Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Body Electric (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist - Jonah Lehrer)


As I won't be around Thursday, I'll post now. I've finished Jonah Lehrer's first chapter on Walt Whitman and the paradox we live when conceiving of ourselves as body and soul.
A self-conscious "language-maker," Whitman had no precursor. No other poet in the history of the English language prepared readers for Whitman's eccentric cadences ("sheath'd hooded sharp-tooth'd touch"), his invented verbs ("unloosing," "preluding," unreeling"), his love of long anatomical lists... and his honest refusal to be anything but himself, syllables be damned.

Lehrer's sees two places where Whitman's intertwining of the visceral and the spiritual - his conception of body as soul - presages later discoveries of neuroscientists. One is Whitman's discovery while working with wounded soldiers of the Civil War of phantom limbs - when amputees continue to experience sensation in their missing limbs:
Since soul is body and body is soul... As Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself," "Lack one lacks both."
The second is the notion that emotion has its origin not in the mind alone but in the body, that is, we don't fear and then tremble, we tremble and then fear. Lehrer tells of Henry James's writing of the idea in the late 19th century, and of today's most prominent researcher in the field of emotion: Antonio Damasio. (His books Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens are warm and humane expressions of the ideas leading to and emanating from his research in that field. I highly recommend them). Damasio has developed that idea still further, Lehrer writes, into feeling emanating from a connection where the body feeds the mind and the mind the body. But Whitman predated them both, writing in 1855:
...not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the
Muse, I say the form complete is worthier far...

Lehrer's writing on Whitman is lean and lyrical and his interlacing of ideas scientific and literary is rich, taking on a celebratory tone that echoes its subject and makes me excited to move on to chapter two - George Eliot and....any guesses?

1 comment:

verbivore said...

When does this book come out to the general public? - both your posts have already gotten me hooked, it sounds wonderful.