Brian Cox? Paul Broks? Do you know each other? You should talk….

Because you have something in common.  You’re both trying to cast some light, from very different perspectives, on those age old questions: Who are we?  Where do we come from? What are we made of?

“A human is made of the same stuff as a rock; a fish of the same stuff as the Earth; the sky of the same stuff as the oceans….. You and I are made from the same basic material as the whole universe… part of the universe is in you and in me…” as Professor Brian Cox says, from the perspective of particle physics, in Wonders of the Universe.  He brings a personal and poetic quality to his subject that is probably the only way that particle physics could interest me.  (Or that I could just about understand).  Cox views these questions from the furthest physical external point: the vastness of the physical universe.

In striking contrast, Professor Paul Broks, neurologist and psychologist, considers questions of human consciousness from the deepest internal point: the human brain and the human heart.  Like Cox, he has the ability to express his erudite knowledge with a poetic sensibility,  making it accessible and understandable to a wider, general audience.  In his extraordinary book “ Into the Silent Land,”  Broks quotes in full a poem that inspired him when he was an undergraduate.  The poem, written by poet physician Dannie Abse, is based on the true and harrowing experience, of his father Dr Wilfred Abse, assisting surgeon Lambert Rogers during a brain operation in 1918.  The patient, under local anaesthetic, was fully awake throughout the operation.

In the Theatre, by Dannie Abse

Sister saying – “Soon you’ll be back on the ward,”
Sister thinking – “Only two more on the list,”
The patient saying, “Thank you, I feel fine;”
Small voices, small lies, nothing untoward,
Though, soon, he would blink again and again
Because of the fingers of Lambert Rogers,
Rough as a blind man, inside his soft brain.

If items of horror can make a man laugh
Then laugh at this: one hour later, the growth
Still undiscovered, ticking its own wild time;
More brain mashed because of the probe’s Braille path;
Lambert Rogers desperate, fingering still;
His dresser thinking, “Christ! Two more on the list,
A cisternal puncture and a neural cyst.”

Then, suddenly, the cracked record in the brain,
A ventriloquist that cried, “You sod,
Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,” –
The patient’s dummy lips moving to that refrain,
The patient’s eyes too wide. And, shocked,
Lambert Rogers drawing out the probe
With nurses, students, sister, petrified.

“Leave my soul alone, leave my soul alone,”
that voice so arctic and that cry so odd
had nowhere else to go – till the antique
gramophone wound down and the words began
to blur, and slow, “…leave……..soul…..alone….”
to cease at last when something other died.
And silence matched the silence under snow.

Scientists becoming inspiring creative writers, the reverse of a pattern we are more used to: novelists researching a specialist topic, in an attempt to write a convincing story.  It could easily be argued that the central topic of literature is human consciousness, one way or another, at least implicitly.  In recent years, several authors have written more explicitly on psychological themes: Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks, for example.  Or Saturday by Ian McEwan, with a central character, Harry Perowne who is a neurosurgeon: McEwan attended a real live brain operation as part of his research.  Some psychologists are now well known novelists: Sylvia Brownrigg and Salley Vickers are both writers with a gift for expressing psychological themes with profound subtlety, The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers being the finest illustration of this.

When John Mitchinson (now of QI fame, previously of Orion Publishing and Waterstones fame), read and commented on an early draft of Honor’s Ghost (which will be the sequel to Honor’s Shadow) he said:

“I got a real sense that you were trying to do something original and important – to re-channel the understanding we derive from therapeutic practice and the latest neuroscientific research back into fiction. It’s usually the other way round: professionals taking people’s stories or myths and transforming into them into theory. By reversing the polarity you might be creating a new species of fiction that actually helps people to live richer, more reflective lives (although some science fiction writers would claim they have always done this). But to do it without delivering a sterile, programmatic novel is a huge challenge  and it seems  to me you have made an impressive start.”

The ability to convey deep expert  knowledge through an artistic sensibility is a lot harder than it appears: it’s like trying to speak two languages simultaneously.   As I make my own painstaking efforts, in Honor’s Shadow,  to communicate insights from depth psychology through compelling stories, the ease and grace with which Cox and Broks are able to weave together art and science to create a new perspective are my inspiration.

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