The Brain in Pain

You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?

In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.


Continue reading The Brain in Pain

Playing on the Nerves

Front cover of In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le FanuIn A Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu

Far less known than his great admirer M.R. James, the Dubliner Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) may be an even better and more haunting writer. And yet he doesn’t rely much on the supernatural. Some of his stories seem to be more about neurological disease than about ghostly visitation. That kind of disease was much more common in his Georgian and Victorian day, when the toxicity of many chemicals wasn’t understood properly and people could be poisoned by arsenic in their wallpaper. But the horrors conjured by a diseased brain can be both stronger and more mysterious than a ghost or demon, because they’re more intimate and less easy to escape.

Le Fanu is intimate in another way: he has Robert Aickman’s ability to start currents swirling in your subconscious. You can feel yourself being drawn down into the abysses that wait there, dark and mysterious with sex, death and primal instinct. “Carmilla”, his classic tale of adolescent lesbian vampirism, is a good example. It also reveals his wider sympathy with humanity. M.R. James would not have written about women or about that kind of sex. Homosexuality and necrophilia seem to inform James’ stories; Le Fanu’s have the richness and bittersweetness of a man with wider sexual interests. Like Frankenstein or Sherlock Holmes, “Carmilla” may be more famous than its author is. It still appears in horror anthologies, partly because of its theme, partly because it’s probably his best work.

It’s also written more simply than, say, “The Familiar”. You often have to pay attention when you read Le Fanu’s prose:

The mind thus turned in upon itself, and constantly occupied with a haunting anxiety which it dared not reveal, or confide to any human breast, became daily more excited, and, of course, more vividly impressible, by a system of attack which operated through the nervous system; and in this state he was destined to sustain, with increasing frequency, the stealthy visitations of that apparition, which from the first had seemed to possess so unearthly and terrible a hold upon his imagination. (“The Watcher”)

If you don’t concentrate as Le Fanu throws you the words, you drop them and can’t juggle the whirl of metaphor and concept he wants you to experience. The effort required to read his stories is no doubt part of why he isn’t as well-known as he should be. But what you invest is repaid with interest and this collection, in Oxford’s World Classics series, is well represented by the painting on the cover: a detail from the great John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Dulce Domum (1885), with a melancholy-dreaming young woman sitting in a house rich with detail, from peacock feathers to Chinese vases.