Archive for March, 2012

In Search of Lost Music

‘Quand ta voix s’envolera

dans le battement des langues

les anciennes dissonances

fleuriront en harmonies’

(‘Le jardin des ages’, Michel Butor par Michel Butor)

It might seem odd to call Passing Time a musical novel.  After all, music is conspicuous by its absence in Bleston.   As Brunel says, ‘rich in references to the art of the stained-glass window, the tapestries, and even the cinema, the text of L’Emploi du Temps is poverty-stricken with regard to musical references’ (Brunel, p. 143).  On the other hand, it is Brunel who calls the book ‘a musical novel’ (p. 17).

In the fog of Bleston, music can’t find a place.  Revel sees in the stained glass windows of the Old Cathedral the ancestors of industry and music but in contemporary Bleston, ‘city of weavers and metal workers’, he asks ‘what has become of your musicians?’ (p. 73).   Later, he describes how in these same windows, ‘everything was taking place in silence … the looms wove in silence, the hammers forged in silence, the musicians mimed their sounds in silence’.  The silence is broken, as his earlier revery is, by mechanical noise, the screech and then the siren of a police car.  Music in Bleston is stifled – lost in the labyrinth-city which makes Revel mute, and the woman he loves deaf to him – and the only real music Revel hears in the city is Horace Buck’s harmonica, plaintively recalling long-ago voyages in distant lands, music which unequivocally does not belong there.

The structure of the novel is based on the musical canon, ‘one of the fundamental structures of polyphony, … with reversals, with mirrors … These are the fundamental structures of our perception of time.’ (Curriculum Vitae, p. 74), or perhaps the more complex structure of the fugue, which allows more possibilities for variation.   In Passing Time there are five parts, or voices.    The twelve months of Revel’s stay in Bleston form our scale, and each of the five sections (each of which is also subdivided into five), move up and down this scale.   In part 1 Revel starts writing in May to describe the events of October, in part 2, he’s writing in June, weaving together memories of November with events in June, and so on, as in each part a new voice joins in, until in the final part, we have his contemporary account interwoven with memories of five other months.  As Mary Lydon suggests, Passing Time illustrates Bergson‘s ‘melodic concept of duration’: ‘the indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody where the past comes into the present and forms with it a whole undivided and even indivisible, despite what is added to it at each instant, or rather, thanks to what is added to it’ (Lydon, p. 94).

These musical structures are potentially infinite and so the endings are in a sense arbitrary, as in the novel. As Wilfred Mellers has said of Messiaen’s harmonically centred, static technique, which ‘evades the concept of beginning, middle and end’, ‘there is no reason why [these pieces] – any more than a Gothic motet or the improvisation of an Indian vina player – should ever stop’.  When Revel leaves Bleston, he leaves us with the lacunae in his story unfilled, the mysteries unresolved, the book ends as the train pulls out of the station, just as it began with the train’s arrival.  If Revel’s writing has saved him, therefore, it’s the act, the process, rather than what he has written.  ‘Writing in the labyrinth is … the only true way to try to recover the lost music’ (Brunel, 144), to achieve ‘new harmonic days’.   Revel’s journal creates ‘a whole series of resonances of varying intensity separated by broad intervals of silence, like the harmonics into which the timbre of a sound is broken up’ (p. 281).

So, despite the failure of his quest (he loses the women he loves, and he leaves with his narrative unfinished), he has restored Bleston’s lost music, by triggering these harmonics.  For Revel, and for Butor, to write is to live, so Revel predicts for Bleston that ‘my silent words may begin to echo through all your rafters, so that your own silent words may at last achieve passionate utterance’ (p. 260).

For Butor music represents the aim of all the arts.    It’s ‘not an idle diversion, … music is indispensable to our life, to all our lives…  it teaches us, even at its haughtiest, its most apparently detached, something about the world, that musical grammar is a grammar of the real, that songs transform life’ (‘La Musique, Art Realiste’).

Subsequent blogs will explore Butor’s relationship with music more fully, in relation to his other works, and I’ll also return to the Butor-Sebald connection in this context.   More, much more, to follow….

Michel Butor, ”La Musique, Art Realiste’, Répertoire (Minuit, 1960)

–    Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)

Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’. Le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)

Wilfred Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968)

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Butor – the movie!

Well, ok, it’s a documentary/interview, not a Hollywood biopic.

Blandine Armand is a French documentary maker whose primary area of interest is the process of artistic creation, and who has made a number of documentaries about film directors for Arte.  Her portrait of Michel Butor was broadcast recently on France 5.

Telerama’s review (see attached) says that Butor ‘continues to develop an oeuvre that is lively and erudite, including prose, poetry, essays and collaborations with visual artists.  Intelligence, passion, simplicity and goodwill radiate from this delightful man, to whom this portrait does full justice’.


I will provide details of availability on DVD as soon as I’ve tracked it down.

Click to access ExtraitS-presse-doc-Butor.pdf

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Parallel Geography – Marc Jurt & Michel Butor exhiibition, Lyon, 13 July – 23 September

The Lyon Printing Museum and the Fondation Marc Jurt pay tribute to the great draftsman, printmaker and Swiss painter, who died in 2006. Professor at the College de Saussure and an avid traveller, Marc Jurt met Michel Butor, a writer he admired, and began a collaborative work. The museum presents some fifty paintings, regarded as the highlights of his production produced between 1994 and 1995.

Collaboration is a vital aspect of Butor’s oeuvre, and his work with visual artists, which in a way began with a very early (1945) piece on Max Ernst, continued and grew, encompassing words about, words to go alongside, and ultimately words within the visual works. The list of artists with whom he collaborated in this way is lengthy – there are around 200 – and includes Alechinsky, Starisky, Kolar, Maccheroni, Monory (see Elinor Miller’s book Prisms & Rainbows for more about three of these).  Butor chooses to make his home close to a border (between France and Switzerland) and the idea of crossing or blurring frontiers is key to his ‘oeuvres croisées’.


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Reading the Detectives

What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts.  The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment.  The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.

To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them.  The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle.  We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly.  In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.

If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative.  Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).

The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny.  In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical.  The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33).  Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’,  to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime?  (McDonough, 101).

Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel.  But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air.  Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed.  Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4).  The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it.  According to Burton, he is:

‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)

The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel).   Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).

Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it.  The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.

The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.)  Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54).  But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55).  The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’.  More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:

‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral.  It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).

The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does.  Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.

The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too.  Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency.  As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).

Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it.   But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery.  If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved.  Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical.   There is no return to the harmony of an established order.  But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:

‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them.  Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)

Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)

–   Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)

Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)

Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)

Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)

Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)

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Musing on The Nine Muses: some first thoughts on John Akomfrah’s film

It will take more than one viewing to do justice to John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, time to mull over the images, the words, the sounds.  But some preliminary thoughts are in order.

I first heard about this film when it featured in Sheffield’s DocFest programme last year, but didn’t manage to see it, and have been looking out for it ever since.  So much about that brief blurb rang bells for me. John Akomfrah himself is a Ghanaian, born in 1957, so the same age as Ghana (and as me).   The theme, migration, is one that fascinates me, and in particular the response of my home country to the people who’ve arrived on its doorstep from all over the world, those who’ve been invited, those who’ve come here in hope, those who’ve come here in desperation.   And I love the idea of exploring this through words, sounds and images drawn from sources as diverse as those people.

John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses

The images are powerful and beautiful, whether they are of wintry Alaskan landscapes (‘a cold coming they had of it’) or of Ugandan Asians stepping off the plane, of solitary anonymous figures dressed in primary colours against the whites and greys of winter, or in black against the urban industrial or dockland settings.  The words, though often familiar (from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer) are thrown into an unfamiliar light by being set against these images, and against the soundtrack which blends industrial sounds with music from Purcell to Part to Bollywood soundtracks.  This intertextuality and interweaving creates ambiguities, jarring juxtapositions and unexpected contextualisations.   As the Guardian review commented,

it suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms. In doing so, it invites viewers to reflect on the labels by which history – especially diasporic history – is framed and categorised.”It’s important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and open-endedness,” Akomfrah argues.

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah says (in an interview with Sound and Music):

I am obsessed with archival material: those ghostly traces of lived moments, those pariah images and sounds that now occupy a unique space somewhere between history and myth… How does one begin to say something new about a story everyone claims to know? … what considerations should govern how one constructs a “historical fiction” about events and lives that have been profoundly shaped by what the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott called, “the absence of ruins”? Lives without monuments, without the ‘official’ signature of recognition and interest.  This film is my attempt to suggest what some of those “ruins” might look like, a desire to look into that dark mirror of one’s own past in search of images, ideas, writers and music with which to construct such a monument.

I thought often whilst watching the shots from the 60s of an earlier migrant, Horace Buck, from Michel Butor’s Passing Time.  Horace is an African in Bleston (Manchester) in the early 50s, isolated from what would seem to be his fellows because they are mostly from Sierra Leone, and he is not (we do not find out where, his story starts as he arrives in England, just as that of his French counterpart does).  Horace and Jacques are drawn together because both are isolated exiles, and Horace’s bitter, sardonic, smoky laugh punctuates the narrative, as he introduces Jacques to the bars and arcades that he frequents, where his money is welcome but he is not.   He is a generous man, insistent on offering Jacques his hospitality, and even securing lodgings for him, but his generosity and dignity are constantly met with rebuffs.  The landlady he finds for Jacques can’t know that he was involved as she regards all of his kind as ‘black devils’.  Jacques’ friends are at best uneasy and at worst openly horrified at their association.   Horace finds solace in the arms of a succession of English girls and in the music of his harmonica, and, possibly, revenge in minor acts of arson.   There’s no polemic here, no overt social commentary (less so than in Butor’s later work on the USA, Mobile, where he uses the texts of treaties with the Native Americans, amongst other found sources, or in his collaboration with composer Henri Pousseur, which uses protest songs).  Here too, as in Akomfrah’s film, the story of this exile trudging the streets of a dismal city, is intercut with mythic narratives, of Theseus and the Minotaur, of Cain and his brother, of Oedipus and his father.

So many of Akomfrah’s images are in my mind now.  The empty icy landscapes and the faces, hopeful, anxious, resigned.  The voices too – patrician tones reciting Shakespeare – ‘this sceptred isle’ – Leontyne Price and Paul Robeson, a West Indian migrant speaking of the gulf between the paradise he hoped for and the reality he encountered.  Polyphony.

Trailer here:

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Uncertainty – physics, ethics and politics

Once you start thinking about labyrinths they crop up everywhere.  Just recently the context was crime fiction, particularly of the noir variety (to be another blog, soon).   The other night, it was memory, memories of a specific encounter, that between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former protege Werner Heisenberg, in September (or was it October?) 1941.   As the protagonists, aided and challenged by Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, try to ‘follow the threads right back to the beginning of the maze’ (p.56), the answers they seek elude them as soon as they seem to be within reach.   Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, just ended at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield (part of a season of his work), entwines physics, philosophy and politics (and is the only evening at the theatre I can recall when interval chat in the bar concerned semiconductor-based quantum optical memories).

Henry Goodman and Geoffrey Streatfeild in Copenhagen

The play starts with a question – why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 – and the possible answers put forward by all three protagonists are diverse and contradictory, but not mutually exclusive (complementarity theory at work).  Did H, then working in Nazi Germany, want to recruit B to help with their atomic weapons programme?  To pump him for information about either the science or the progress being made by British and American scientists working in the field?  To warn or offer him some sort of protection from Nazi racial policies?  To seek absolution and forgiveness? Perhaps all of the above.  But as they re-run and redraft the encounter, the moral certainties become muddied, and clear again, repeatedly.

The play has been criticised for leaving us with these questions unanswered.  For some, there’s no ambiguity at all – Heisenberg was a German patriot, who supported Hitler’s war aims, and his nuclear programme.  Frayn’s human and conflicted portrayal is therefore a form of revisionism.   I didn’t read it like that.  The play allows Heisenberg to present a variety of self-justifications – his patriotism, arising out of the humiliation and deprivation that followed the first war, the fact that he did not tell Albert Speer how a bomb could have been made, the fact that he ‘never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person’. Unlike Bohr, who did make some contribution to the Allied nuclear programme, and thus played a ‘small but helpful part in the deaths of a hundred thousand people’ (p.91) at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  However, that Heisenberg presents those self-justifications, or allows them to be presented by the generous-spirited Bohr, does not mean that the audience accepts them, any more than we accept Heisenberg’s equation of the ‘impossibly difficult situation’ faced by Bohr with his own (p.21).

When Heisenberg speaks of the hardships and devastations visited on his country after the first war,  we surely cannot help but think of the hardships and devastation currently being visited by his country on occupied Europe.  When he ducks the occasional challenges about the expulsion of Jewish scientists, about the deaths of fellow-scientist Goudsmit’s parents in Auschwitz (‘He thought I should have done something to save them.  I don’t know what.   So many hands stretching up from the darkness for a lifeline, and no lifeline that could ever reach them’), about the possibility of resistance (‘You think I should have joined the plot against Hitler and got myself hanged like the others. …What would it have achieved?’) do we let him off the hook?  Hardly.   And nor do Bohr and Margrethe.

The only possible claim for absolution would rest in the suggestion that Heisenberg chose not to consider doing a particular calculation knowing that it would have shown the possibility of using fission to create a weapon.   Everything we are told about Heisenberg’s character seems to make this unlikely. David Lindley, in his fascinating book Uncertainty, concludes that Heisenberg was ‘not the man to do practical nuclear physics or engineering’, and had genuinely never figured out how a bomb would work.   He says that ‘this failure transmuted into a story that the Germans, meaning in particular Heisenberg, had turned away from the moral repugnance of building atomic weapons, or had even deliberately misled their political superiors about the feasibility of doing so.  Heisenberg never exactly said this.  He never exactly denied it’ (pp. 221-2).  That he was prepared to allow this suggestion to remain in the air, perhaps even in preference to the suggestion of a scientific failure, scarcely redeems him.  Similarly, when the possibility occurs to Bohr that Heisenberg had directly or indirectly enabled his own escape from Denmark, and those of thousands of Danish Jews – Heisenberg doesn’t confirm or deny this, not exactly.  He says ‘Nothing to do with me, by that time.  I regret to say’, but has earlier claimed Duckwitz from the German Embassy, the man who forewarned the Resistance of the timing for the SS roundup, and reported the entire patrol boat squadron unseaworthy on the night of the escape, as one of ‘his’ men.   Strangely, Heisenberg (in the play) credits Duckwitz with having persuaded the Swedish government to accept the refugees, whereas other sources claim that it was Bohr himself who did so, delaying his own departure from Sweden to the US until he had won that concession.  Uncertainty piled upon uncertainty. In the end, Frayn trusts the audience to draw its own moral conclusions.

From an arts & humanities viewpoint, we tend to see science as a realm of certainties, of clarity and precision.   But, to quote a physicist friend, science is not an exact science.  However, what Heisenberg means by uncertainty is not the fuzzy thing that I might mean by it, even though one of the words he used – Unscharf – does mean blurredness or fuzziness.   It’s about the limitations of measurements – the way in which precision in the measurement of one variable implies a reduced precision in measurement of the related variable, but ‘this ratio, the uncertainty relationship, is itself precisely formulable’ (Frayn, p.98).  In relation to human memories and motivations, obviously, there isn’t a precise ratio.  However, the basic principles that the observer changes the thing observed, that the act of observation determines what is and isn’t observed, lend themselves readily to wider application, and the uncertainty of thoughts is ‘a systematic limitation which cannot even in theory be circumvented’ (Frayn, 99).   Heisenberg and Einstein clashed bitterly over uncertainty – the former insisted that we could not construct ‘an absolute, God’s eye view into the inside of an item’ but merely observe its behaviour, in various ways, and infer what we could from that, whilst the latter maintained that whilst observers might disagree, ‘events retain a distinct and unarguable physicality’ such that a consensus could be arrived at between apparently conflicting accounts and an underlying objectivity persists. (Lindley, 132).  Bohr brought a particular perspective to this ‘inexactness’ – complementarity, the mixing of incommensurable concepts, which have necessary but contradictory roles to play – ‘an unavoidable disharmony’ (Lindley 148).

Bohr and Heisenberg are incommensurable concepts themselves – Heisenberg who skis at speed down the slope, caring only that he gets there, that it works, never caring ‘what got destroyed on the way’, whilst Bohr does ‘seventeen drafts of every slalom’ (pp 24-5).  Bohr revels in the contradictions, whilst Heisenberg lives and breathes paradox and contradiction but ‘can no more see the beauty of them then the fish can see the beauty of the water’ (pp 65-6).

It’s often said that for evil to triumph all that is required is for good men to do nothing.  In this case, just possibly, evil was thwarted by inaction rather than action.   Had Bohr argued the science with Heisenberg in 1941, the latter might have realised the crucial calculation that would enable the bomb to be built in time for Hitler to use it.   Margrethe suggests that this was ‘the last and greatest act of friendship’, to leave Heisenberg misunderstood.   In the Lyceum production, as the final redraft takes place, and this time Bohr doesn’t walk away, but asks him why he is so confident that building a bomb would be ‘reassuringly difficult’, in the background we hear a low booming sound, increasing in volume as Heisenberg stops and says ‘Hold on’ and  ‘a very different and very terrible new world begins to take shape’ (p.89).

The Lyceum production was wonderfully performed by Henry Goodman, Geoffrey Streatfeild and Barbara Flynn, and, as Jonathan Brown said in the Independent, ‘the sheer intelligence of the drama and its subject matter is a thing of beauty’ (9/3/12).  It makes demands on its audience, it challenges, but it’s also moving and haunting, and terribly hard to forget.

If I’ve misrepresented science in any of the above, I humbly beg its forgiveness.

Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (London: Methuen, 2003)

David C Cassidy, ‘A Historical Perspective on Copenhagen’,

David Lindley, Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science (NY: Doubleday, 2007)



Celebrating Butor

It’s good to see that, whilst many of his books are out of print in translation, Butor is still being celebrated internationally.  Last week he was in New York to receive the 2012 NYU Presidential medal, and to be interviewed by Professor Lois Oppenheimer, who’s an expert on his work.  The event took place at the Gallatin School of Individualised Study, which seems highly appropriate, and also relates to celebrations of Rousseau‘s 300th birthday and of links with Geneva, which connects Rousseau, Gallatin and Butor himself. NYU Local has a nice piece about the event, which gets the flavour of the man.


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