Can’t Be Done

The Nature of the Impossible
Edited by Philip J. Davis and David Park
W.H. Freeman, 325 pp.

Only a fool or a visionary, it’s said, attempts the impossible. But only a group of academics would write an anthology about what it means exactly.

Clearly, some things are impossible. But other things, we would have to concede, only seem impossible. Is it possible to tell the difference between the two, or is that itself an impossibility? And does the ability to accomplish the impossible mean that nothing is in principle impossible, or that all things are possible or merely that what was thought to be impossible was in fact possible, but that which is truly impossible remains impossible?

Is anyone getting a headache?

No Way is a very strange book, not only because it consists of 18 academics from wildly different fields, all with their thinking caps wedged on tight, musing together on the character of impossibility, but also because in the current agenda of academic interest the impossible is downright irrelevant.

That is, from time to time a single concept can capture the attention of a variety of disciplines, providing it’s germane to a common concern. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the notion of “ideology” swept the universities. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was the concept of “discourse.” Lately, the stampede of tweed has been toward the “postmodern.”

The “impossible,” however, features nowhere in academic life as either a category to be explored or a problem to be addressed. There are no shared terms in which it might be interrogated, and no pressing reason to do so.

No Way, as a consequence, is an oddity from the outset: a collection of essays without a unifying theme. Instead, there is simply a central pun: the notion that impossibilities in medicine or politics are sufficiently equivalent to those in mathematics or science to merit their consideration in a single volume.

At best, it’s a flimsy premise for an anthology, but it might have worked if only enough of the essays were illuminating or thought-provoking. Unluckily, too many of the contributors are talking through their mortarboards.

Sophie Freud, ACSW, PhD, takes 17 pages to advance the proposition that it is impossible to be a perfect parent – perfectly true, but also fairly obvious. Kinereth Gensler, BA, MA, poet, delivers a lecture on the language of poetry one might remember having heard for the first time in grade 10. A few write with the coherence of people muttering to themselves. Still others – the scientists in particular – write on the impossible in prose that is almost impassable.

Perhaps most disappointing is the contribution of the sole philosopher, someone called T. E. Burke. One would have thought that if anyone could write with flair on things that cannot happen it would be a philosopher.

At some point in their studies, all philosophy students come across P. L. Heath’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy under the word “Nothing.” A review of how the concept has bamboozled even the weightiest thinkers, and how modern philosophy would just as soon prefer that Nothing ceased to exist, the essay is a masterpiece – what one might have expected had Ludwig Wittgenstein been a stand-up comic.

Burke, by comparison, fumbles his opportunity, delivering an uninspired meditation on the import of the collapse of logical positivism. No one ever tackled the impossible with such doggedly pedestrian intentions.

But while the misses outnumber the hits, a handful of contributors use the “impossible” as an occasion to present genuinely original essays on some aspect of their respective fields.

Adam Yarmolinsky, a former Harvard Law School faculty member and seasoned veteran Democrat in Washington life, offers an instructive and witty guide to the politically impossible that reads like an outline for an episode of Yes, Minister.

(As the Mulroney government has learned to its cost, Truman’s observation about Eisenhower still holds: “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” It turns out the art of government isn’t a bit like corporate management either.)

The husband-wife team of James and Jean Goodwin, both Harvard MDs and both physicians at the University of Wisconsin, grapple with the big impossibility in medicine: the impossibility of living forever. (Even the elimination of all cancers, they point out, would add only two years to the average life span.)

And Thomas Foster, a Harvard Law graduate, considers the impossible as a plea for breaking contractual obligations. In the tradition of Anglo-American law, can a country such as Brazil, for example, justify reneging on her debts on the grounds that it has become impossible to service the interest? (Yes and no.)

Like all anthologies, No Way rests on the merits of its individual contributions. And like most collections of uneven quality, the book as a whole will likely be ignored, while the valuable essays will find themselves face down on the plate glass of photo copying

  • Montreal Gazette March 28, 1987