the leading role in the world of Art.

There is a certain irony in this. With the possible exception of the Greek Tragedians and Shakespeare, drama has rarely been at the forefront of philosophical exploration. For even the greatest playwrights have generally been masters at asking questions about the meaning of life while mere apprentices at providing answers.

More recent playwrights, however, with Tom Stoppard the outstanding example, are different. Where Shakespeare asked all the significant questions in Hamlet, for instance, but stopped short when it came to answers, in Arcadia, Stoppard nonchalantly blends Science with Art to show us how to find those answers.

So, what is this paragon of plays about? Appropriately for such an inspired work of Art, Arcadia is about inspiration, the inspiration of truth. It is about the fact that everything we truly know, whether of scientific or artistic reality, comes not from our own efforts but through inspiration. Einstein knew as much and constantly testified to the fact.

The fundamental point at issue here, however, is that inspiration is as available to the inspired artist as it is to the inspired scientist, so that if the latter can aspire to an explanation of the behaviour of everything so, too, can the former to an explanation of the behaviour of everyone.

What's more, both the one and the other can expect the same scientific exactitude in the insights revealed since the source from which they come is the same. And just as scientific insights have to be susceptible to experimental proof to ascertain their actuality, so, too, must artistic insights be susceptible to confirmation through human experience, which is the only true test of authenticity.

Science and Art, then, do not exist in different spheres, the one precise and provable, the other vague and subjective, as popular mythology has it, but simply deal with parallel realities, the one relating to matter, the other to man.

So, where is the evidence that Art can actually produce the same kind of material as Science? In the first instance, of course, we have the plays of Tom Stoppard, which I analysed in an article in the March 2003 issue of Contemporary Review. For the purposes of this article, therefore, I intend concentrating on two recent plays that provide powerful evidence of philosophical rigour in revealing the nature of reality as it affects us all. They do so, moreover, in a way that we can all confirm for ourselves through our own personal experience, if we choose to do so.

The one sets out to explain the nature of human relationships, just as the theoretical physicist attempts to understand the gravitational relationship between different planets and galaxies. The other investigates the philosophical equivalent of the big bang, which is to say the seminal influences on the human mind.

First, we have Patrick Marber's Closer, which enjoyed highly successful and richly-awarded runs in both London and New York at the turn of the millennium, and has since been translated into 50 languages and seen in more than 100 productions around the world. Then, earlier this year, it was released as a feature film, directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Patrick Marber that closely echoes the original play.

As with the meaning of human life, Closer presents us at the very outset with a mystery. What does Marber mean by 'closer'? The play, after all, is the very antithesis of the romantic drama its enigmatic title might suggest. In a brutal, if often hilarious exposure of sexual politics, two couples, Alice and Dan, and Anna and Larry, ricochet from one partnership to another and back again into final disillusionment. Not a lot of closeness there, then, more a dramatic confirmation of the mounting divorce statistics and the increasing number of people living alone. So what does Marber mean?

Appropriately, perhaps, Closer was premiered at London's National Theatre shortly after the 1997 British General Election, which was characterised by accusations that 'sound-bite politics' had replaced serious discussion of issues. It's appropriate because Closer's sexual politics are also concerned with trivial images, which are given as reasons why we elect one person rather than another for our partner. Alice's attraction to Dan, for instance, begins when she's charmed by her belief that he cuts the crusts off his sandwiches just like his mother did before him, (he doesn't, actually).

The men, too, are directed in their attractions by unrealistic images of the object of their desires. 'You're fantastic', Dan tells Anna, whom Larry sees as a 'goddess'. But where both the men and the women might be seduced by dreams rather than the reality of the opposite sex, the nature of their obsessions, Marber suggests, is couched in different terms. With the women, the key is more likely to be the longing for permanence, the desire to keep the man for life; with the men, it's adventure, excitement, conquest, and sexual imperialism. It's this primitive 'caveman' mentality that leads to the play's climactic scenes of jealousy in which first Larry and then Dan become fixated on their sexual ownership of their women to the point of no return.

But the fact that the relationships end the way they do in the play doesn't mean that they have to. If they do, Marber suggests, that's only because people allow themselves to be carried away by the destructive force of their dreams. But for the illusions we are constantly tempted by, Marber argues, Closer's original partnerships would have worked very well.

It's in this that the play's undoubted poignancy rests: the fact that the characters are all aware that they are in the grip of something alien and yet which they feel they can't control. Thus, Dan tells Anna as he tries desperately to seduce her: 'This is not me. I don't do this, don't you see?'

All this may give the impression that Marber lays the fault for the break-down of relationships more with the male than with the female of the species, shaking his head at man's inhumanity to woman. Certainly, there would be no shortage of women who would agree with Anna's conclusion about the ungentle sex: 'They love the way we make them feel but not "us". They love dreams'. But it's Alice who counters with: 'So do we. You should lower your expectations'.

As this suggests, it is Alice who represents the voice of truth in the play. Thus, when Anna, whose adultery with Dan sets off the whole destructive cycle of Closer's relationships, tries to excuse herself with: 'I fell in love with him, Alice', Alice shows up the lie for what it is: 'That's the most stupid expression in the world. 'I fell in love'. As if you had no choice. There's a moment, there's always a moment; I can do this, I can give in to this or I can resist it ... You didn't fall in love, you gave in to temptation'.

Marber, however, makes it painfully clear how very difficult it is for us not to give in to 'temptation' when the reality of the human condition is that we are all slaves to a natural tendency to wishful thinking, even in spite of our painful experience of its consequences. 'Everyone learns, nobody changes', as Larry puts it succinctly.

But difficult does not mean impossible. And this is where the mystery of the play's title makes its presence felt. For Closer does not refer to any emotional warmth that may or may not be felt by the characters in the course of their seesaw attractions. In fact, it is a reference to a proximity to reality, in this case, to the reality of personal relationships.

For, in a dramatic variation on those perennial themes of losing one's life to find it, and only those who are born again as children can get into heaven, Alice escapes from the tyranny of her dreams by adopting the neutral identity of a dead child through taking her name. Alice is born again, in other words, in order to free herself from her humanity's abiding susceptibility to illusion.

In doing so, she doesn't magically lose her obsessions: Marber is a modern playwright, not a Victorian sentimentalist. By adopting the childlike humility necessary to the artist or scientist of genius, however, through adopting a child's persona, she is able to control the wilder flights of fancy to which she, like everyone else in the play, in life, is subject. And this control enables her to face up to doing what is necessary, which is to empathise with her chosen partner--'You're lying. I've been "you"', Alice says when Dan tries to hoodwink her--and thereby stay true to her love for him despite almost any provocation, and all in answer to the one fundamental need of personal relationships, which she identifies as: 'To be loved'. Dan and Larry and Anna, on the other hand, all have the same need but don't even come close, allowing themselves to be sidetracked along the way by their distracting dreams.

In the end, Alice's thrilling existential experiment to find true love isn't enough to bring her fulfilment because that involves two people and openness to truth from one is no guarantee of reciprocity. But, by paying rigorous attention to the real dynamics of human relationships, Marber shows that it is possible to get a whole lot closer. He also reveals a great deal about the human condition in the process.

In the first instance, this is that illusion is our natural environment. The human condition, in fact, can be summed up as the imprisonment of the mind in illusion. This applies just as much to Science as it does to Art. We may smile now at our erstwhile belief that the sun circles the earth rather than the other way round, or that the earth is flat, but the only reason we know different is that a scientific genius dispelled our illusions. Einstein himself was obliged to distance himself from the scientific illusions of his own time as a prelude to discovering what we now accept as true.

In the second instance, Marber shows us that this imprisonment in illusion is chosen--'I can give in to this, I can give in to this or I can resist it', in Alice's words. It is chosen because it amounts to a natural surrender to a desire for power--characterised as sexual imperialism in terms of male human relationships and the desire to 'keep' the man in female terms. And this desire for power, in turn, arises from mankind's assertive pride in itself. The mind in this state of pride is the meaning of the word 'self' or 'ego'. It is this 'proud mind' or 'egoism' that feels a need to justify its pride in itself through the satisfaction of a related desire for power.

At the same time, however, Marber shows that there is a real alternative to this mechanical scenario. This centres on the inspiration of truth that can provide insights into reality, enabling us to understand our world in response to a parallel need to the desire for power: the need to know, to understand who we are and what is the purpose of our life. The mind in this state of questioning is the meaning of the word 'soul'.

Moreover, Marber shows us, through Alice, that we can, by distancing ourselves from our egos, free our minds sufficiently from illusion to enable us to respond to this inspiration. He shows us, in other words, that we have free will to choose between desire and truth and their consequences, illusion and reality. And the means whereby this distancing is achieved is by adopting the contrary position to the assertive pride of the self: self-negation, humility, or, in scientific terms, open-mindedness.

But Marber also testifies to the grip that the desire for power has over the human mind. This grip has its force in the fact that desire appears to each of us in a uniquely seductive guise. For the nature of each person's particular desires for power depends on the influence of environment, especially in childhood, when the mind is most susceptible to influence. What's more, the susceptibility of the young mind to influence transforms this early environmental influence into conditioning. And it is this conditioning that makes it so difficult for us to break free from our desires. This is because conditioning leads us to see the desires inculcated in our childhood as especially dear, virtually inseparable from who we are. And, as a result, these desires and, more importantly perhaps, the illusions they give rise to, are loved, a love that invests them with a comforting familiarity and warmth.

Thus, in Harold Pinter's 1958 play The Birthday Party, Goldberg, a human expression of the force of the desire for power, sets out to seduce the incipient artist Stanley Webber back to the particular childhood desires he is attempting to discard by reminding him of that childhood warmth: 'Eh, Webber, what do you say? Childhood. Hot water bottles. Hot milk. Pancakes. Soap suds. What a life'. Later, he makes this point clearer: 'What would your old mum say, Webber?'

Then again: 'Can you feel nostalgia for something that never really existed? I remember growing up here. I remember night lights and a doll's house. I can see them in my mind's eye. And I'm not sure we had either. I find myself aching, longing for it. This half-remembered childhood'.

This last quote comes from the second play I intend to deal with in this article: Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water. The play won the Olivier Award for 'Best New Comedy' when it was showing in London's West End in 2000, and has since been produced in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Tel Aviv and throughout Europe. It was also adapted into a feature film entitled Before You Go and released in 2002.

In the play, three sisters meet in their childhood home on the eve of their mother's funeral. The words quoted come from Mary, who is the recipient of a number of post-mortem appearances from her dead mother, Vi. These visitations testify to the abiding influence that our upbringing has on our mind and the crucial shaping role it plays in the make-up of our ego. 'I made sure you'd get somewhere', Vi tells Mary, who replies: 'I listened. I did what you wanted', before Vi illustrates the conditioning cycle that ensures each of us stays trapped in a family web (Stanley Webber) of desire and illusion:
 Vi: I got it from my mother. She got it from her mother. And on it
 goes, so far back that we don't know who began it or on what
 impulse, but we do it, we can't help it ... Don't try and
 reinvent yourself with me. I know who you are.
 Mary: You don't know anything.
 Vi: I look at you and I see myself.
 Mary: Have you finished?
 Vi: Never.

Vi sees herself living on in her daughter, which is an expression of her own desire for power. Mary, meanwhile, though desperate to free herself from her mother's influence, aches to do the same to her own child.

Similarly, Goldberg, in The Birthday Party, ultimately--and absurdly--justifies his seduction of Stanley Webber by calling to mind the conditioning of generations of parents: 'I knew the word I had to remember--Respect! Because ... who came before your father? His father. And who came before him? Before him? ... (Vacant--triumphant.) Who came before your father's father but your father's father's mother! Your great-gran-granny'.

This is not to say that parents or other influential people in a child's upbringing are consciously part of some great conspiracy to corrupt the young. Like many parents, Vi argues that she simply wants what's best for her child, that she tried to prepare her children for survival in a world where the desire for power is the abiding force. Thus, when Mary complains of her mother: 'I don't know how she managed to give birth to three daughters and then send us out into the world so badly equipped', her sister Teresa counters with: 'She must have taught us something, otherwise we'd all be dead'.

But influencing a child to survive or 'to get somewhere' is simply to sustain the ego, which leaves no room for the inspiration of truth. 'My mother's like the ghost in the machine', as Mary says. 'She goes through us like wine through water. Whether we like it or not'.

This explains the meaning of the play's title. Yet, if The Memory of Water is necessarily a painful play, considering the bleak reality of the human condition it reveals, its effect is ultimately positive. For, like Arcadia, Closer and The Birthday Party, it testifies to our free will to choose between truth and desire. Thus, when Mary's conditioned illusions are brought to final disillusionment and she to despair, Vi is on hand in a new liberated guise as guiding angel to offer, in what must be one of the truly great lines of world literature, a dose of reality as an antidote to the tendency to despair so well described in the plays of Samuel Beckett:
 Vi: Despair is the last refuge of the ego.

Despair, in other words, is only negative from the illusory point of view of the ego. From the perspective of mankind's parallel love of truth, it can be the prelude to freedom by encouraging us to give up our illusions once and for all and embrace the reality revealed by truth.

Both Closer and The Memory of Water, then, like Arcadia before them, are profoundly philosophical works that provide signposts to understanding the nature of reality as it affects man, in a word, Art. Closer may deal with love and human sexual relationships and The Memory of Water with the influence of childhood conditioning, just as different scientists might deal with selected aspects of theoretical physics, gravity or the big bang, for instance. Taken together, however, they provide persuasive evidence that the search for artistic understanding is every bit as focused--and productive--as is that for scientific explanations. Only, in the case of Art, as Stoppard's literary academic Nightingale would no doubt be quick to point out, their dramatic revelations are all rather more personally relevant--and provable!
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Author:Karwowski, Michael
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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