Powers, Pater, Penman: Generosity and Mindfulness

April 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

“That isn’t mania,” she told him, even as doubt spread across his face.  It was, in fact, something much weirder.  “That’s what we in the mental health business call peak experience.  And you’re saying she’s like that all the time?” (Powers 93)


Early in Richard Powers’s Generosity: An Enhancement (2009), Thassadit Amzwar is rendered a picture of mental and emotional vigor; her apparent unflappability constitutes nothing less than the novel’s narrative generator.  Russell Stone becomes obsessed by it, Candace Weld aims to examine it, Thomas Kurton wants to tap into it, John “Spock” Thornell tries to break it, and the rest of Thassa’s classmates visibly alter in its presence.  The inscrutability – the apparent illogic – of Thassa’s stalwart happiness illuminates one of the novel’s central questions: is “emotional temperament” heritable (Powers 132), and if so, should genetic science be marshaled to engineer it?

While its epistemological underpinnings have been ever in flux, Candace Weld’s notion of “peak experience” is not a 21st-century innovation.  In 1873, Walter Pater published Studies in the History of the Renaissance, that enormously influential – and controversial – manifesto of the aesthetic school.  In the conclusion to Pater’s text, one almost feels one is reading a blueprint for Powers’s portrait of Thassa Amzwar:


The service of philosophy, and of religion and culture as well, to the human spirit, is to startle it into a sharp and eager observation.  Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us,–for that moment only.  Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end. (Pater 119)


Pater, like Powers, was responding to the scientific gestalt of his period: for the former, science had demonstrated that subjective experience could be understood as “each mind keeping as solitary prisoner its own dream of a world” (Pater 119).  From these premises, Pater proceeded not to a schematic account of human experience but to an intensely personal one: any “theory, or idea, or system” (Pater 120) which would subjugate the singular to the general was dulling and dangerous.

Might we say that Russell Stone & co. emblematize the sort of deadening generalization that Pater warned his audience against?  In their desire to pathologize, to identify Thassa as aberrant (or exceptional, if there’s an substantive distinction to be made), do they betray the fact that their understanding is always-already mediated by reductive models of normalcy and genetic determinism?  Mindfulness, an ancient tradition that has become a cause célèbre in scholarly and popular psychological literature in recent years, seems to offer a Paterian alternative to this sort of thinking.  According to Mark Williams and Danny Penman, mindfulness is above all “a practice” (W & P x), one predicated on an understanding of the brain as plastic, and thus of the subject as having a great deal of agency in determining her emotional health.  Bearing Pater, Williams, and Penman in mind, we might say that Generosity’s primary site of pathological investigation is less Thassa than the Chicagoan milieu that she baffles so thoroughly.

Killian C Quigley


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