The ability to predict the future has always been one of the most well regarded skills. In this tough economic climate it is perhaps the one thing that is guaranteed to secure you a job: whether you’re applying for a position as a football pundit, economist, or anything in-between, the ability to successfully foresee future events is sure to stand you in good stead for a long and prosperous career.
Wishful thinking aside, the idea of being able to see the future retains an enduring place at the heart of popular culture. Fairly recently, a Mayan calendar sparked an internet furore when someone dug up the fact that the world is coming to an end in December this year. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that Nostradamus’ Les Propheties has rarely been out of print since it was first published in 1555, despite the seer’s own admission that “the whole thing is written in nebulous form, rather than as a clear prophecy of any kind” – which is as clear a sign as any of a bare-faced liar. However, it’s easy to understand why predicting the future remains a powerful concept: noone knows what is going to happen tomorrow, so when someone somehow manages to convince us that he or she might be able to, we like to indulge our long-standing taste for mysticism and the occult. In any event, the failsafe for prophets is that whether or not a prediction has any truth in it can only be known retrospectively, in Nostradamus’ case looking back several centuries later.
Sadly, our fascination with being able to see the future by some mystical clairvoyance (or by statistical analysis – see Long Term Capital Management) often overlooks the fact that novelists constantly grapple with the future, not always explicitly, but in an earnest attempt to explore humanity’s experience of the world. As Alex Starritt said in his Why read? article: “it is habitual for discoveries or advances in the study of the human to appear in fiction first.” This is an extremely wide concept, and the interlink between art and science is something that requires considerable thought, particularly because it is only by looking closely that one can begin to see the connections.
A book that does a lot of the hard work for us, and does it brilliantly, is Proust was a neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer. By examining specific instances in which scientific discoveries have been anticipated in writing, he gives us a convincing insight into the idea that in many respects man can see the future, just not perhaps as the Nostradamus brigade would have us believe. To take one example of this, the book considers the poet Walt Whitman’s central conviction that, contrary to the Cartesian doctrine prevalent in the mid-19th century, the mind cannot be separated from the body; a philosophy that he developed during his time as a nurse in various military hospitals over the course of the American Civil War: “Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul.” This idea was brought into the scientific arena by the pioneer Harvard psychologist William James, who stated that “the actual content of our minds are always representations of some kind of ensemble.” More recently, modern neuroscience has explored the interrelationship of the mind and body, with one renowned practitioner, Antonio Damasio, concluding that the two are indeed inseparable, that is to say, logical thought cannot function independently of the body’s feeling.
Science, of course, is not the only area of human thought that can be anticipated in literature: socio-political trends are prefigured to a greater or lesser extent in the writing of countless novelists, from Orwell and H.G.Wells, to Balzac and Dickens. Fiction has the ability, after all, of looking at reality as a whole, without the need to focus on specific aspects of it. This gives the author the freedom to explore ideas that may not have any solid empirical basis at the time they are written. Denis Diderot, for example, wrote Le rêve de D’Alembert, a surreal essay in which the characters discuss the idea that nature is constantly evolving, in 1769, almost a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Furthermore, fiction can examine aspects of reality that haven’t yet been reduced by science or socio-political theory: the novelist is free to look around himself and write what he sees, what he feels. Indeed, it is this feeling that is the mark of a good writer: the ability to see and express things others don’t or can’t, perhaps until someone with a microscope points them out fifty years later.