Monday, October 01, 2012

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

For some time in Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears, it is quite difficult to identify the precise theme. Near the end, however, it is made clear in a key conversation between the main protagonists (held, significantly, over the telephone rather than face-to-face – the problem of communication is a secondary theme in the novel).

Catherine Gehrig, a conservator of horology at the Swinburne Museum in London and the narrator of half the story, calls her boss, the avuncular Eric Croft, for advice. It is specific advice she seeks, on a Latin translation, although it is clear that Catherine really needs an outlet for her emotions. Eric says to her: “I find the notion that mysteries must be solved to be very problematic.” He goes on: “Every curator finally learns that the mysteries are the point.” Aha! So we’re in the field of mysteries, then, we’re in metaphysics, we’re confronting the eternal questions. “Why do we always wish to remove ambiguitity?” Eric continues. “Without ambiguity you have Agatha Christie, a sort of aesthetic whodunnit. But look at any Rothko. You can look and look but you never get past the vacillations and ambiguities of colour and form and surface.” How very Careyian, you have to say, to distil the mysteries of the universe into a single Rothko canvas. On this occasion, however, it is a weak image. It is a typical of Carey to invoke high art to bestow gravitas on a concept and, in most instances, it works: when that concept is the nature of existence itself, however, the conceit comes close to bathos.

However, that is to quibble. The significant thing is that here, it seems, the novel is taking us into theological territory. This is somewhat surprising, as it is not traditional Carey material, and we shall return to this point later.

Catherine is grieving after the sudden death of the museum’s Head Curator, with whom she has had a thirteen year affair. Her boss, Eric Croft, the only person who knew of the affair, tries to help by assigning to her a new and prestigious project. Consequently, she begins conservation work on what appears to be a spectacular automaton duck. Packed alongside the automaton’s machinery are the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Victorian patron for whom the automaton was built as a play-thing and health-aid for his consumptive son. Brandling’s notebooks form the second strand of the narrative. It is clear that the automaton – which Catherine discovers is actually a swan, rather than a duck – is of exceptionally high quality and technically it is remarkably advanced. It is designed to move around in a water-filled hull, eating fish and grain, digesting it and and finally defecating the excreta. What we have, then, is a mimetic representation of the natural life-cycle, inevitably suggesting notions of a creator and the created, what it is to be alive, ideas of free will and control, life and death and so on: the mystery of life recreated, in other words.

There is more. The novel explores surfaces, truths. Written on the automaton, in Latin, is the inscription “What you see cannot be seen.” Again, this takes us to the sense of mystery. Nothing we know in life is truly known to us, because we do not – cannot – know what comes after: there is never any clarity or truth, no matter how close we feel we may be to understanding something. Again, the automaton is a powerful image here: it is in poor repair, its parts disarticulated and stored in eight wooden tea chests. Many years later, conservators try to rebuild it, not understanding what it is for, not knowing the story behind its creation. That story is gradually revealed to us through Brandling’s notebooks but, once again, truth serves only to obscure: the final answer is, as it must always be, elusive. Mystery remains.

As a meditation on what it means to be human, then, for that is what the novel is, The Chemistry of Tears has all the necessary elements for a persuasive study. It almost comes off. In Brandling’s notebooks, he describes the work of Sir Albert Cruikshank, a pioneering inventor on whose work much of the technology behind his swan is based. Cruikshank, it transpires, is something of a visionary, residing somewhere in that debatable land between genius and lunacy.

We are presented with Cruickshank’s great invention, the Mysterium Tremendum. Clearly, since most critics agree Cruikshank is based on Charles Babbage, this wooden counting machine appears to be the precursor of the modern computer. The Mysterium Tremendum, therefore, is the key to the two principal strands of philosophical thought that the novel seeks to explore and it is these two strands or, more importantly, the interconnectedness of these two strands, that leads to the ultimate weakness of The Chemistry of Tears.

Mysterium tremendum is a phrase coined by Rudolph Otto to explore the mystery that must pertain in religion, through which rational thought must be submerged beneath a sense of awe at the numinous nature of the deity. By numinous, Otto means the religious experience itself, and the response it invokes in us. There are different ways the numinous can affect us, one of which is a sense of dread, or the Mysterium Tremendum, a sense of fear of a completely different order from any mortal fear. CS Lewis describes it thus:

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told "There is a ghost in the next room," and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is "uncanny" rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply "There is a mighty spirit in the room" and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.
That Carey has chosen to call Cruikshank’s instrument the Mysterium Tremendum, something evoking a sense of awe in the deity, is clearly not accidental. Therefore, we must suppose that he is using his novel to explore the tension between our mortal lives and the awful uncertainty about what comes before and beyond. The spectre of death hangs over both narrative strands – Catherine’s dead lover and Brandling’s dying son. In each strand, neither protagonist is in control of their lives and, for neither, their final destination is what they would have wished. Linking them both is the swan, the beautiful and mysterious symbol of the numinous, that awe-inspiring representation of a created life.

But, having taken us on this journey towards (but never into) the unknown, the novel loses impetus. Why? Because of the second thematic strand in the narrative.

This is a jeremiad about the power and inherent dangers of technology and progress. We have Cruikshank’s machine, the Mysterium Tremendum, of course, and all that must follow from the digital revolution we are still living through. But, more than this, Carey dilutes the impact of his narrative with a very contemporary but wholly inappropriate environmental theme. Alarm bells ring early on when Amanda, a (none too convincing) secondary character, is fixated on the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. At first, one wonders whether this was happening as Carey was writing the novel, and he slipped it in for verisimilitude but, it becomes increasingly obvious, this environmental disaster is a central element of the plot.

And as soon as this happens the novel loses its gravitas. The mysterium tremendum, the mystery of the before and the beyond, is relegated into a trite argument about environmental stewardship. Catherine concludes, near the end, that Brandling’s notebooks are “a critique of the Industrial Revolution”. And so the mysterium tremendum, the awe in the face of the unknown, is reduced to a hollow and secular complaint about the nature of modernity. This, to me, is absurd. If you are going to invoke the ultimate questions, don’t weaken the argument by shoehorning them into something less significant. Global warming may be a genuine concern, mankind may well be on the road to destroying the planet but, in metaphysical terms, these developments are inconsequential. Ultimately, they make no difference. They might to us, poor bloody humans, for sure, but if, in your novel, you are raising the question of there being something more significant than human beings, some motivating force, divine or otherwise, then to hook the novel’s conclusions on the fate of humanity is to completely fail to develop the point that you have elaborately tried to establish. This is bathos writ large. And this is exactly what happens to the narrative of The Chemistry of Tears.

It calls into question the whole environmental movement at present, the way it is being turned into a secular religion. Humanity has a habit of doing this, elevating whatever the principal concern of the day might be into a position of such import it becomes all-encompassing. It led, in Victorian times, to science and rationalism being bastardised into the ugliness of positivism. Now, the perfectly sensible desire to secure effective stewardship of natural resources is elevated into a whole new religion of nature. There is so much self-serving nonsense about this. The environmentalists are “saving the planet”, man is evil, the environment is everything, the environment is God. But this is essentially hypocricy: the planet existed for millennia before mankind first took its breath and it will survive for millennia after we’re gone: it needs no worship, it needs no saving. The only thing that needs saving is big, bad mankind, the very thing the environmental movement purports to oppose. There is something obscene about the way environmentalism is being turned into a religion. For that reason, I no longer like the term that William Golding coined for Jim Lovelock’s inspirational theories, Gaia. It invests a religious sensibility in something that should be secular.

The concept of a mysterium tremendum is, even for an atheist like me, a worthwhile area of study. Eric, in The Chemistry of Tears, is right: some mysteries do not require resolution, the mystery is all. The before and the beyond of our lives cannot be explicated: that is what religion is, whether or not one subscribes to the notion of a god. There must be some element of transcendence, whether that be a divine transcendence into the company of God, or a rationalist transcendence into nothingness. The environmental cause is by its nature, immanent, irrevocably rooted on this planet, this time, this realm of understanding. Why make it more mysterious? The Chemistry of Tears begins to explore fascinating territory but, somewhere along the line, it runs out of confidence and thematically it slides into disappointment. This is a great pity because, stylistically, as you would expect from any novel by the brilliant Peter Carey, it is a very fine piece of writing.

1 comment:

Jeff Cann said...

I came to you blog in hopes of better understanding what exactly happened at the end of the story. Unfortunately, your write up just left me with more questions. However, I did enjoy your rant on environmentalism as a religion and the accurate point you made that we are not trying to save the planet, but simply ourselves. So very true (and IMO, way too late).