-->
Books

The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe by Michael Frayn

Bernard Jacobson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

The Human Touch is the latest in a series of blockbuster volumes in which writers from whom you might expect something different have taken on the cosmos, whether conceived physically or in intellectual terms.


The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe

Publisher: Metropolitan
ISBN: 0805081488
Author: Michael Frayn
Price: $32.50
Length: 512
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-02
Amazon

Questions, I often tell listeners when I am lecturing, are much more interesting than answers. For anyone who agrees with that pronouncement, this book will be the happiest of hunting-grounds. I have lived with it now for some weeks, and I should not care to hazard a guess whether the questions it raises number merely in the thousands or in the tens of thousands.

The Human Touch is the latest in a series of blockbuster volumes in which writers from whom you might expect something different -- in 2004, the American Bill Bryson with A Short History of Nearly Everything, and more recently, the Australian-born Clive James in Cultural Amnesia -- have taken on the cosmos, whether conceived physically or in intellectual terms.

With the Englishman Michael Frayn, it would be hard even to guess at what we might expect his next trick to be. The author of 10 novels and 14 plays, he has also published translations from French and Russian literature, created scripts for film and television, and written nonfiction books of essentially philosophical character. His gift ranges comprehensively from the profoundly serious (as in the award-winning play Copenhagen, which succeeds in discussing problems of physics for two hours without ever losing its grip, even on a scientific know-nothing like me) to the rib-ticklingly hilarious (as in the farce Noises Off). And he can often mine these disparate veins simultaneously, as in Headlong, a novel about the supposed finding of a "lost" Brueghel canvas.

Whatever else, then, he can certainly be expected to come up with the unexpected, and that is, indeed, the word for this fascinating treatise, profoundly conceived yet written with the lightest of touches and with many a flash of wit. His thesis -- oversimplified here to the point of absurdity -- is that the universe, in any respect in which it can be described in words or ordered through scientific laws, is a human creation.

In examining this conviction through 505 closely argued pages (including 61 pages of notes that scrupulously document his encyclopedic reading), Frayn refuses to leave any obvious thought or any "received" idea unexamined. He doesn't just examine: Framing the argument for the most part in questions, he worries his material with the persistence of a terrier attacking a bone, turns every thought in every conceivable direction, rejects one facile conclusion after another. Some readers may find this infuriating. I found it absolutely riveting.

Does he succeed in proving his point? Of course not -- in a context of all-pervasive unverifiability, such a success would rank as failure. His first chapter, "Prospectus," begins: "You look up at the stars on a calm, clear night ..."; his last, "Conspectus," ends: "Look up at the stars on a calm, clear night. ..."

The questions in the book exist to be asked, not to be answered. For me, this is not in the least frustrating -- the whole exercise is a mighty work of investigation that may well clear many a reader's head, as it certainly has cleared mine, of lazy thought processes unexamined for years.

On nothing is Frayn better than on such subjects as the laws of physics. "Laws," he pithily declares, "determine nothing, even if they express aspects of the universe which are themselves determined." But let me reassure you: He is no nut case. Among the book's many cogent propositions, the nub of that particular argument may be found in this passage:

So the supposedly universal causality on which the laws of nature depend has no more existence than the laws themselves, outside the manmade expression of it. ... Something is out there, though, which is independent of us! That something can only be the universe itself, the great theatre of space and time in which the events given dramatic form by the concepts of laws and causality are played out. This must be a structure that endures, like any theatre, whether there is an audience in the house or not.

The laws of nature, in other words, are not something that makes what happens in nature happen, but merely the best humankind can do by way of describing and codifying such happenings.

"The world around us," Frayn observes, "is irregular and confused. Its most enduring and solid features turn out to be transient and deliquescent to the touch. Its fabric is a series of events, fleshed out in our minds from an even sketchier set of events" -- events, not things.

"Too many nouns" was the rallying cry I adopted in my philosophy-student days. The world is better understood as process than as entity. When someone says, "Oh, yes, I have Mozart's 40th symphony," he is speaking very loosely. As Frayn puts it, "Music exists as a performance in time. Possessing a recording of it means that we can command that performance at will; but however often we do so command it, the performance still begins, occurs, passes and ceases."

This brilliant, quirky philosophical inquiry seems closer to art than to science -- often, in the pages of The Human Touch, one of Frayn's points arouses memories of something a poet or novelist has said. An allusion here or there may call up memory of something we have read in John Fowles (on the chaos of the 16th-century street scene, in The French Lieutenant's Woman), or William Golding (on the never-ending search for the real beginning of any event, in The Spire), or Wallace Stevens ("When the blackbird flew out of sight, / It marked the edge / Of one of many circles," in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird), or Louis MacNeice ("a false coin / Presumes a true mint somewhere," in Autumn Journal, I think).

"In the sense in which I give the world being," Frayn says, "I bring it into being with my birth, and extinguish it with my death" -- or, as A.E. Housman put it, "Here is a knife ... I need but stick it in my heart / And down will come the sky, / And earth's foundations will depart / And all you folk will die."

Science studies the world, and us. Literature shows us how to look at it, and at ourselves. The Human Touch offers a panoramic view across both kinds of observation. Read it, and you may come to look at the world differently.

Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image