A Field Guide to Reality

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  • Smart, strange, coping with death through Light

    Margaret Atwood

    A Field Guide to Reality is an extraordinary, wise, funny, adventurous and hallucinogenic book that combines fiction with gleefully warped fact. Kavenna explores the complex nature of reality and perception with vast imaginative energy and a generous spirit.

    A. L. Kennedy

    A novel so utterly startling and inventive, it's almost an act of resistance. Joanna Kavenna is a true literary insurgent: bravely unconventional and ruthless in her quest to demonstrate the possibility of deep, distinctive experience.

    Miriam Toews

    A gripping mystery story, a sprightly tour through Western philosophy, and a thoughtful investigation of the meaning of life, death and the universe. A beautifully written novel.

    Apostolos Doxiadis, author of Logicomix

    A sophisticated [...] roman des idées, part Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, part Gulliver's Travels ... Fascinating . . . An engagingly artless off-the-cuff freshness . . . I couldn't put it down. A cult following seems certain.

    David Collard, Literary Review

    bizarre and delightful journey into the sheer strangeness of what is . . . It opts to push the boundaries of what the novel is, playfully borrowing from other forms and genres. The whole thing is visually and formally offbeat . . . peppered with odd, dark and charming illustrations by Oly Ralfe . . . A fascinating novel. Kavenna's writing tends toward the gravely lyrical . . . One of the great charms of her prose is the humour with which she leavens it. Sly remarks fall like leering winks from a widow . . . Incredibly beautiful.

    Sofia Laing, Telegraph

    The 'novel of ideas' has tended to work best by wit, by wryness and by irony . . . This novel of Roger Bacon and baked beans, a comic metaphysical thriller, is a nebulous and sharp delight

    Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

    Defying genres and expectations, Joanna Kavenna opens a Pandora's Box of bstruse ideas while sending up life in ivory towers. Relentless in terms of genre - one minute campus comedy, the next elegaic wistfulness, bemused one minute and enthrallingly enlightened the next - perfectly mirrors the novel's major theme

    Stuart Kelly, Scotsman

    A work of cunning misdirection and trickery - a mystery in thrall to mystery's beauty . . . This is a novel charged with a vital and distinctly unfashionable faith in the wonder and plurality of knowledge itself . . . For all its lightness of touch, its energy and humour, this is a work concerned with darkness of a very different kind: grief. . . [for which] like the investigations into light that weave their way through this strange and charming novel, there are no easy formulae.

    Sam Byers, Spectator
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    1. Sam Byers Spectator
    2. Guardian roundup
    3. Suzi Feay in the Guardian
  • Life in thirteenth-century Oxford is hard and dangerous. The homicide rate exceeds modern-day Bogota. Each year for every hundred monks attending the university (all students must be in religious orders), three are murdered, fifteen die of dysentery, and twenty-six run away to London.

           The gates of the town close at dusk.


    Walter Raleigh has not yet visited the New World and there are no potatoes or tobacco. The staple foods are bread, porridge and gruel. Meat is expensive and only the rich are assured of a reliable supply. Because of the Eucharist, bread is endowed with particular status and is consumed regularly, incessantly –

           With deleterious physical effects and perhaps to the general despond of all:


    Menu Prix Fixe





           Parsimonious cuts of meat with Ample Bread


           Bread Pudding



    The sallow streets of medieval Oxford are riddled with people in varying states of acute and even chronic indigestion, trying to walk off the latest incursion of


    As the first Chancellor of the university, Robert Grosseteste presides over a series of monastic Halls –


    Worm Hall

    Cat Hall

    Bull Hall

    Hare Hall

    Unicorn Hall

    Woodcock Hall

    Nightingale Hall

    Eagle Hall

    Sparrow Hall

    Hawk Hall

    Ape Hall

    Beefe Hall

    Perilous Hall

    Kepeharm Hall

    Aristotle Hall

    Nun’s Hall

    Pie Hall


    Grosseteste is also known as Grossteste, Grostest, Grostet, Grosthead, Grouthead, Grostede, Greatheade, Grosteheved, Greateheved, Grosehede, Grokede, and Goschede. In this era, spellings are not fixed and the creative possibilities are endless. Yet Grosseteste of the mutable and at times suggestive name has more pressing matters to deal with. He is transfixed by mysteries. How do we see what we see? How do we know that what we see is real? Besides, he cannot fix himself in time. He ricochets from one continent to another, across the centuries. He wonders at times if he is mad.

           The eye is a lantern, says Empedocles the Greek and Grosseteste tries to catch the rest of his words . . .

           As when a man, thinking to go out into the wintry night, makes ready a light, a flame of blazing fire . . .

           Now Grosseteste sees Plato, surrounded by students and acolytes. Plato is explaining that light is a mixture of the inner fire of the eye, and the fire of the sun . . . The fire within us, which is akin to the daylight, flows pure, smooth and dense through the eyes . . .

           This coalesces with daylight, says Plato, to form one uniform body . . . Its uniformity becomes sympathetic . . .

           Grosseteste hides in the shade of an olive tree, he watches the people watching Plato. And even as he falters on the brink of a further realisation – he moves again, drifts through a few brief ages and now he is at the Lyceum with Aristotle.

           Aristotle says: the eye does not emit light, instead light enters the eye from the world beyond.

           The eye is Not a torch, a burning brand, striking the world with its radiant light. Plato’s theories are ludicrous.

           The acolytes shift, they are uncertain.

           Aristotle looks up – he sees Grosseteste nodding in the shadows – he is moving towards the cleric when – dark clouds obliterate the sun. Darkness spreads across the strange dream of Robert Grosseteste and the sky turns black, the DARK AGES are upon him.

           This always happens, Grosseteste remembers, just when Aristotle is on the verge of speaking to him –

           The mind cannot imagine such a prospect – he wonders –

           And in the darkness he wonders if he is dying –


    When dawn breaks, Grosseteste finds he is in Cairo. It is the eleventh century.

           Though he is a metaphysical wraith, he sweats.

           The city is kiln-hot, the streets are fired by a harsh sun.

           Grosseteste hurries from one shadow to another.

           Sunlight glares onto the white houses.

           Horses clatter past him. And everything is swirled around in dust that blows in from the desert.


    Ibn al-Haytham, known to posterity as Alhazen, is under house arrest. He was recently employed by Al-Hākim bi Amr Allāh, sixth ruler of the Fatimid caliphate, to control the flooding of the Nile. After a relatively short period of enquiry, it became quite apparent that Alhazen could not, in any discernible sense, achieve this task. As Al-Hākim was not renowned for his forgiving nature, Alhazen was forced to proclaim himself Mad. The defence saved his life, and yet now he is confined to his house. He can no longer ride across the desert at twilight, observing the rising of the silver moon. He can no longer venture to the city of Mesopotamia, where he studied Aristotle in his youth. Despite such physical limitations, Alhazen embarks upon a Quest For Truth . . .

           In a dark room – light that enters through HOLES is visible in the Dust that Fills the Air –

           With these layers of shining dust, Alhazen tries to prove that light travels in straight lines only.

           In this City of Dust, there are ample opportunities for Alhazen to test his theory . . .

           In the dust storms that choke . . .

           The dust that drifts onto the pages as Alhazen writes –

           Dust sparkling like diamonds.

           Beyond, the smoke, dreams, the dead swirling, the clouds and dust, ashes, the lights that flame and glitter in the skies.

           Robert Grosseteste considers the dust that floats in the air and renders light visible –


    Is Light a material substance? says Grosseteste to himself. Ages have passed around him and he has drifted back to Oxford. His mind is addled today and his stomach aches. The sky is deep and swart. In this hall, they choose between warmth and light; there is no glass across the window.

           Draughts oppress him, make him cough and shiver.

           Though his room is filled with pale light, though the lighted dust swirls, he tries to remember –

           A dream of light?

           Grosseteste presents an epistemology of light, a metaphysics of light, an etiology of light, and a theology of light. He describes the birth of the universe in an explosion, and a further crystallisation of matter. All creation emerges from an expanding – and contracting – sphere of light.

           And the Lord said, ‘Let there be Light!’


    A few days or aeons later, Grosseteste is at dinner again. He abhors the draughts that swirl through the echoing hall. The monks sit quietly except for Grosseteste and his companions at the highest table, who are arguing –

           Hunger, weariness, general fret and besides they do not agree about Universals –

           The company includes:


    Roger Bacon – The Marvellous Doctor

    Adam Marsh – The Illustrious Doctor

    John Duns Scotus – The Subtle Doctor

    William of Ockham – The Invincible Doctor


    Dining, alas, on bread.

           In this shadowy echoing hall –

           Roger Bacon explains –


    How gunpowder might be created

    The possibility of a flying machine

    How to design a magnifying glass


           Bacon, too, is transfixed by the mysteries of light, and perception, and how the eye sees anything at all. He has created, he suggests, a strange device which displays shadows against a wall. When Bacon first presents his spectacle of light and shade he terrifies his audience. Figures leer, gargantuan, menacing – the crowd shuffles backwards, screams.

           As night falls, Bacon walks through the streets and scarcely notices the shifty cut-throats emerging from the shadows. He looks at the darkening sky and remembers the Islamic scholar Al-Kindi, who thought that every creature in the universe is a source of radiation and the universe itself a vast network of forces. These forces, or species, are often not visible. But light is.

           Thus, Bacon realises, Light is the most extraordinary and most intriguing of all realities, because it is as if the Wind became visible. Or, as if Thought streamed in colours across the sky.

           For his scholarly pursuits and unrivalled experimentation, Bacon is quite naturally accused of necromancy and consorting with the Devil . . . In this he joins a long line of visionaries accused by their enemies of treachery or heresy –


    Socrates – disposed of by a state that found him profoundly irritating . . .

    Boethius, who was imprisoned and later murdered by King Theodric the Great . . .

    Galileo Galilei – oppressed and silenced by the Church . . .

    Countless unknown wise women, drowned or burned.


    Also at dinner is John Duns Scotus who produces rigorous and munificent works of learning until he is accidentally buried alive.

           His servant, who is fully aware that Duns Scotus has a tendency to catatonia, is unfortunately absent when his master collapses and doctors are summoned. Thus Duns Scotus is pronounced dead, and cast into the ground . . .


    Later, William of Ockham –

           The Invincible Doctor –

           explains that mathematical entities are Not Real –

           and lends his name to the notion of Occam’s Razor. Put simply, this is the proposition that the Simplest Theory is the Best.

           But THEN

           William of Ockham creates a Massive Cataclysm . . .

           In his dream, Grosseteste stirs, and calls out NO NO – he foresees the schism, he can hardly prevent it.

           Ideas will flow and spawn new ideas and then –


    Ockham is sitting in another cold Oxford hall. A fire flickering in the grate, shadows dancing on the walls. It is 1321.

           He has read Grosseteste’s work and the works of Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus, the buried man, and he has mused liberally on the questions of:


    How do we know what it is that we See?

    And does perception create the world, or is it there before us, present and perpetual?


    When the realisation comes, Ockham is so shocked, he clasps his hands to his ears, hoping thereby he might deafen himself to his own thoughts.

           He begins to tremble –




    These abstracts, all the forms of Plato, the grandiose notion that there are universal versions of each flawed aspect of the mortal world, the universal forms of Light –

           Do not Exist.


    A scene of general horror at the Great Table as the scholars pause, forks halfway to their mouths –


    William of Ockham denies that there are perpetual elements that unify all creation . . .

           Instead he believes –

           That everything is unlike everything else, and there can be no synthesis . . .

           (Except – he says, nervously, with an eye on the Pope –

           In God.)

           The Pope excommunicates him anyway . . .

           Threadbare and no longer quite as invincible as before, Ockham devotes himself to scholarship.

           (And calls the Pope a heretic.)

           No universals.

           No whole.

           Reality changes . . .


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A Field Guide to Reality

©2022 Joanna Kavenna