Sunday, April 26, 2009

Essential Unknowableness

I've been rereading an old treasure from our bookshelf: a collection of Byron's letters that S gave me when I went off to Japan. I have been a Byronophile (Byrophiliac?) since my university days, and the older I get and the more about him I understand, the better I like the man.

His letters are some of his best writing. Condensed narratives and scenes from his often hilarious, often tragic life. His heartbreaking letters to his estranged wife contrast sharply with his uproarious tales of life in Venice. It's hard to select passages because as always with Byron, context is so important. He is not a writer of pithy remarks and self-contained couplets but rather a sprawling, ungainly teller of tales who plays on the ongoing context of his works. But reading his letters in a sustained period builds up a very satisfying view of the man. And he never fails to surprise.

This collection is some 800 pages or so, and even at that is but a fraction of Lord Byron's total correspondence. There's an edition of Byron's Letters and Journals that is perhaps more complete: it's published in TWELVE VOLUMES -- and that's only considering his side of the story. Include all the letters others wrote TO him, and there are thousands upon thousands of pages of what is, essentially, data. Data about Lord Byron and those he spoke to, and of.

It's a vast amount of information. Staggering.

And yet there remain so many mysteries about the man. Who he was and what his opinions TRULY were on so many subjects. His writings are filled with contradictions and controversies, with such sly twists of meaning, that people still argue over some of the most basic facts of his life and personality. Was he a sexist monster? A romantic knocked about by the world or a cynical manipulator of public opinion?

All of which puts me in mind of Charles' Stross' astonishing book Accelerando. One of the conceits of this book is the idea that we will, in the not too distant future, find a way of codifying and storing personality. Which is the real key to immortality, of course. Once we know how to record and store a person's character intact (I should think a non-lossy format will be required here), then we can pull them up at any time and they live again. Which I guess means turning off the computer is a form of murder, but fortunately a reversible one. Keep backups.

But is this feasible? Is it reasonable to suggest that there will EVER be enough data to record a person so thoroughly that we recognize a manifestation of them as THEM? Look at the vast amount of data we have on a character like George Gordon, Lord Byron, and consider how feeble our ability to truly understand him is. How much more data will be required to have a definitive recording of a human being's personality?

Perhaps I'm just a Luddite on this issue. But the essential unknowableness is important to me. A friend recently asked for help in dealing with people suffering personality disorders: he found these people so perfectly predictable that it actually became hard to see them as human beings, rather than just objects in the world he could manipulate. We discussed the need in all of us to maintain the awareness that ALL people are capable of surprising us, no matter how many times in the past they may have played right into our expectations.

Heck, DOGS can surprise the most experienced trainers -- how can we imagine that people can be perfectly recorded and duplicated?

As for Lord Byron, people keep trying to reproduce him. I recently read John Crowley's The Evening Land, which purports to be a novel written by Byron. It was a healthy effort, and yet it did not convince in the end. Byron is dead, and he will never be among us again. All we have are the words he left behind, but these must be a pale shadow of the man that was.

But damn, he writes a great letter.