Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Artistic intuition and scientific discovery (Books - Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer)

If you've been here before, you know of my dual passion for books and blogs and others things literary or neuroscientific, so imagine my pleasure at discovering this book. Actually I discovered it's author, Jonah Lehrer, first at his blog The Frontal Cortex, to which I've linked from time to time as he frequently has something interesting to say.

I would have read it anyway, by Houghton Mifflin was kind enough to offer me a copy in advance of the official release (thanks!) so I could share my thoughts about this book with you. Jonah has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, cooked for Le Cirque, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, read Proust, and is now an editor for SEED magazine. That's all while he's still in his twenties. I'm glad to say this is his first book although something tells me he may be on the fast track.

The book features eight chapters which each combine the work of an artist with a topic of scientific interest, using each as a lens through which to see the other - Cezanne and sight, Escoffier and taste, Whitman and feeling, and of course Proust and memory. Here is just a little from the opening chapter:
Whitman's fusion of body and soul was a revolutionary idea, as radical in concept as his free-verse form. At the time, scientists believed that our feelings came from the brain and that the body was just an inert matter. But Whitman believed that our mind depended upon the flesh. He was determined to write poems about our "form complete."

This is what makes his poetry so urgent: the attempt to wring "beauty out of sweat," the metaphysical soul out of fat and skin. Instead of dividing the world into dualisms, as philosophers had done for centuries, Whitman saw everything as continuous with everything else. For him, the body and the soul, the profane and the profound, were only different names for the same thing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Boston Transcendentalist, once declared, "Whitman is a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald."
Lehrer's observations on Whitman's credo are visceral and compact. So far the science writing is sharp but stays fairly general (not in a bad way, I think it gives the book potential for a wide appeal). I'm still in the first chapter but I'm not sure this book really needed its prelude, which uncharacteristically tells us in many sentences only that the book will interweave art and science and that neither is a satisfactory explanation of human experience on its own. The writing in the first chapter seemed strong enough to say that for itself. To let that argument accumulate through action and example would have been much more pleasurable a reading experience than to have the key idea summarily dumped on me. Who wants to have predigested food pumped into you when you can eat a delicious meal?

Aside from that, I'm enjoying the book immensely. More to come as GRE prep and studying potassium channels permits.

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