Theories and speculations

The physics of fiction

The enquiries in these essays began with a way I had imagined of reading Dickens, and of approaching the reading of literature, and although I have touched on reading a number of times, I would like to conclude where I began, with a brief discussion of literature, and, because that is too big a subject, of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet in particular. But, before I do this, here is a summary of what I believe to be the function of storytelling in quantum theory.

Particles move in a wave pattern unless observed, at which points of observation the wave collapses. Observation destroys probability, so direct observation is only capable of seeing the ‘illusion’ that particles travel in straight lines, even though experiments clearly demonstrate that they don’t. As I have already argued, the fault is not in ourselves but in the stars – the problem is not the science but the impossible contingency of the world it is attempting to observe, along with the persistently linear nature of human memory and perception. 

In the tiny world of quantum physics, there are therefore no realities or certainties. Things are too small to see. Replacing these are probabilities. Even the instant of the present is rendered uncertain because of the uncertainty of the next and previous instant. 

But while quantum physics appears to reveal a strange world, in truth it is not so strange, at least to humans who read. In a specific and important way, quantum physics is a science of stories. I have already observed that the cat story is the one instance – or at least the most famous instance – in science where scientists themselves resort to a story. Perhaps the idea of superposition is only imaginable, and therefore a story is as scientific as any other form of explanation. 

Stories investigate probabilities in the sense that they explore what might be and what might have been. Sometimes, and particularly in popular media, where stories have exactly the momentum of waves, we see the effect of observation fixing a contingent event as certain and objective when it is not at all so. Partially and briefly glimpsed observations are frequently embedded in a popularly accepted trajectory. Once in motion, these stories are often almost impossible to halt. (An example of this in recent history is the way the Labour Party were blamed for the financial crisis due to the fact that they were in power when it happened, and the narratives that were then formed in the press and popular consciousness – even though as a narrative it was palpably absurd.) 

As historians and archaeologists are increasingly understanding, commonly adopted stories from the past are rarely ‘true’ either. They are narratives formed in a world of inventions. They are, to use the physicists’ word, superpositions – one possible version of what might have happened to consider as a probability alongside others. Observation can take place, but what is observed is not the event, but the probability of the event. 

Trends in history and criticism, and the received ideas and truths in our popular consciousness, reflect the rise and fall of these probabilities, like waves. The stories they produce are everywhere, to the extent that we are often overwhelmed by their multiplicity. Often, our only recourse if we want to understand events is the making of our own stories.

The need to tell stories is also of course subject to its own history and past, and we can trace waves of events in the rise and fall of forms of storytelling, and of stories themselves. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is the fall of the story of God and the rise of stories about humans perceived to be individual, from which the writing and publication of fiction arose.  The wave form of events allows us to look for wave patterns and even beginnings in literary history (where our written evidence is at least moderately reliable), even though we know that these beginnings are only convenient, and the evidence, however apparently concrete, is never so.

One such ‘beginning’ in Western literature is Hamlet, which is a breath-taking work for at least this reason: that in a culture where atheism was a capital offence, and even minor religious offences could result in a nasty and untimely death, the story overtly treats any supernatural dimension in Christian belief as only one, frankly unlikely, possibility. 

In Hamlet, divinity and authority are presented as superpositions. In fact, Shakespeare poses Hamlet the problem of negotiating superposed realities by giving him what he is shown to regard as special knowledge. The source of this special knowledge, of course, is the ghost of his father. 

Hamlet is a modern student of philosophy, returning to Denmark from the notoriously free-thinking University of Wittgenstein. The ghost, and its antics, are Shakespeare’s little joke as we shall see, but the confusion it causes is real and urgent, since it immediately raises the question of the authenticity of regal, divine and supernatural authority. Once Claudius has made himself the apparently legitimate king, the revelation of a different history exclusively and specifically to Hamlet is a problem. Hamlet makes the curious observation late in the play that “There’s a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Special knowledge is as useful as special providence. Providence is common to all or akin to madness. Or to put it another way, it is either a divine state or just a superposed one.

The ambivalence of the voice of Providence is portrayed by the ghost. The question Hamlet must ponder is whether it is indeed ‘special’ to him, or whether it is a phenomenon of more objective truth. “To be or not to be?” is therefore both a question and an answer, and it encompasses Hamlet, the ghost, and all phenomena in the world of events both within the play and of course for the audience.  

This makes the whole business with the ghost very strange. Shakespeare makes it a very physical apparition, visible to everyone, thumping around under the stage after its appearance in front of Hamlet. There is little concession to suspension of disbelief as it teases Hamlet with its impossibly supernatural manifestation. If it’s not a ghost, it’s just an actor after all, and Shakespeare seems to enjoy this idea. He makes the ghost look ridiculous, a parody of itself. It’s just a bloke dressed up in silly clothes thumping about with a broom handle. 

The problem with the ghost for Hamlet (as for the audience) is that, within the confines of the play, it is real, however absurd. It forces Hamlet to consider what might have happened as more likely than the events which common assent says did happen. The reason the ghost has this authority is because it is brought within the fabric of probability. You could say, in fact, that far from being a mythical figure it is a mathematical one. It simply expresses aloud the most likely course of events. It is the voice of calculation, superposing a version of events. 

And this is exactly how Hamlet treats the ghost’s story. It’s just a probability. Hamlet doesn’t know whether to believe it or not. This means he still needs to test it, and the only way to test probability is by making it into another story. So Hamlet writes a play, in which a king like his father is murdered by his brother, and presents it to the court. This play shows us, in a crude and simple way, what stories do. They offer us a version of events – a superposition of reality.  

So now we have more ghosts. We observed above how the ghost is revealed as just an actor. If the ghost is an actor then here, in the play within the play, the actor is a ghost as Claudius is confronted with his past deeds. Haunting and acting are suddenly the same activity. And if haunting and acting are the same, authorship itself is also shown to be a kind of haunting, revisiting the past, trying out a version of events to see if it rings true. 

It is telling that Hamlet seeks authorship, but it is equally telling that his attempt at authorship fails. If Hamlet claims the rights of individuality, he also demonstrates powerfully the limitations of lone ego. He is helpless, because the play has many other layers which are as far beyond his power as the appearance of the ghost.  

It is almost inevitable (because he is, after all, blind to the most likely outcome) that Hamlet is defeated by another ghost altogether. It is one he has inadvertently helped to create himself, and it is one of which he is almost entirely unaware. It is the ghost of Ophelia, sinking softly into the river in other-worldly verse, that returns to haunt the play, causing Hamlet to wrestle and duel with Laertes and bring about the play’s chaotic ending. It is the ghost of Ophelia, and not the ghost of the king, that drives Hamlet’s final will to act, and it is her ghost that drives the action of the play to its ending. For all his impassioned reflection on individual action and power, the final revelation of the play is that it lies elsewhere. So it is the ghost of Ophelia, not the ghost of Claudius, that produces the play’s stunning and memorably bleak conclusion. The lesson for both Hamlet and audience is that it is not possible to act as if you are in simple opposition to events. Life is not governed by binary divisions. Superpositions are simultaneous, non-binary and continuing, and this applies to all action. Bravado, ego and chauvinism are all undermined and defeated by the superposition of denied layers of truths, realities, people and gender. The disappearance of Ophelia from Hamlet’s ego driven quest and her powerful re-emergence at the end demonstrate that these other superpositions of identity cannot simply be written out of stories by imposition of will, and this is perhaps the strongest message that Hamlet delivers. It is a theme to which Shakespeare returns, becoming the much more overt subject of A Winter’s Tale

Kurt Vonnegut, who was the shrewdest judge of stories, and one of the first people to understand the importance of waves, or what he called shape, within them, once observed that Hamlet had no story at all. Hamlet is a flatliner. A guy, who doesn’t know what to do, carries on dithering. How can that be one of the greatest stories in Western literature, he asks. Vonnegut’s answer is that it is because Shakepeare told the truth, and the truth is that “we have no idea what is the good news and what is the bad news”. Stories are artifices because, within them, events appear to be controlled. In reality, there is no control over the way events move and momentum rises and falls. There is no shape to Hamlet’s story because it is told to show how our stories are shaped by others’ even, we might say, by the story of somebody who has apparently disappeared, and is vanished. Every story, authorship, perspective and perception is a superposition, a version of events, a possibility.  But the important point is this. Events do move. Waves of momentum do rise and fall. There are even sometimes recognisable beginnings and endings. The truth however is that we rarely see them, and we never see them with clarity. They come from unexpected places, and they are never under our control. We don’t know the difference between the good news and the bad. 

Hamlet is literally a quantum leap. It reveals the relationship of storytelling to reality, the perception of which can itself only be composed of probabilities. As such, with Hamlet (and of course therefore before and after Hamlet) the status of fiction is dramatically changed. Far from being either myth or mere entertainment, fiction is a medium for perceiving the superposition of events, and it is shown to be necessary in order to negotiate the layers of reality which surround us. In fact, as fiction becomes increasingly sophisticated, it arguably becomes our primary means to explore and understand the world. 

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