Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Beautiful connections (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer)


This day was sheer hell, remind me - why did I want to go to graduate school? - so it was nice to end it up with the final chapters of Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist. The penultimate was a lucid analysis of Virginia's Woolf's artistic goal of rendering the experience of our consciousness flesh, and the final a passionate appeal for if not a reconciliation of science and art an acknowledgment that they each have something to contribute to our understanding of the world and our experience of it.

I last wrote on the Escoffier and Proust chapters. The will be my final post on this compact but meaningful volume, so this entry along with this, this, this, and this constitute my "review," if you like.

The chapter on Cezanne explores how we see, but more than that, I felt Lehrer got at something about how the way we see is inextricably coupled with the way we perceive truth. Vision is far from a direct rendering of what is around us in the world. Our attention already limits the amount of information that gets into the system and there are multiple steps from retina, the various levels of the visual system, association areas of the brain, and finally the way that that information is organized as a perception or as Jonah Lehrer puts it:
The shocking fact is that sight is like art. What we see is not real. It has been bent to fit our canvas, which is the brain. When we open our eyes, we enter an illusory world, a scene broken apart by the retina and re-created by the cortex. Just as a painter interprets a picture, we interpret our sensations.

But despite this fact, vision feels like the truth. And there were two moments in this chapter - where Lehrer cited the reaction of the press to Cezanne's work as being:
"of no interest except for the student of pathology and the speicalist in abnormality." Cezanne, the critics declared, was literally insane.
And a second discussing Baudelaire's 1859 invective against the photograph:
It's accuracy, he said, is deceptive, nothing more than phony simulacra of what was really out there. The photographer was even - and Baudelaire only used this insult in matters of grave import - a materialist.... Baudelaire wanted the modern artist to describe everything that the photograph ignored: "the transient, the fleeting, the contingent."

The passion of their reactions reveals the investment they have placed in the evidence given them by their eyes, yet while critics of paintings claim to see for all they really see only for themselves:
No matter how precise our neronal maps become, they will never solve the question of what we actually see, for sight is a private phenomenon.

This chapter is an excellent and fresh discussion on perception - it's hard to tell where the art ends and the science begins.

The chapter on Stravinsky was my least favorite. I'm probably limited by the fact that I worked in music and that I've had an obsession on the birth of modernism for years and have read so many renditions of that first night of The Rite of Spring, that the sensation of it is now lost on me. I also think that, despite his wealth of talents - Lehrer writes about food so that you can taste it, his literary observations are eloquent and display erudition, and he generally puts scientific concepts on the page in lucid and even exciting prose - his writing on music is less original. Music is an abstract medium and it remained abstract in this chapter. But this didn't limit my enjoyment of the book as a whole and he does make a beautiful connection between the self-modifying abilities of our auditory system and Bach's music that I will allow you to enjoy for yourself.

In contrast, the next chapter on Gertrude Stein gave me new insight into this complex writer's work. I don't think I ever understood what her more difficult works were doing until I read this chapter. Lehrer elegantly relates her experimental literature to the hidden rules of language that we ingest as infants so that we become able to generate our own meaning through infinite combinations of the words we acquire, and further how Noam Chomsky illuminated the mechanisms behind this acquisition. It's a beautiful chapter with some wonderful writing about the James brothers - Henry the novelist and William the psychologist.

Finally, he explores the concept of self metaphysically as well as neuroscientifically through the work of Virginia Woolf. I really enjoyed his connection between the concept of attention as it is studied in neuroscience and Virginia Woolf's conjuring of it through her narrative stream, which meant to evoke the experience of consciousness. She is one of my favorite writers and I think she would be pleased to read how well her literary mission has stood up to the maturing of our scientific knowledge!

The coda is an encomium for Ian McEwan's Saturday by way of a plea for the meeting of scientific and artistic minds. One could dip into these chapters with pleasure and try to get away with experiencing the book as an intellectual frivolity. A scientist could put it down before the final chapter and satisfy her curiosity about a writer she's not thought about since college, even smile about the connection that's made to something familiar. An artist could do some intellectual slumming and pick up a thing or two about the visual cortex. Any reader will indeed go away saying - what a clever boy is Jonah Lehrer. But there seems to be a mission behind the writing down of these connections and Lehrer ends his book by laying it out passionately and directly. It sends the chapters home and, since I share his passion for the way the sciences and the arts connect, it made me happy.

7 comments:

sheila said...

I must read this book.

sheila said...

You know, when I finish Bleak House ... I'm a teeny bit more than halfway thru.

Ted said...

S - I think you will appreciate all the connections it makes. David would wet himself over it.

Ah... Bleak House. So wonderful.

sheila said...

Mrs. Bagnet absolutely kills me. I love her so much that it hurs me!!!

sheila said...

HURTS, not "hurs". I type too fast!!

Dewey said...

Wow, this sounds great, and chock-full of some of my favorite people in history.

JCR said...

I saw this book recently--I haven't been to a bookstore in a while--and I immediately thought of you. I mean, I don't know you, but i know your blog... just thought I'll let you know.