15 February 2022

Schrödinger's cat was a zombie


When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press, 2020) 


Amateur Reader teased the Sebaldian tendencies of Benjamín Labatut's Anthropocene novel of verdure. There was simply an overabundance of associations in the novel. The first part, for example, on the blue pigment Prussian blue, had the breathless pace of curated details on art and science chained together in journalistic fashion, laced with bitter irony, and fueled by the inexhaustible capacity of human beings (scientists, particularly) to ingeniously engineer human cruelty (in wars or otherwise) at a massive scale. The kinetic sentences moved along like unstable noble gases spreading and branching in every direction and circling around ideas the narrative will return to time and again in the remaining four parts.





A sentence could leave a trail of associations, threaded by the splendor of ironical statements about fallible mankind and his folly.

An ingredient in Dippel’s elixir would eventually produce the blue that shines not only in Van Gogh’s Starry Night and in the waters of Hokusai’s Great Wave, but also on the uniforms of the infantrymen of the Prussian army, as though something in the colour’s chemical structure invoked violence: a fault, a shadow, an existential stain passed down from those experiments in which the alchemist dismembered living animals to create it, assembling their broken bodies in dreadful chimeras he tried to reanimate with electrical charges, the very same monsters that inspired Mary Shelley to write her masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, in whose pages she warned of the risk of the blind advancement of science, to her the most dangerous of all human arts. 

Panning from one proper noun to the next, from one journalistic anecdote to another, from Prussian blue in paintings to literature, Labatut attempted to reanimate historic details in relation to another, sandwiching highly selected facts between layers of human drama and madness. Inevitably, the tone veered toward grand pronouncements about important discoveries. We knew they were important. We knew they must be couched in verdure.

He was convinced that mathematics, physics and astronomy constituted a single body of knowledge and believed that Germany was capable of exercising a civilizing force comparable to that of ancient Greece. To do so, however, its science must be raised to the heights already achieved by its philosophy and art, for “only a vision of the whole, like that of a saint, a madman or a mystic, will permit us to decipher the true organizing principles of the universe.” 

In a way, Labatut was after that singular holistic vision. But what of his organizing principle in this fictional creation? What structure behind the scientific revolutions did he want to build? 

One could talk about its form. There was innovation there enough. The novelist admitted in the afterword about the nonfictional elements and situations becoming more and more relaxed by the end of the narrative. Real facts and events were losing their foothold: the "motifs" fully revealed and taking over at the end and synthesizing the whole invention. 

Here may be a unique specimen of fiction. Here we encountered a form of literary criticism of science, or criticism applied to scientific ideas generated by mad geniuses of the day, giving rise to philosophical and historical and dare I say artistic consequences.

The novelist happened to assemble his elements--his artful method to madness and precise craziness--around these motifs, which were the "stitch" made to hold the found materials. The novelist happened to assemble dark and Important Historical Motifs such as death by gas in the first and second world wars; a glimpse into the fundamental nature of matter; excess nutrients giving rise to a speculative apocalyptic event in the future where a terrible vegetation will colonize the world and dominate the food chain; the abyss (black hole) engulfing everything; the uncertainty principle and what it implies about the unpredictability of quantum objects.

Let's not talk about form: five separate yet interconnected tales. The organizing principle was discrete "motifs". Sometimes, powerful connections were unleashed, but with the insistence on falling back to a predetermined set of motifs. The recurrence of thematic concepts/images came to be expected and "only connect" became a predictable pastime for the reader. 

About his method, the novelist shared in an interview that "What I did was combine things that are true by themselves but not true as a whole." With only connect as the animating principle to create the fictional whole, this may or may not be an approximation of the aesthetics of Labatut's prominent literary model. In an interview, W. G. Sebald shared his aesthetics of falsification in his prose fiction.

The truth value of the story does not depend on its actual truth content. The truth value depends on how it is framed and phrased. If a story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right. You cannot really translate one to one from reality. If you try to do that, in order to get at a truth value through writing, you have to falsify and lie. And that is one of the moral quandaries of the whole business. [emphasis added]

Sebald demarcated the lines not between truth and fiction but between "truth content" and "truth value" in fiction and acknowledged that fiction writing using actual truth contents as the material ballast of the writing was always about making moral choices and moral judgements. Right or wrong was not based on actual truth content of the writing but depended on the gut feel of what is aesthetically right, the framing and phrasing (read: stitching) possibly giving indications of the writing's truth value. It's all questionable, Sebald admitted. 

The differentiation between what is powerfully true and what is blatantly false in writing could come down to whether the aesthetics felt right. This could justify the whole business of falsification. In a narrative of nested associations, did the connections seem organically connected to each other or did they seem forced or foisted on the reader? The moment one made an association, there was already an appeal to recognize the artificial connection. At the simplest level, a metaphor linking two ideas could be considered as original or novel if it burst the bubble of familiarity. A trap for novels discussing physics, especially the quantum world, and also mathematics, lay in the way they aspire to profundity in laymanizing science and equations so as not to disappear into the abyss of abstractions. The writer had to carefully work out practical metaphors and apply them to the ungraspable concepts of fundamental particles.

But Heisenberg knew they were all wrong. Electrons were neither waves nor particles. The subatomic world was unlike anything they had ever known. Of this he was utterly certain, his conviction running so deep that he was incapable of putting it into words. Because something had been revealed to him. Something that defied all explanation. Heisenberg had glimpsed a dark nucleus at the heart of things. And if that vision was not true, had all his suffering been in vain? [emphasis supplied]

Parts of When We Cease to Understand the World were precious writing, in both good and bad ways. We could observe see how metaphors break down when discussing scientific insights or the rigors of knowledge and madness, how it could only ever recycle clichés about certain paradoxes behind the equations, repeat the same astonishments that greeted the shock of discovery and recognition, resurrect the stereotypical behaviors of obsessed, erratic, intelligent, mad scientists. Science has the capacity to advance ways of life and at the same time undo it. Similarly, metaphors could certainly advance the interest of the novel and at the same time efficiently undo it. 

Labatut was always re-formulating his ideas, offering elegant variations of the same concepts through contrived re-echoes. From "fistful of equations" to "handful of equations", he would map out the genius's propensity for acquiring knowledge and building upon the works of others and somehow, tragically, describe how circumstances would fail the genius, ceasing to understand the world or what being human meant or failing to identify with other human beings, allowing the deaths of unimaginable number of innocent civilians in wars. During the most critical moments, the best scientists who were granted free agency, the will to decide, to select the most appropriate course action, almost always fucked up.

As to detecting the truth value behind something already designed with the ends (motifs) in mind, the novelist could only rely on the readers' shallow powers of association to: (1) recognize the obvious paradoxes and ethical dilemmas of science, and (2) unravel an artificial synthesis of scientific breakthroughs in the dark ages. The paradox of scientific progress was, of course, the fact that for every forward step toward securing knowledge to better the conditions of humanity, we take two steps backward.

The sudden realization that it was mathematics—not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon—which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant. Not that we ever did, he said, but things are getting worse. We can pull atoms apart, peer back at the first light and predict the end of the universe with just a handful of equations, squiggly lines and arcane symbols that normal people cannot fathom, even though they hold sway over their lives.

With regard to the overall synthesizing effect, the whole novel was afflicted with a kind of eco-anxiety or ecological paranoia. Destructive overabundance (the "terrible verdure") was the novelist's choice of alarmist death knell. Frankly, I would have preferred he tackled the more urgent biodiversity loss or "climate Armageddon", but the hardly cinematic, "invisible" greenhouse gases or vanishing wildlife might not be as colorful or as painterly as the pigments of blue or carbonized black. 

So he stuck to the nutrient overload, product of excess nitrogen fixated in plants, producing man-made imbalance after breaching the limits to growth. The verdure was our apparent doom, a feasible destiny awaiting mankind at civilization's end. But it was not purely anthropogenic it turned out.

What was marvellous but at the same time horrible about the process, the girl said, was that these offspring [of a female aphid] would in turn produce offspring of their own after just a few hours of life; these new creatures were themselves gestating while still inside their mother. Three generations were nestled one inside the other, in a sort of dreadful Russian doll, a super-organism that embodied nature’s tendency to overabundance, which elsewhere compelled certain birds to produce more chicks than they could feed, so that the dominant fledgling would murder its siblings, pushing them from the nest. In some species, such as the shark, it was even worse, Miss Herwig explained, as the eggs hatched inside the mother’s womb, with teeth sufficiently developed to devour the young that came after them; this fratricidal predation gave them the necessary nourishment to survive during the first weeks of life when they were vulnerable enough to be preyed on by the same fish they themselves would feed on as adults. 

Not the most graphic description in the book, but the violence was striking in the evolutionary behavior of aphids, birds, and sharks. Overabundance was also apparently a freak of nature. 

Labatut offered an amusing refresher on maths and physics, with a verdure twist. In combining individual true things to produce a fictional whole, the writer was reanimating a Frankenstein cat: a pastiche cat made of discrete body parts and forming a weird whole. The whole book must resemble a thought experiment gone haywire. In Schrödinger's bloodless experiment, referenced near the end of the title story of the English translation, a paradox was evinced when a cat was considered to be both alive and dead at the same time. One obvious interpretation was that the cat was a zombie. Labatut was reanimating a zombie cat. 


  1. Has he talked somewhere how he went about doing research for this book?

    1. BL read a lot of books and articles on the subject. Either by the scientists/mathematicians themselves or by science writers. These were listed in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book. He consulted blogs of mathematicians and quoted from letters by the scientists.

      He partly discussed his research in the YT interview I linked above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ch9YMmpzQKc&t=1473s

  2. Geez, Rise, you're even rougher than I was. People on Twitter were using the equivalent of hushed tones when discussing this book. Only after I read it did I find more sceptics.

    Labatut talks about his research in the Physics Today interview I found so useful. "You’re looking for darker, stranger meanings."

    1. Oh I quite "liked" the book, with some qualifications. The above post may be a work of fiction, with just one non-fictional paragraph. :)

    2. I liked it a lot, too. But I thought some of the pleasure was on the cheap side.

  3. I can see what you mean. I don’t think I can stand rereading it. The connections made are good but the ideas are nothing new.