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Le savant fou

Hélène Machinal

Sixième partie. Résurgence de l'ancrage historique

Put the blame on…?

A face/off between neuroscientists and terrorists

Claire Larsonneur

Texte intégral

  • 1 Arendt H., The Human Condition, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2d edition, 1998 [1958], p. 2.

1Fifty years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote her seminal essay, The Human Condition, examining the relationship between science, society and politics in a context of maturing nuclear power and ongoing Cold War. And she started off her introduction with a reference to “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires)1.” We live now in an age of terrorism, cyber-worlds and biotechnologies, triggering equally intense mass sentiments and desires that have been addressed by several novels published over the last ten years in Great Britain. Our corpus will be restricted to Saturday by Ian MacEwan, Millenium People by J. G. Ballard, Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, though works by Jeannette Winterson or Kazuo Ishiguro are also relevant. Ranging from the more classical, psychological novels to novels of anticipation or sci-fi, these novels all combine historical references, fiction, social criticism and philosophical reflections, much in the tradition of the dystopias of Huxley and Orwell.

2Madness is a recurring feature in our corpus, both thematically and narratively as a clinical diagnosis, as a form of verbal and political weapon but also as a structural product of our collective organisation and as a proliferating force. What is striking is that MacEwan, Ballard and Mitchell chose to address madness by staging a complex relationship between one character pertaining to the field of neurosciences and other characters either connected to State terror or terrorism at large. In Saturday, Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, is attacked by Baxter, a thug suffering from a rare neuronal dysfunction; Millenium People is based on the ambivalent relationship between Dr Markham, trained psychologist, host and producer of a TV show “A Neuroscientist looks at God”, and Dr Gould, a maverick paediatrician; the cast of Ghoswritten features a specialist of quantum cognition running away from Texan neo-con goons and a deranged Japanese bomber. One may identify several stages in these complex relationships or rather face-off, which contribute to a blurring down of the stereotyped characters of the scientist and the terrorist and open the way for a more general reflection on sanity and order, alienation and accountability.

The neuroscientist coming on stage

3Beyond the stereotype of the white blouse, the funny hair and the spectacles, the stock character of the scientist will reflect the current hierarchy between fields of scientific investigation. Frankenstein was a natural philosopher and a chemist, which is in keeping with research interests of the XIXth century. The XXth century has on the whole, and mostly on screen, focused on the physicist (engineering the Bomb) or the chemist (engineering lethal gas), the biologist (engineering lethal viruses) or even the IT specialist (cracking codes and redirecting weapon-satellites unto innocent civilians): the James Bond or Jack Bauer series more or less repeat the same scenario, with slight alterations concerning the calling and the nationality of the usually mad scientist/terrorist, exploring all the possibilities of weapons of mass destruction. The figure of the neuroscientist comes however as a new development. In Ghostwritten, neurosciences are of course represented by Mo Muntervary, a theoretical physicist and cognitivist. The technique of stream of consciousness used by Mitchell within the following excerpt reinforces the effect by referring explicitly to the intellectual framework of neuroscience.

  • 2 Mitchell D., Ghostwritten, London, Sceptre, 1999, p. 360.

“Electrons in my brain are moving forwards and backwards in time, changing atoms, changing electrical charge, changing molecules, changing chemicals, carrying impulses, changing thoughts, deciding to have a baby, changing ideas, deciding to leave Light Box, changing theory, changing artificial intelligence, changing the projections of missiles whole segments of the globe away, and collapsing buildings onto people who have never heard of Ireland2.”

4Perowne’s inner thoughts in Saturday are equally framed within the field of cognition, notably when driving and thinking about the threat of terror.

  • 3 Macewan I., Saturday, London, Anchor, 2005, p. 81.

“The assertions and the questions don’t spell themselves out. He experiences them more as a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse. This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue, which itself is rather like a colour. A sickly yellow. Even with a poet’s gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and many minutes to describe3.”

  • 4 The article on “Sciences cognitives” by Daniel Andler in the 2006 edition of Encyclopaedia Universa (...)

5A quick survey of the recent history of neurosciences may explain why this particular field crops up in xxist century literature: starting as an experimental strand, mostly peripheral to the core of scientific research, neurosciences gained in importance throughout the 80s and 90s and have now reached the stage where they lead to key and lucrative applications, mainly medical4. Beyond these recent therapeutic developments, this focus on the study of the mind may also be read as a further and logical stage in the history of sciences, again in the words of Arendt:

  • 5 Arendt H., op. cit., p. 293.

“Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has produced the best and least disputed results when it has investigated, through a supreme effort of self-inspection, the processes of the senses and of the mind. In this aspect, most of modern philosophy is indeed theory of cognition and psychology5.”

  • 6 Stansbury M., “What educators can learn from brain research”, July 21, 2009, URL: [http://www.escho (...)
  • 7 URL: []; Anderson K., “To (...)

6Neurosciences are also now brought to the attention of the general public and the mass media underline the variety and scope of their applications: neurosciences, or pseudo-neurosciences, seem to constitute a new and rapidly growing paradigm, functioning as a recipe for money-making, a guideline for thought, possibly a global pattern of explanation. A quick survey of recent quotes and comments in the media shows how the relevance of neurosciences is now moving beyond the field of scientific investigation to wider social issues. These include education where “breakthroughs in neuroscience are measuring brain response to stimuli and beginning to alter classroom practices” but also economics and marketing via the apparition of “neuroeconomists” – researchers who study the brain, hormones and nervous system in search of an explanation of our behaviour as investors and shoppers6.” We are told that “a neuroscience arms race could lead to guilt-free soldiers”, or that “speaking at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, Henry Markram said that the model of the human brain he is building will fight disease and help us understand reality7.”

  • 8 Boy D., Pourquoi avons-nous peur de la technologie ?, Paris, Presses de Sciences Politiques, 2007, (...)

7Neurosciences appear then as ubiquitous, all-encompassing and simultaneously elusive since only a few of us may be able to grasp their scope, meaning and consequences. No wonder they have become an object of fascination and in this respect trigger the same feelings and fear as the mental dysfunctions to which they are metonymically linked. In our risk society, as analysed by Ulrich Beck and commented by Daniel Boy, the amount of attention given to a specific risk depends upon the type of fear it rouses but also to our degree of familiarity with the issue and our perception of personal exposure8. And so it could be argued that the neuroscientist, together with the terrorist, feature in our mass perceptions as two contemporary icons or symptoms of risk, thereby motivating the first stage of our face-off namely the confrontation, in which the neuroscientist comes face to face with the terrorist.

Confrontation and contamination

8The novels of our corpus play indeed on our sense of uneasiness in front of these contemporary risks by staging a confrontation between a scientist, be him sane or insane, and a terrorist, be him insane or sane. The most reassuring, most conservative point of view is to be found in Saturday when Perowne the neurosurgeon is able to fence off Baxter the thug in a first confrontation (due to his professional expertise) but not on the second. Though the narrative offers us a happy ending, the description of this first encounter is rather ambiguous:

  • 9 Macewan I., op. cit., p. 85, 88.

“Unlike some of his colleagues – the surgical psychopaths – Henry doesn’t actually relish personal confrontation. He isn’t the machete-wielding type. [Baxter] gives an impression of fretful impatience, of destructive energy waiting to be released. He may be about to lash out. Perowne is familiar with the current literature on violence. It’s not always a pathology; self-interested social organisms find it rational to be violent sometimes9.”

  • 10 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 20.

9One will note how the definitions here function counter-intuitively: surgeons are labelled as psychopaths and violence may be rational. The confrontation triggers an inversion of stereotypes by displacing epithets. In Ghostwritten, the very structure of the novel, divided in ten locations and ten narratives linked one to another by the mysterious ghost, passing from one to another like a relay, evokes the themes of contamination and phobia. The first story opens on the obsessions of Quasar Kobayashi, a very unsettled young Japanese intent on cleansing himself and the city by following alpha-wave orders. His numerous phobias add up and echo his delusion, schizophrenia and paranoia: “Suddenly, I realise that I have walked into a trap! The evil is my superior officer, ploughing me with questions so it can consume me10.” In the finale of the novel, which takes up part of the plot and part of the narrative of the first story, he plants a bomb on the underground.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 434.

“I don’t want this train to be my tomb. Fight. The waves of the unclean break against me, squeezing out my breath. Business drones, office women, schoolgirls, sex swelling the curves of their lips. I push back, an arm gives away, a body yields a fraction. Fight Quasar! You are at war! If only my alpha quotient would allow me to teleport to the streets above11!”

  • 12 A whole chapter is dedicated to the contamination effect in Boy, op. cit., p. 47-62.

10It may worth noting that some sections of this stream of consciousness, taken out of context, could very well be attributed either to a suicide bomber or to a courageous crime fighter. And so confrontation, even though it usually is resolved by happy endings, is deliberately staged in our corpus as entailing a form of contamination, a general blurring of the divide between sanity and insanity. We find here again a characteristic of the political and psychological economy of risk society, whereby a perceived threat will contaminate activities or products associated with the primary source12.

The mirror effect

11Moreover the scientist and the terrorist shift status and exchange roles, in what may be compared to a mirror effect. The second stage of our face-off may therefore be labelled the stage of the mirror, in which the mad neuroscientist, faced with the mad terrorist, loses control of himself. The most striking excerpt in that respect lies at the very beginning of Millenium People: Markham, though officially infiltrated in the Chelsea Marina as a police spy, and in a retrospective narration, doubts his own stance.

  • 13 Ballard J. G., Millenium People, London, Harper Perennial, 2008 [2003], p. 5.

“But a disguise could go too far. Catching sight of myself in the broken windows of the gatehouse, I loosened the knot of my tie. I was still unsure what role I was playing. Richard Gould and I had been seen together so often, and the constables should have recognized me as the chief accomplice of hunted terrorist13.”

  • 14 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 374.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 89.
  • 16 MacEwan I., op. cit., p. 39.

12Narratives in our corpus distribute madness as a catching verbal disease. Some characters voice it explicitly, like Muntervary when she exclaims that “technology has outstripped our capacity to look after it. But, suppose I – suppose Quancog could ensure that technology looked after itself, and – Christ, what was that sounding like? ‘Liam, is your ma a complete madwoman14?’” The alternation between dialogue and stream of consciousness, verbal hesitation translating into broken syntax, the shift from human to non-human grammatical subject, all point to mental insecurity and the fear of not being in charge. A similar predicament affects Neal, the English lawyer, haunted by Hong Kong ghosts: “You never see them coming. They lurk in the overlooked and undusted places. They grow to huge proportions, and all along you don’t even dream about them, not in their true form. And then one day a chance meeting happens, a glimpse of that you didn’t know you wanted, and a latch is raised15 …” The ghosts (or delusions) act here much like dormant terrorist cells, lying low and undetected in the most sedate, unobtrusive areas. In Saturday Henry Perowne is also depicted as “been in a state of wild unreason, in a folly of over-interpretation16.” The media-hammering of words such as “catastrophe”, “mass fatalities”, “chemical and biological warfare” on this day of demonstrations against the War in Iraq has a disquieting side-effect on his mastery of language:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 12.

“And though the professional jargon didn’t desert him – it’s second nature – his prose accumulated awkwardly. Individual words brought to mind unwieldy objects – bicycles, deckchairs, coat hangers – strewn across his path. He composed a sentence in his head, then lost it on the page, or typed himself into a grammatical cul-de-sac and had to sweat his way out17.”

  • 18 Ballard J. G., op. cit., p. 81.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 59.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 102.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 96.

13Muntervary the academic, Brose the lawyer and Perowne the surgeon are all articulate characters who embody progress, the hope of a cure and an ethical standpoint: their contamination by madness (be it through epithets, quirks in their stream of consciousness or glitches in their mastery of language) is therefore a potent narrative tool. But it is in Millenium People that we find the most persistent, most systematic attempt at undermining the clear separation between the sane and the insane. The mirror effect between Markham the sane narrator and Gould the barking mad terrorist doctor is repeatedly thematised and commented upon. Gould’s mind “is amazingly clear, like those brain-damaged children he looks after. In a way he’s one of them18”. He triggers an uneasy fascination in Markham and Gould’s fleshless body is described as being anchored to him like an incubus19. There is a form of extended, over-reaching diagnosis of madness throughout the novel, which fulfils the reader’s wish for order and distanciation, but may at times appear to be running wild. Kay, herself described as “a one-woman recipe for nervous breakdown20” labels Vera as “very sweet, a fully house-trained sociopath”, saying “any child that dangerous is going to very useful to society21.” Progressively the markers of sanity or insanity are blurred, mostly via internal focalisation on Markham and his ambivalent reactions to the terrorist/mad actions of the Chelsea set. Cat lovers and bobbies turn up on the wrong side of the mental/social barrier, while outcasts and mavericks are valued as key figures in society. Characterisation, paradoxical statements and a play on focalisation all contribute to creating a hall of mirrors, one in which interpretations and landmarks fail to impart stability.

Borrowed identity and embeddedness

14The third stage of the face-off leads then to a trade off, a stage of borrowed identity when the mad scientist identifies with or becomes the mad terrorist. For instance Mo Muntervary becomes a fugitive, tracked down by US government officials in helicopters like a terrorist. The good doctor Markham in Millenium People ends up taking part in a number of borderline forms of protest; he feels aroused by violence and ends up sharing the views of the rebels.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 95.

“Psychiatry was at its best when dealing with failure, but had never coped with success. Kay was driven by the true fanatic’s zeal, a belief system that was satisfied with only one convert, herself. In many ways, she was right. The social conventions that tied people to their cautious and sensible lives had to be cleared away22.”

15Far from being focused on individuals, all three novels open up onto wider social issues, namely the complex relationship between deviance and control. On the one hand, neurosciences as featured in these novels may promise the means of a better control of individuals and enhanced order (bringing to mind for instance such dystopias as Minority Report): thugs, given the adequate treatment i. e. neurosurgery, will behave.

  • 23 Macewan I., op. cit., p. 272.

“Perowne, the professional reductionist, can’t help thinking it’s down to invisible folds and kinks of character, written in code, at the level of molecules. It’s a dim fate, to be the sort of person who can’t earn a living, or resist another drink, or remember today what he resolved to do yesterday. No amount of social justice will cure or disperse this enfeebled army haunting the public places of every town23.”

  • 24 See the introduction, Canovan M., in The Human Condition, op. cit., p. ix-xi.

16One may rephrase this fairly conservative statement as following: antisocial behaviour, deviance and violence haunt us in our daily lives because they lie embedded within people’s neuronal web. The shift from the social to the neuronal paradigm is far from neutral. Such a line of thought may have terrifying implications: it dispenses with the notion of free will and justifies a dual treatment of people, between those who fit in and may have access to democracy, rights, jobs etc, and those who don’t and might, could, should be neutralised. This may open the way for a new form of totalitarianism, very vividly portrayed for instance in The Stone Gods by Winterson where civil servants fall into only two categories, the Enforcement and the Enhancement squads, state versions of an on/off stimulus that regulates the lives of citizens. So all three novels add a twist to the face-off between neurosciences and terrorism, in which social order and social control pushed to their limits verge on State terror by denying politics a space. It might be interesting here to go back to Arendt’s analysis of the human condition. Her reflection was based on an analysis of the effects produced by nuclear warfare and behaviourism, but we could draw a parallel with the present situation. Arendt defined “alienation from the world” as a situation where modern automated societies encourage us to behave and think of ourselves simply as an animal species governed by natural laws; she then stressed the political importance of “the plurality of human beings”, the fact that each of us can act and start something new in interaction with our fellow human beings, the results being highly contingent and unpredictable24.

  • 25 Ballard J. G., op. cit., p. 37.

17Contrary to the Cold war era however, in our global and terror-ridden world, the enemy is no longer without (Russia, Cuba) but rather within, invisible and embedded, for instance taking the guise of a teacher, a woman, a priest in Millenium People. This may be the most challenging and unnerving issue tackled by these novels. Because he may be the guy next door, the figure of the terrorist as shown in these novels forbids us to interpret violence and catastrophe as the result of the evil designs of the Other, any antagonist firmly set on the other side of the geographical, lawful and human frontier. Their methods, i. e. choosing violence over discourse, place them outside of the realm of politics but two of these novels feature heroes that challenge a deviant order where politics have been replaced by control. Ballard’s thesis may be that in a mass society massively controlled, deviance could be interpreted as sanity: “Protest movements, sane and insane, sensible and absurd, touched almost every aspect of life in London, a vast web of demonstrations that tapped a desperate need for a more meaningful world25.” He repeatedly highlights the fact that violence is neither in nor out, but intermittently present, lying dormant and switching to an active mode, in all characters, which corroborates the thesis of an embeddedness of terror.

18Therefore the fourth and final stage of the face-off is an open question, that of the reversal where the terrorist is the sane saviour. The notion of free will is here central. The act of terrorism, in its rebellion against the pre-established order, is usually read either as an act of madness (by those who wish to preserve the said order) or on the contrary as an act of freedom (in the works of Camus, Conrad, etc). When implying that acts of violence are rooted in unbalanced emotional states or neural disorders, the neuroscientist invalidates the thesis of the terrorist and the value of his actions. We no longer deal here with the distinction between sanity and insanity nor between good and evil, but with the issue of control and freedom, power and responsibility. And it is a very disquieting and provocative question to ask.

Alienation and accountability: the place of discourse

19The most interesting element in this debate might be the fact that our authors chose to deal with such topics not from a moral stance but through their impact on language. Both stereotypes, that of the terrorist and that of the neuroscientist, indeed question our relation to language or rather discourse. The point of terrorism is to prefer violence to discourse as a tool for conflict resolution because discourse is seen as slow, inefficient and socially biased. Language would be used by terrorists as propaganda, condemnations or statements, always unilaterally and never in a spirit of dialogue. One should note that discourse or rather enunciation is treated as data by the neuroscientist, and is often analysed as a symptom (of a deficiency or disorder) rather than a sign. The terrorist and the neuroscientist, as featured in our corpus, share a reductive approach to language. In this respect Mo Muntervary’s philosophical musings enact a radical questioning of discourse, in which truth becomes irrelevant and is replaced by an odd mix of randomness and predictability.

  • 26 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 373.

“Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty. You can know the position of an electron but you cannot know where it’s going, or where it is by the time you register the reading. John went blind. Or you can know its direction, but you cannot know its position. Heinz Formaggio at Light Bow read my Belfast papers and offered me a job. The particles in the atoms of the brain of that young man who pulled me out of the path of the taxi in London were configured so that he was there, and able to, and willing to. Even the most complete knowledge of a radioactive atom will not tell you when it will decay. I don’t know when the Texan will be here. Nowhere does the microscopic world stop and the macroscopic world begin26.”

20Both the radical neuroscientist and the radical terrorist dispense with the social efficiency of discourse as a privileged and successful access to meaning. The advent of the age of risk, control and terror may therefore be analysed as the greatest threat to discourse as a mode of socialisation, and political bond. Hélène L’Heuillet, in Aux sources du terrorisme, neatly encapsulates the impact of such fear and helplessness on the regimes of discourse:

  • 27 L’Heuillet H., Aux Sources du terrorisme, Paris, Fayard, 2009, p. 74-75.

« La peur est un principe de fragmentation et ne saurait constituer l’élément d’un discours. Si elle est capable, au même titre qu’un autre affect, de faire parler, elle n’est pas propre à assurer une circulation et un échange. Elle est appel au pouvoir, appel à la sécurité, mais pas appel à d’autres mots. Le lien social est discours parce qu’un mot en appelle un autre, tandis que la peur maintient dans la sidération de l’objet redouté27. »

  • 28 Hirschman A., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, C (...)

21As any work of anticipation, these novels distort, magnify and parody some disquieting elements of our world. They articulate a shift from the psychiatric notion of madness to the more political and social notion of alienation, from the diagnosis of an illness to the issues of responsibility and predictability of behaviour. These three novels treat the theme in varied, even antagonistic ways that could be compared to the “exit, voice, loyalty” strategies of coping with decline in organisations that were identified by sociologist Hirschmann28. But by staging the various stages of the face-off – confrontation, contamination, mirror, reversal or borrowed identity, these works use narrative techniques, characterisation and thematisation to reinstate the value of discourse. In doing so, they give us food for thought and some sense of warning in our mutating world.



Andler D., “Sciences Cognitives”, Encyclopædia Universalis, electronic version, 2006.

Arendt H., The Human Condition, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2e édition, 1998 [1958].

Ballard J. G., Millenium People, London, Harper Perennial, 2008 [2003].

Beck U., La Société du risque, sur la voie d’une autre modernité, Paris, Aubier, 2001.

Boy D., Pourquoi avons-nous peur de la technologie ?, Paris, Presses de Sciences Politiques, 2007.

Hirschman A., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1970.

LHeuillet H., Aux Sources du terrorisme, Paris, Fayard, 2009.

Macewan I., Saturday, London, Anchor, 2005.

Metellus J., «Histoire de la neurologie», Encyclopædia Universalis, version électronique, 2006.

Mitchell D., Ghostwritten, London, Sceptre, 1999.


1 Arendt H., The Human Condition, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2d edition, 1998 [1958], p. 2.

2 Mitchell D., Ghostwritten, London, Sceptre, 1999, p. 360.

3 Macewan I., Saturday, London, Anchor, 2005, p. 81.

4 The article on “Sciences cognitives” by Daniel Andler in the 2006 edition of Encyclopaedia Universalis sums up the history of this emerging scientific field, combining psychology, medicine, artificial intelligence and linguistics. It gained weight at the beginning of the eighties (Sloan Foundation, publication of various journals). Towards the end of the 90s though, the branch of neurosciences, till then embedded within this nexus, came to the fore. Jean Metellus in his article on “Histoire de la neurologie ” emphasizes the fact that this particular branch has reached its operational stage at the end of the xxth century and is longer the peripheral and mostly theoretical field of investigation it used to be.

5 Arendt H., op. cit., p. 293.

6 Stansbury M., “What educators can learn from brain research”, July 21, 2009, URL: []; Harford T., “Where economics meets neuroscience”, BBC Radio 4, October 27, 2008.

7 URL: []; Anderson K., “To build a human brain”, URL: [], July 22nd, 2009.

8 Boy D., Pourquoi avons-nous peur de la technologie ?, Paris, Presses de Sciences Politiques, 2007, p. 34.

9 Macewan I., op. cit., p. 85, 88.

10 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 20.

11 Ibid., p. 434.

12 A whole chapter is dedicated to the contamination effect in Boy, op. cit., p. 47-62.

13 Ballard J. G., Millenium People, London, Harper Perennial, 2008 [2003], p. 5.

14 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 374.

15 Ibid., p. 89.

16 MacEwan I., op. cit., p. 39.

17 Ibid., p. 12.

18 Ballard J. G., op. cit., p. 81.

19 Ibid., p. 59.

20 Ibid., p. 102.

21 Ibid., p. 96.

22 Ibid., p. 95.

23 Macewan I., op. cit., p. 272.

24 See the introduction, Canovan M., in The Human Condition, op. cit., p. ix-xi.

25 Ballard J. G., op. cit., p. 37.

26 Mitchell D., op. cit., p. 373.

27 L’Heuillet H., Aux Sources du terrorisme, Paris, Fayard, 2009, p. 74-75.

28 Hirschman A., Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1970.


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