Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review: Three Bags Full (Leonie Swann)

Swann, Leonie Three Bags Fulls (2005; transl. Anthea Bell 2006) A flock of sheep solve a murder mystery. Turns out their shepherd offed himself. A nice, quirky idea, but it goes on too long. The sheep’s eye/mind view is nicely done, and Swann uses it for (mostly) gentle satire. She has degrees in philosophy and psychology: one of the perennial questions in philosophy and psychology is what it would feel like to be someone else, or another animal. I don’t think we can answer that.

Some years ago, a TV show purported to show what the world looked like to dogs and cats. The makers manipulated the colours of the image, based on what’s known about cats' and dogs' eyes: they don’t have the same colour receptors as we have (more evidence that the eye evolved, BTW.) Trouble is, the colour chemistry of the eye’s receptors doesn’t tell us much about what the animal perceives. We can tell that colour blind people can’t differentiate between certain colours, and this correlates with deficiencies in their retinal chemistry, but it doesn’t tell us what colours they actually see. The perception of the world is subjective. It seems reasonable to suppose that the world looks pretty much the same to humans, and largely the same to cats and dogs, but that supposition is based entirely on our observations of how other humans and animals respond to visual cues. They respond pretty much the same way I do, so I infer that they perceive pretty much what I perceive. But that inference is not provable.

A related question is whether we can imagine a truly alien mind. The answer IMO is no: our imagination is limited by our experience and knowledge, which is wholly human. “Imagination” is remembering, which we don’t do very well. That is, “remembering” is reconstruction, not replaying of a record. To remember something is to imagine what happened.

However, by “imagination” most people mean “creating or inventing something new”. But what actually happens is extrapolation and recombination. That’s why a good imaginer can make loadsadough presenting us with things we individually cannot imagine. Such people can extrapolate further and recombine more wildly than most people can. The attraction of a well written story or well made movie is precisely that: these works present us with images we ourselves could not imagine, or could not imagine as well as their creators.

In fact, imagined experience can never have the vividness of actual experience. What we remember of an experience is not its sensory content so much as its emotive impact: what it felt like has a stronger effect than what it was. Hence people’s difficulty in describing a movie that impressed them: we get surprisingly vague and incomplete accounts of what the movie was about, but emphatic claims to its greatness, impact, coolness, etc.

All that being said, Swann has managed to give us a plausible and amusing story as seen and heard by the sheep. The sheep often misunderstand and misinterpret what humans say and do, but their mistakes are as illuminating as their insights. Mostly, we get a sense that what we humans think is important really isn’t. A good read, but longer than necessary for both the plot and the creation of the sheep’s world. **½