In her dying days, my wife said to me, matter-of-factly, You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t.
We were sitting out on the patio in the late summer sunshine, drinking tea. A week later, I was sitting there alone, but her words were with me. They still are. The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars
is, in part, an effort to make sense of them. As the subtitle signals, it’s an odyssey of sorts, a journey through the strange territories of the brain-injured and psychotic, down into the underworld of dreams and imagination, through the porticoes of ancient philosophy. Along the way, there are encounters with gods and monsters and tussles with Fate, and we catch glimpses of what the superhuman future might hold, but ultimately we are contending with the stark realities of life and death in the here and now. We are born; stuff happens; we die. So, how best to live? How best to come to terms with the end of life, our own and others’?
Close to death, Sonja was in no doubt about the intrinsic value of life. Others have held a different view. The arch-pessimist, Arthur Schopenhauer
, thought life was frustrating and pointless. All things considered, it would be better not to have been born. A human life is a thin sliver of consciousness inlaid between slabs of eternal nothingness. To our great astonishment, says Schopenhauer, we find ourselves suddenly existing after eons of nonexistence. We live for a short while, and then we return to endless oblivion. It’s a thought to send a trickle of ice water down your spine. But Schopenhauer wasn’t dying. What did he
know? For me, the key word up there is astonishment
. How astonishing it is to exist at all, and, in that flicker of consciousness that is a human lifetime, how privileged we are to find such fabulous jewels of existence within the scope of the human brain. Look up at the stars, said Stephen Hawking, not down at your feet. Behold a cosmos vast beyond imagination, a hundred billion galaxies and more, swirling through measures of time and space to set the head spinning. Shrink down to the subatomic scale and have your head spin some more in the quantum wonderland where space, time, and logic disintegrate. But this is just the frame of the picture. Between quantum and cosmos, there is complexity: the mysteries of life, the blind virtuosity of evolution, the dense matrices of human society, the riches of culture, the vicissitudes of ordinary, everyday life, the enigma of consciousness itself, and love. Life is pointless? Maybe. But we can rejoice in the rare, raw splendor of existence, can’t we, however brief our participation?
But brief it is, and my odyssey begins with the brute fact of my wife’s death from breast cancer seven years ago. Her death, and my response to it, form an important strand of the book, but it would be misleading to describe it as a "grief memoir." Still less is it anything like a self-help manual for the bereaved. By all means recommend it to your grieving patients, I told my general practitioner, but don’t expect them to be consoled. A long and happy marriage came to an untimely conclusion. I grieved, I reflected, I moved on. Others don’t, or can’t. There is no fixed pattern to grief, and all I have done is document my own thoughts and feelings. If some people find that helpful, fine, and if others do not, well, I didn’t set out to help anyone.
The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars
If we want to understand the modern mind, we need to know something of its history.
is an extended meditation on selfhood, consciousness, life, and death. The book traces a loose arc of loss, acceptance, and renewal through interlinked fragments of autobiography, neurological case stories, and excursions into myth and speculative fiction. Why such diverse modes of storytelling? Well, I say, why not?
I am writing about brains and selves. The human brain is a storytelling machine, and the self is a yarn it spins. From the first glimmerings of self-awareness, we enter a nexus of stories, and those stories take many different forms, from the mundane to the magical, from scientific to mythic. My mind is in the habit of shooting off in every direction, and I have honored the old cliché: Write something you yourself would want to read.
The memoir strand reaches back to the dawning of my own consciousness and beyond. Memories presented themselves with no effort on my part. For example, the image of my childhood home, a slum in the English midlands, with buckets in the attic to catch rainwater, along with relics of exorcism left behind by the previous occupant, who, according to the neighbors, had been plagued by hauntings and finally hanged himself from the rafters of the leaky roof. It was rich soil for a small boy’s wild imaginings.
The case stories are mostly drawn from my experiences in clinical neuropsychology, and were chosen to illuminate different features of the infrastructure of selfhood — those aspects of brain function that serve to construct our sense of unity and continuity over time, one minute to the next, one day to the next, across a lifetime. Most fundamentally, we feel we are alive, but you will get to meet people who, although they have a clear sense of identity and autobiography, argue, flatly, that they are dead. This is the so-called Cotard’s delusion. I found a mirror image of Cotard’s in the story of Pat Martino, the jazz guitar virtuoso, who suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage that shattered his identity but left him with a heightened sense of aliveness and living in the moment. Other cases illustrate disorders of bodily awareness and free will. We journey into the underworld of the subconscious mind, which, from the reports of sleep paralysis sufferers, appears to be populated with archetypal demons, goblins, and ghouls who seep from the dream world into the 3-D reality of the bedroom.
I’ve thrown in a few fictional pieces, speculative tales through which to explore selfhood and consciousness, life and death. I get to discuss grief with C. S. Lewis
; I get to meet some zombies; to my great surprise, I discover I have a long-hidden sub-personality fluent in French and adept in the arts of seduction; I celebrate my 150th birthday. Along with these standalone pieces, there’s an intermittent fictional thread woven with the factual material. It involves a time-twisting drunk named Mike who appears at various points dispensing pearls of wisdom, especially on the nature of time and fate. Strange things happen to the flow of time when Mike’s around. In the final chapter he gives me an opportunity to time travel, and with it a deep dilemma.
I hadn’t intended including any Greek mythology when I started writing the book, but the stories crept in. My explanation is post hoc, but here goes: For the Greeks, the myths were a means of making sense of the world, from the origins of the cosmos to the nature of society, individual identity, and mortality. The Darker the Night
is about all of those things. Also, the first century BCE was a period of great cultural and cognitive transition. Logos
(reason) was gaining ground on mythos
(mythological stories), the gods were gathering doubters, and the shoots of western science and philosophy were starting to push through. According to some scholars, this coincided with a psychological revolution through which the foundations of the modern, introspective mind were laid. People were gaining a clearer sense of the distinction between the inner, individual world of thought and the outer world of objects and events, and thus were sown the seeds of the mind-body problem: the problem of consciousness
. If we want to understand the modern mind, we need to know something of its history.
If the book has a central message it is one associated with the ancient Stoics: Embrace reason, reflect upon the brevity and fragility of life, and, at all times, keep death in view, so to gain a full appreciation of life lived in the moment
. But it goes beyond the Stoics, counterbalancing their emphasis on rationality with an acknowledgement that irrationality
, in the form of intuitions, dreams, and magical thinking, is a vital and inextricable component of the human mind.
I often found myself reading the Stoics during that last summer with Sonja, mostly Seneca
and Marcus Aurelius
. They spoke plainly, like old friends, and with a modern voice. I found them honest, wise, and consoling, and suggested to my wife that she might like to spend some time with them. She gave me a weary smile. The fact was, she was bearing up to her suffering as stoically as any of those ancient sages could ever have done. She had no fear of death, none whatsoever. It was life that mattered, what was left of it. You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t.
÷ ÷ ÷
is an English neuropsychologist and science writer. He is a former Prospect columnist, and his work has been featured in The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph
, and Granta
. Trained as a clinical psychologist at Oxford University, Broks is a specialist in clinical neuropsychology and is the author of Into the Silent Land
, which was shortlisted for The Guardian
's First Book Award. The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Stars
is his most recent book.