Richard Powers' Generosity: An Enhancement. 

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 28 2009 9:29 AM

The Secrets of Serotonin

What Richard Powers' new novel gets wrong.

(Continued from Page 1)

Well, good for Stone. But Powers never tries to suggest how the work of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Edith Wharton informs notions of well-being.

Nor is the medical side of the happiness debate developed in any interesting way. In Against Depression, I made what I hope is a complex argument about the association of melancholy and literary creativity, suggesting that the fashions of the Renaissance left the West with an aesthetic that paired depression and creativity, while devaluing joyous art and epic narrative. Kurton's exposition is the Spark Notes version:

For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we're on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it's time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.

And Kurton is ever the straw man:

The whole grandiose idea that life's meaning plays out in individual negotiations makes the scientist wince. Intimate consciousness, domestic tranquility, self-making: Kurton considers them all blatant distractions from the true explosion of human capability. Fiction seems at best willfully naïve.

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Do the scientists you see on Charlie Rose suffer that narrow play of mind?

Powers never elaborates the counterargument: that engineering an end to melancholy cheapens humankind, while bringing imagination to bear is ennobling. Debating Kurton on the issue of enhancement, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist simply concedes the principal points. Of course, we should combat illness, "[a]nd if we can prevent the harmful, why not promote the helpful?" His objection is only to execution: "Enhancement will mean nothing in the long run. The remodeling of human nature will be as slapdash and flawed as its remodelers." We are likely to agree with a therapist who attends the debate and supplies this verdict: "I'm afraid it was Optimism by a technical knockout."

In the realm of social commentary, the role of fiction is to inform through means that are richer than straightforward argumentation. It's a problem for Generosity that in the field of enhancement, the medical ethics literature is so strong that it reads like accomplished science fantasy. Look, for example, at Carl Elliott's Better Than Well (for which I wrote an introduction)or at the theoretical contributions, my own aside, in the anthology he helped edit, Prozac as a Way of Life. There you'll find philosophers assessing neuropsychiatric research in detail and using it, often in playful fashion, to construct thought experiments that frame precise critical questions: What are our objections to resilience brought about in this way with those side effects in that sort of society?

As I worked my way through the Generosity, I came to think that Powers was not simply unlucky. Uncharacteristically, this respected novelist, known for integrating complex science into his fiction, seems inattentive to nuance. To transcend the philosophical discussion might require a different genre, one that allows readers to savor bittersweet happiness, contrasting its intricacy with the blandness of the relentlessly upbeat variety. Instead, Powers has inserted his paper-thin representatives of art and science into a plot that gains momentum until it achieves an attention-deficient high energy. The buoyant, postmodern narrative embodies the aesthetic of a speed-addicted, technology-besotted culture, as if the battle Stone and his allies might wage were already lost.

Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, ofFreud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. His blog In Practice considers matters of brain and mind.

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