Exploring symbiosis and psychedelics: Merlin Sheldrake meets Edward St Aubyn

Merlin Sheldrake, the bestselling author of Entangled Life, recently sat down with Edward St Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels and his new book, Double Blind.

A black and white image of Merlin Sheldrake and Edward St Aubyn

Edward St Aubyn: Even the title of the first chapter of Entangled Life, ‘What is it like to be a fungus?’ is surprising. I took it to be an echo to some extent of Thomas Nagle’s famous essay on what it’s like to be a bat. There are other worlds of experience that we only have limited access to because we have different bodies. But we can explore them through imagination. And I was struck by how much you made an effort to see the world from the fungal point of view, in the same way that I try and make an effort to imagine other mentalities and characters who have lives completely different from my own. Did you throw yourself into that process very consciously?

Merlin Sheldrake: Yes. When thinking about the living world I feel like I have a responsibility to try to step outside my human-centred perspective. Even if my attempts to see the world from a fungal point of view are doomed to failure, I feel that it’s good manners to try. We won’t be able to understand fungal lives unless we start thinking about the worlds that they’re exposed to from their point of view.

Edward St Aubyn: In a sense, metaphors resemble one of the great themes of your book, which is not only about this relatively obscure kingdom of life – fungi – but about symbiosis, in that metaphor takes elements from different parts of experience and brings them together. If a ship ploughs through the water, the agricultural and the nautical are brought together and generate a hybrid in our imagination – in that case a very clichéd one, but a cliché is just a metaphor that’s been destroyed by its own success. Symbiosis is something that was a revelation for me in reading Entangled Life. The complexity of these relationships is astonishing. Not only do fungi collaborate with plants, but within the fungi are bacteria, and sometimes bacteria within bacteria. Your descriptions totally justify the title of the book. Were you aware of this before you started your fieldwork, or was there a process of discovering life to be more and more entangled as you went along?

Merlin Sheldrake: The more you look, the more entangled the living world becomes, which is a great thrill. When I was in Panama it really hit home, because I existed there in a kind of disciplinary symbiosis. In chatting with other researchers I would find out that they were thinking about an aspect of my subject matter but from the perspective of another other actor in that relationship. Historically, professional specialisation within the sciences made it difficult for researchers to study the relationships between very different organisms because they were separated by disciplinary chasms. One of the trends that we’re seeing now in the biological sciences is towards more and more interdisciplinary work. And I think this is a reflection of our greater understanding of the living world as inextricably entangled; fundamentally so.

Something I really enjoyed about Double Blind is that many of the characters are wrestling with different kinds of scientific problems, but we experience the scientific problem and enquiry as firmly embedded within their lives. We see them wrestling with dilemmas, in which their own personal, emotional, intuitive worlds are in dialogue with their scientific enquiries. Scientists are not portrayed as disembodied rationalities. This is a really helpful and beautiful way to explore the role that disciplinary relationships can have in our lives, and how confusing it is when we start trying to divide one area of human thought and experiment and experience from another.

Edward St Aubyn: Well, I felt that was my responsibility as a novelist. Although I was fascinated by scientific arguments and interpretations, I couldn’t turn my characters into advocates of one position or another, like the novelist Thomas Love Peacock, who created characters called Mr Materialism or Mademoiselle Élan Vital, or whatever. I wanted them to be fully realised human beings. W. H. Auden said that he was a poet when he was writing poetry and the rest of the time he was a person. And I felt that this must be true of scientists as well, that they didn’t wear their white coats in bed. I also wanted to ground science in ordinary human experience. There’s a character in my novel who’s suffering from cancer. There’s another character who’s schizophrenic. These are ways into science that don’t go through the laboratory door. We’re all living with science the whole time: during this pandemic, for example, or when we wonder what to eat, or go and see a doctor.

Merlin Sheldrake: One of the things that becomes clear when you think about the sciences is that they are not unified and monolithic, but rather an evolving collection of practices and values undertaken by people with very different backgrounds and ways of thinking and understanding. A quantum physicist is a lay person with regard to a herpetologist, for instance. There’s a wonderful passage in Double Blind where you discuss this. The character, Saul, says:

‘I guess the thing I’ve been trying to get across to you over the last year is that if science offered a unified vision of the world, it would be a pyramid, with consciousness at the apex, arising explicably from biology, and life arising smoothly from chemistry, and the Periodic Table, in all its variety, emerging inevitably from the fundamental forces and structures described by physics; but in reality, even physics isn’t unified, let alone unified with the rest of science. It’s not a pyramid; it’s an archipelago – scattered islands of knowledge, with bridges running between some of them, but with others relatively isolated from the rest.’

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this image and how this became a theme for you.

Edward St Aubyn: I felt that there were painful explanatory gaps between the big branches of science, and that what Saul just described in my novel is not the case. There isn’t a pyramid, although we’re often invited to believe that we’re only minutes away from seeing it finished. The way forward is going to be in integrating different disciplines, in going with the bridge builders and not the wall builders – a familiar situation – and in finding ways to collaborate. This rests on an assumption that there’s a unity to knowledge, that we can approach describing reality together, whether it’s from the point of view of a fiction writer or a field researcher.

There’s an enjoyable passage in Entangled Life where you take LSD under very controlled conditions. Being a scientist, you don’t take psychedelics in a hedonistic or haphazard way, I’m pleased to say. It  was administered by a nurse who made sure that you swallowed the entire dose in the beaker. And after your experience, you had to fill out a psychometric questionnaire, and you write this:

‘The psychometric questionnaire I was struggling to complete had been designed to assess this kind of experience. But the more I tried to cram my sensations into a five-point scale on a page, the more confused I became. How can one measure the experience of timelessness? How can one measure the experience of unity with an ultimate reality? These are qualities, not quantities. Yet, science deals in quantities. I squirmed, took several deep breaths and tried to approach the questions from a different angle. How do you rate your experience of amazement? The bed seemed to sway gently and a school of thoughts scattered through my mind like startled minnows. How do you rate your experience of infinity? I could feel the scientific procedure groaning under the strain of what seemed to be an impossible task.’

I love this passage because you’re taking psychedelics, which are category-dissolving and ego-dissolving, and which throw the whole subject/object relationship into question. And then, because of the habits of science, you have to award points to these various kinds of transformative experience. On the one hand, you have the quantitative habit of science and on the other hand, the qualitative nature of experience. What did you end up writing on the questionnaire, or did you abandon it?

Merlin Sheldrake: Well, I spent much of the time laughing but I couldn’t abandon the questionnaire. I had to fill it out every hour or so, there was no escape.


You can listen to the rest of this conversation on the Vintage Books podcast.

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