The novelist and the cosmologist meet up to talk about reality.

When theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin began writing A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines it was a work of non-fiction. But she realized, as her subjects Gödel and Turing had, that the tools of non-fiction—or those of scientific inquiry—were insufficient for discerning truth. As a novelist, Jonathan Lethem traffics regularly in different degrees of truth and is similarly fascinated with what constitutes reality. Recently the two met for lunch at the National Arts Club in New York to talk about this elusive concept—its guises, its enchantments, and how we know it when we see it.

Click on the image to watch highlights from the Salon. To watch the full, hour-long conversation, click here

Janna Levin: I’ve found it very interesting that in all of your novels, there’s something fanciful. There is always this element that’s not real, even though there’s a very realistic quality to your writing.

Jonathan Lethem: Well, I think one place that comes from is that my father was a painter, and I was trained as a visual artist.

Levin: And that shows up in The Fortress of Solitude.

Lethem: Yeah. The main character in Fortress has a painter-father too. And we both took our father’s work and incorporated them into a worldview. In the case of my father’s painting, he always combined representation with the imaginary or the fantastical. And I took this as a kind of basic condition of art that, in a way, was inherent in my worldview before I could ever have questioned it. Art consisted of a combination of observed elements and—the other word is always harder—the imaginary or fantastical or metaphorical. In some ways I think “metaphorical” is the word that captures it best for me, because I’ve come to see that one thing all of my writing has in common is some element of imagery that moves out of metaphor and into the real space of the story. Whereas in someone else’s story, the people might feel that they’re superheros, in my book the characters actually get to try out being superheros. It’s a kind of literalness about metaphor.

Levin: That’s an interesting way of putting it—a literalness about metaphor. What you said about the confluence of the observed and imagined is very interesting because that’s of course what every novelist must do, at some level. We’re disappointed if novelists don’t combine the observed and the imaginary.

Lethem: I agree completely. And I always find it remarkable that people are praised for their realism in books that sort of sublimate the imaginary or metaphorical elements because it seems to me that if anyone were actually ever handed utter realism, which is to say a kind of a transcripted human conversation—

Levin: Which our readers are going to get!

Lethem: —they’d be bitterly disappointed. And yet this notion that that author ought to deliver reality in some kind of document persists as praise. But I think it’s inherent to art, and certainly to the art of fiction, that invented and observed material go together. And what I do, I guess, is kind of make the point of collision rough and obvious instead of smooth or sublimated. I have a tendency to want to make it unmistakable and, in some cases, kind of uncomfortable for the reader. So, as you say, Fortress of Solitude invites you to feel that you’re in one kind of depiction of reality.

Levin: And then suddenly there’s something—

Lethem: —an eruption of magical possibilities.

Levin: Right. But what’s so disappointing about reality? Because I know what you’re saying, but what is it that we need to be repackaged and rephrased for us so it hits our pleasure centers better?

Lethem: I like your devil’s advocacy, but I don’t think that’s the problem. The trick, I think, is that the external material surface of reality, the documentary depictions that I’m saying would be inadequate, are only one version of reality. That in fact, consciousness and the emotional, the social, the—to take a term from your work—relativistic aspects of experience are much, much more magical and dimensional and inexpressible than the raw tools of documentary realism could ever capture. So what we experience moving through life is a kind of collision in our consciousness of the imaginary and the documentary.

Janna Levin Credit: Julian Dufort

Levin: Yeah, that’s interesting. Of course, in my scientific work, there’s only one reality. There can’t be ambiguity in my scientific research—it’s all about the reproducible answer. I want the calculation that is going to precipitate an answer that’s definitive, that both you and I will agree upon regardless of whether we’re from different countries or we’re educated differently. Yet it’s exactly the aspect of experience that’s so important, even in science. And that has to do with all those things coming together in the way that you described—how you perceive what you’re doing, why you feel it’s important. What does it mean for your life or other people’s lives? Why do I think this is worth funding and researching and then relaying to the world? And those questions cannot be answered by a series of facts. I don’t do straightforward nonfiction in my books because I think it’s slightly dishonest. It’s never straightforward nonfiction; there’s no such thing.

Lethem: It hides the fact that it’s conjured.

Levin: Right. Unless I write down only the core mathematics and nothing else, and even then my approach could be really unique and therefore impact differently, and so on. But once it comes out in words and in language, it’s something totally other. And so this was a real motivating impulse for me with A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. I wouldn’t call it fiction exactly, but I certainly wouldn’t call it nonfiction. It hovers in that divide.

Lethem: Well, one of the underrated aspects of novels per se, one of the forms of pleasure that we readers derive from reading fiction that is least discussed in traditional literary criticism, is factual material. People thrive on finding great chunks of information on how the world works in their fiction. One of the great secrets to the crime drama is that readers are almost always inadvertently thrilling to descriptions of how, for instance, a bank operates. These are the sorts of things that ordinary novelists feel that they’re not allowed to talk about or get interested in—they’re supposed to be concerned with the emotional or psychological lives of their characters and would never stop to tell you at what hour the teller counts her drawer and moves it to the back of the bank. And yet we’re all hungry for those pieces of information about our world. We’re nourished, without even noticing it, by this genre that’s devoted to telling us quite a lot about them.

Levin: Right.

Lethem: And of course, part of this is a fiction writer’s thrill to genuine jargons as well. And by genuine, I mean necessary jargons. The language is a specialized reality, and there are these incredibly specific differences in the way things are described from the inside and the outside. And those have such power of persuasion. It’s incredible how, for instance, a policeman says of another policeman, “He’s a good police,” which a citizen would never say. Just as I noticed when I began gathering material for As She Climbed Across the Table that physicists would say of another physicist, “He does good physics.” I was so turned on by the specificity of that. It seemed to imply such an inside to me, and I wanted to move within it and experience it. So I began doing the best I could.

Levin: And as you’d mentioned to me before, you’re interested in the response to things. You’re not necessarily interested in whether or not you can really make a false vacuum universe in the laboratory, for example. As a scientist, I am interested in whether or not you can really make a false vacuum universe in the laboratory. You either can or you can’t. It’s either true or false. Yet as I was writing A Madman Dreams of Turing MachinesI was forced to contest this simplistic faith in truth. I mean, here I was so drawn to these mathematicians who prove that there are some truths that can never be proven to be true. The idea that even mathematical truth is elusive is very unnerving for somebody like me. I’m a realist. I believe that you’re not a projection of my imagination. I believe there is something real about you that I’m perceiving. The physicists and mathematicians who I describe in this book, weren’t so sure that you couldn’t be reduced to a projection of their imagination. They had no philosophical or scientific argument to prove otherwise. And if science couldn’t prove definitively that you were sitting there, then they couldn’t believe that you were sitting there. Beyond that philosophical stumble, Gödel and Turing proved that even mathematics was incomplete, that arithmetic could not capture every true fact about numbers. What’s curious, is that in my personal life, or in my life in relation to art or novels, I have no problem admitting that truth is a muddled, imperfect notion. I well appreciate that we can get closer to the core of an idea through metaphor or imagery. That, as you say, there is a collision in our minds of the factual and imagined that creates a reality of sorts. But science can be so gratifying precisely because scientific truths are not ambiguous. I don’t like using science as metaphor because I think it betrays a certain aspect of what’s precious about scientific inquiry—precisely that lack of ambiguity. So here I was with this rub of making truth metaphorical, making truth elusive, seeing how far it can go. And I wanted the book to hinge on that conflict, to celebrate the obsessive pursuit of mathematical truth even as it argues no truth can ever be captured in its entirety.

Lethem: What’s interesting to me is that you’re so driven to pursue the kinds of truths that remind me of those the artist inherits automatically, which are paradoxical truths. The ones that can only be surrounded, that can’t simply be described. And both of your books include attempts to surround paradoxical truths with enough understanding or visualization or description that they can be apprehended because they can’t be looked at directly. In a way, that’s my whole job. And so it isn’t that I’m uninterested in truth, it’s that I never think I’m going to get there by compiling other truths. I think I’m going to get there by compiling responses and paradoxes and evocations.

Levin: So you are getting to some level of truth.

Lethem: Of course.

Levin: You wouldn’t say truth is totally relative.

Jonathan Lethem Credit: Julian Dufort

Lethem: No, I wouldn’t. My instinct about the scientist who decided that it was possible that we were projections is to say he’s made the purist misunderstanding. For me, the truth is always about this muddying of actuality and metaphor. We live on a mingled plane. Certainly, my characters dwell there, and I, personally, dwell there. So the false obsession with purity is what has to be chased away. People fancy that, say, Raymond Carver was a pure realist—well, this is nonsense. The very tools he used were corrupted, dripping with metaphor, because language itself is big chunks of metaphor that we’re moving around and operating with. And I think it’s the glorious impurity that has to be reasserted.

Levin: Yeah, the fabric of language is symbolism. That’s all it is. It’s verbals, it’s a sound to symbolize a certain thing.

Lethem: Exactly.

Levin: You said something very interesting, that you could be so purely tied to an attempt to get toward truth or an attempt to adhere to logic that you’re totally lost. I find that irony beautiful, that the people whom I wrote about, who stuck the closest to logic, were the furthest afield, the most lost. They became utterly confused and ended up drawing conclusions that even they knew were wrong. Logic took them away from truth. If I really believe that all I know is something that’s scientifically verified—I don’t really know that I’m touching this table, all I know is that I’m experiencing what I’ve learned to call pressure against what I think is a hard surface—then I just get further and further away. And I think that’s so remarkable. We need the fuzziness of imperfect thinking to function.

Lethem: Exactly—there’s an enormous amount we can agree on about our experience in order that we can dwell in a meaningful place to pursue the elusive truths, accepting that there’s a good enough description of a table that we can have this meal.

Levin: Right. And that’s exactly why Gödel gets lost. He gets totally lost, he’s paranoid, he’s schizophrenic, and yet he isn’t really insane. I mean, you can see the way he lives his life as a consequence of being so logical. It’s not that he believes that there are pink flamingos flying in
his apartment. Rather, he’s so tightly sticking to logic that he becomes very paranoid and comes
to believe things that the rest of us don’t believe because we’re so illogical and so irrational.

Lethem: Right.

Levin: And so even his bizarre and dire suicide, this attempt to starve himself to death, was, I began
to feel, actually this logical, inevitable consequence of sticking to the rules.

Lethem: Right. He refused to take consolation in assumptions.

Levin: Absolutely. And of course, the ideas of Turing and Gödel became central to the invention of the computer and, ultimately, the ambition for artificial intelligence. Yet one thing that their theorems require is that artificial intelligence programs are not perfectly logical, because then they can’t do the kinds of strange things that we do. It’s actually embedded in their theorems. That’s a remarkable consequence. And still it took the computer-science community a very long time to say, okay, we can’t literally program these things. We have to watch them somehow evolve in all their complexity.

Lethem: Right. And of course, as a reader of science fiction as a teenager, I saw Turing’s name thrown around all the time.

Levin: See, I don’t read science fiction.

Lethem: The Turing Test became a kind of cliché in science fiction, which loves to dwell on the difference between man and machine and possibility of perfection. So he’d offered something kind of irresistible.

Levin: Like robots don’t dream—or they do dream—of electric sheep…?

Lethem: Androids dream of electric sheep.

Levin: Oh, right—ha! I knew I’d get it wrong.


Lethem: One notion that I was very interested in—and maybe I was reading your books and finding these moments because it’s a preoccupation of mine at the moment—is your awareness and sensitivity to questions of originality and collaboration and individual achievement, which are, of course, obsessions of the scientist maybe even more than the artist. But certainly they’re mutual obsessions. And you had Gödel talking about how someone else would have thought of it if he hadn’t, and it all broaches the question of whether the ego of the individual, artist or scientist, is essential, and whether the work is truly a collective enterprise.

Levin: Well, I think in science it’s a very interesting question. If you really believe in objective reality, then you don’t matter at all. If it hadn’t been Einstein, eventually it would have been somebody else. And if it hadn’t have been Gödel, eventually it would have been somebody else. And so scientists are playing this difficult game with themselves, with their own egos. They want to be the most brilliant, get there first, be accomplished, and yet at the end of the day, they have to say to themselves, “But it really didn’t matter that it was me, and my marks cannot be left on this in any way.” It’s even in the way scientists write—all scientists begin their papers in exactly the same way. I mean, it drives me insane, but there’s a certain, I’m not going to say charm, to it, but I understand it.

Lethem: There’s a beauty to the sort of fierce belief in pure thought.

Levin: That’s right. “We show that…” even if the paper has a single author, “It is shown in this paper…” Yet the ego tensions in the sciences are outrageous. I mean it’s totally outrageous. And so, from a story-telling perspective, it’s interesting because there’s conflict in that experience. There’s conflict in discovering. And conflict usually—well, do you think conflict drives our great stories?

Lethem: Well, I suppose it does. And I suppose there’s tension between collective or communal reality and the starkness of individual experience, and also the possibility of individual, transportive revelation in the artistic epiphany.

Levin: See, I don’t believe artistic experiences would be reproduced by somebody else.

Lethem: Right, well, Saul Bellow’s novels really wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t written them, in the same way that monkeys couldn’t sit down and write Shakespeare. Well, in fact, humans couldn’t sit down and write Shakespeare; Shakespeare had to exist. And Saul Bellow or Jonathan Lethem, with their immensely particular, eccentric form of biases, had to exist. I mean my own irritability, my own distractibility are in my books in a way that’s just absolutely present. And yet at the same time, it’s the things that become fetishized as innovations, the avant-garde gestures and so-called experimental breakthroughs in the arts, which are the aspect that is more analogous to scientific discovery—

Levin: —And which would have come anyway.

Lethem: They would have always come anyway.

Levin: Right. Realism would have given way to abstract expressionism.

Lethem: And there are always precursors for everything, almost to a comical degree. If you see someone being praised, say, in the Sunday book supplements for inventing something in fiction, be guaranteed that there are a hundred people who did that before. It’s just in the nature of the ostensible experiment or avant-garde. But then again, the brush stroke or the syntax and so on are individual. It’s almost as though the confusion is over intellectual property, and the protections that are offered to art misunderstand its essence because it’s so much more intimate and so much less quantifiable or commodifiable.

Levin: Uh-huh. Well, you have to, I think, at some stage make an admission about who you are and what you bring to the table.

Lethem: Right.


Levin: Something I find particularly interesting is that science, I think, is the last realm in which people talk to each other seriously, with a straight face, about beauty. Visual artists would never say that’s a beautiful piece of work, not in really contemporary, cutting-edge art.

Lethem: That’s a very difficult phrase. After modernism, beauty is terrifically suspect.

Levin: Right, absolutely. And it’s considered kind of provincial to aim for something beautiful. We’re not doing pretty pictures here; we’re doing something else. But in science, we really hold on to beauty and elegance as the goal because, for reasons that I think nobody fully understands, it’s a good criterion for distinguishing what’s right from what’s wrong. And if something is beautiful and elegant, it’s probably right. Occasionally, you’ll see something that’s so beautiful and so elegant, and it’s not right, and you can’t believe it’s not right.

Lethem: Yeah.

Levin: And I don’t understand that. I don’t think anyone understands that. You can make arguments that maybe it’s only human perception, that we impose patterns on a vast sea of complicated things.

Lethem: Right. Not so totally different from the insight that one of the things that people were selecting for without naming it when they thought a person was beautiful was—

Levin: Symmetry.

Lethem: —was symmetry. And now we take that so for granted. But in fact, this was not something anyone really recognized. They just sought to describe an evoked response.

Levin: Right, but of course our responses evolved out of a series of complex steps, starting with simple laws of physics. And it’s a marvelous thing that we’re even able to know certain things that we inherit but are so far away from. What was Einstein’s quote? Something like, the most miraculous thing about the universe is the fact that we can understand it. And it really is miraculous. We’re a pretty humble species; we’ve been around for a very short time, yet we know things about the origin of the universe 14 billion years ago. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Though again, you can make the counterargument that yes, it does have to be that way because we evolved from a series of steps that started with the origin of the universe. And so somehow, all of those physical and mathematical processes became imprinted on our logical networks. According to somebody like Turing, we really are just biological machines, and we’re coded and programmed by the laws of physics as surely as if somebody had sat down and written that code. So maybe the fact that we are putting the name beautiful to it, and elegant to it, is, as you said, just because we’re identifying something that’s been selected for in an evolutionary way.

Lethem: Right. It’s a way of connecting A to B, of realizing a truth. And when I talk about pursuing epiphanies, in a sense it’s another word for truth. When I made that distinction and said well, it isn’t that I’m not interested in truth, it’s that response or epiphany is the building block toward the truth or paradox evocation, those are the ways I chase my truth.

Levin: Something I also thought about is the act of guiding a reader toward a truth you want them to recognize. I’m getting more and more interested in film right now, specifically these past few months. And I think it has to do with thinking about not just other ways of writing, but other representations of reality, or other representations of the truth or of experience.

Lethem: People take it as a given that the world is presented “as is” on film. When in fact, optically, it’s very unlike what our eyes, and our experiences, present us with. You might be interested in reading the essays of Stan Brakhage, a highly experimental filmmaker who tried to start at the beginning again and not take the narrative construction, the editing assumptions, and the camera-placement assumptions of traditional film for granted, but begin again at optics and ask how we can make film more like what it’s like to look around. His films have this constant movement. They’re almost—

Levin: Oh, interesting. Unbearable.

Lethem: —almost unbearable at times, but they’re abstract art. They’re like a Kandinsky painting. And in that sense, they seem to derive a connection to—

Levin: Actual experience. But there’s that irony again: The closer you try to get to the actual experience, the sort of more abstract and removed it becomes at the same time.

Lethem: Right. Absolutely.

Originally published March 5, 2007


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