The American Scholar, Spring 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
Neuropsychology recognizes an emerging consensus that there may not be such
a thing as mind apart from brain function. As Eric Kandel puts it: "Mind is
a set of operations carried out by the brain, much as walking is a set of
operations carried out by the legs, except dramatically more complex."
This research advances hand in hand with the wholesale implementation
and steady expansion of the externalized neural network: the digitizing of
almost every sphere of human activity.
Is it part of the nature of
human consciousness to seek and create narrative and meaning?
Contemplative and analytic thought are different. The former is intransitive
and experiential whereas the latter is transitive and goal directed. For
transitive thought, information is a means toward some synthesis or
explanation. Then it's good to have a powerful machine that can gather and
sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the contemplative
view, information is nothing without its contexts. Contemplation and
analysis are opposed kinds of thinking.
The novel is not just a thing
to be studied. Its purpose is less to communicate themes or major
recognitions and more to engage the mind in a process that in its full
realization bears upon our living as an ignition to inwardness, which has no
larger end and is the end itself. The novel is the vital antidote to the
mentality that the Internet promotes.
I'm worried by the rapid
erosion of certain ways of thinking: reflection, imaginative projection,
contemplation. Ideally, we have left brain and right brain in balance. But
we are subscribing wholesale to technologies reinforcing left-brain thinking
in every aspect of our lives. What we do is changing how we are by
reconditioning our neural functioning.
For a long time we have had
the idea that the novel is a form that can be studied and explicated. From
this has arisen the dogmatic assumption that the novel is a statement, a
meaning-bearing device. This message-driven way of looking at the novel
allows for the emergence of evaluative grids. In this way, the novel has
been made to serve a goal-driven ideology.
But we have been ignoring
the deeper nature of fiction. It is inwardly experiential, a mode of
contemplation. Its purpose is to create a terrain where mind can be
different, where mind and imagination can freely combine, where memory and
sensation can be deployed through the constraints that imagination allows.
Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am in the novel to the degree
that it involves me, but I am never without some awareness of the world
around me. It is misleading to think of myself as hovering between two
places: the conjured and the empirically real. I occupy a third state, one
which somehow amalgamates two awarenesses.
Reading a novel involves a
double transposition. The first is the inward plunge. No novel can be
entered without taking this step. The second involves agreeing to the givens
of the work. The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing
stimuli is that the first step will be foreclosed by an inability to focus.
Imagination must be quickened and then it must survive interruption and
deflection. But we complain that it is hard to maintain attentive focus.
All of us now occupy an information space blazing with signals. We have
had to evolve coping strategies. When there is too much information, we
graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed. We stare at a
computer screen with its layered windows and orient ourselves with a
fractured attention. When we try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text
of a book we have trouble.
What am I doing when I am reading a novel?
How do I justify the activity as something more than a way to pass the time?
I read novels in order to indulge in a concentrated and directed sort of
inner activity that is not available in most of my daily transactions. This
reading accentuates my own inner life. While I am reading a novel, the work
lives inside me and acts on me. My way of looking at others or my regard for
the larger meaning of my life is subject to pressure or infiltration.
In a lifetime of reading, we store impressions according to private
systems of distribution, keeping factual information on one plane, acquired
psychological insight on another, ideas on a third, and so on. I believe
that I know a great deal without knowing what I know. Insights from one
source join with those from another. I may be a student of human nature
based on my reading. But I no longer know in every case that my insights are
My reading sensibility does not go seeking after themes
and usually forgets them soon after taking them in. I shall need to reflect
upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to examine
what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.
novel serves and embodies a certain interior pace. This has been shouted
down by the transformations of modern life. Reading requires a
synchronization of one's reflective rhythms to those of the work. The reader
adjusts to the author, not vice versa, and sometimes that adjustment feels
But sensibility is now subject to fragmentation by the
turbulent dynamic of life as we live it. We can concentrate only by fighting
the distractions. To achieve deep focus nowadays is to have struck a blow
against the dissipation of self.
AR I hacked and simplified
lustily to edit this cut from a long and wordy original, or rather from a
translation out of German. Birkert's way of thinking and writing is very
different from mine, which is what makes me consider it worth the effort to
appreciate what he has to say.
Transgressing the Boundaries
By Apurva Narechania
The Common Review, Winter 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
In a 1996 issue of Social Text, the physicist Alan Sokal published a now
famous article titled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a
Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." He wrote it as a joke and
submitted it to the editors, who published it as cutting-edge theoretical
Sokal explained: "To test the prevailing intellectual
standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled)
experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies ...
publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and
(b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer,
unfortunately, is yes."
Jonathan Gottschall is in the English
Department at Washington and Jefferson University. Gottschall envisions a
time when "something of the rigor of the scientific approach is applied to
the humanities. We need to really test our questions, really accumulate
knowledge and information. And science has been and continues to be
successful because it is the best model we have for generating real, durable
knowledge." Gottschall is calling for a science of the humanities.
1991, Naomi Wolf wrote a book titled The Beauty Myth: How Images of Female
Beauty Are Used Against Women. It is a work of third-wave feminism, a
movement that emphasizes a poststructuralist view of gender, arguing against
universals in female identity. Wolf claims that Western notions of female
attractiveness have no foundation in biological reality. Men wield female
beauty to keep women striving for its mythical extremes.
In a 2000
class, Gottschall challenged the assumption that the Beauty Myth is a
property of Western culture. In his view, though a standard of beauty may
exist, it is not a mythological social construct but instead rooted in our
more basic biology. Gottschall reasoned that if he could prove female beauty
is stressed in literatures outside the Western tradition, the
cultural-constructionist coil wound tight around human nature might begin to
unravel. The idea was to process world folktales and to tabulate worldwide
references to female beauty with respect to geographic region. The
assumption is that folktales mirror social attitudes.
In nearly every
region containing a representative sample of folktales, there is a
statistically significant pattern across all cultures in all parts of the
world, not only the West. This suggests that the Beauty Myth is mythological
only in the minds of critics.
This kind of criticism is dehumanizing.
The treatment of literature as data points violates our conviction that
human stories are irreducible. Gottschall's method is reliant on the
simultaneous study of multiple works rather than close study of a single
tale or tradition. Against this kind of analysis our romantic selves rebel.
Gottschall's class is a literary jamboree. It is an attempt to do for
literature what Celera did for the human genome. The easy analogy here is
that Gottschall's method is a widening of literary study in the same way
that genomics is a widening of biology. Both require effort on a scale
previously unimagined in either discipline.
In 2008 Gottschall
published a book called Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. The book
contains the study on the Beauty Myth and a few more like it. The studies
are all packed into an appendix following three provocative chapters where
Gottschall outlines his battle against the status quo in the literary
academy. His war is primarily against the poststructuralists pasted by
Gottschall submitted his Beauty Myth study to literary
journals, but no one would have it. The message here is that science and the
humanities are too different. They do not speak the same language.
AR Sad but true —
lit crit is a graveyard for unsystematic thinkers.
N + 1, September 14, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
In the neurological novel, the mind becomes the brain. Since 1997, readers
have encountered Ian McEwan's Enduring Love (de
Clérambault's syndrome), Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn
(Tourette's syndrome), Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in
the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers's The Echomaker
(facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday
(Huntington's disease), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras
syndrome again) by Rivka Galchen, and John Wray's Lowboy
The new reductionism of mind to brain
explained proximate causes of mental function in terms of neurochemistry and
ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity. A convergence of
evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and other biological disciplines leads to
the claim that we are best understood as organisms whose entire panoply of
behavior is directly or indirectly related to organic survival.
McEwan's Enduring Love (1997) effectively inaugurates the
genre of the neuronovel, and remains one of its more nuanced treatments. The
narrator, Joe Rose, is a science journalist, a self-styled man of the
enlightenment. Elitist but meritocratic, Joe is a decent guy who has become
the object of a love with no cause but the deluded lover’s neurochemistry.
Joe correctly diagnoses the madman relatively early in the novel.
1997, McEwan was still the sort of writer to challenge somewhat the
correctness of Joe's neurological reductionism. Joe's rejection of any
talking cure in favor of a thoroughgoing evolutionary psychology and
medicalization had costs that the novelist tried to acknowledge.
McEwan largely abandoned his earlier ambiguity when he wrote
Saturday (2005), in favor of stark biological determinism. That
novel evokes the struggle between the neurosurgeon Perowne, his barrister
wife, and their musician son and poet daughter — and Baxter, a violent thug
suffering from the incurable, genetic brain-wasting disease Huntington's
chorea. Here McEwan changes the narrative voice from the first person of
Enduring Love to a more authoritative limited omniscient
third person. We’re always in Perowne's scientific mind, a mind capable of
reflecting on itself in terms of neuroscience.
are of the hard variety. Other books are soft neuronovels.
Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (1999), with its Tourettic
narrator, load almost the entire burden of meaning and distinctiveness onto
their protagonists' neurologically estranged perceptions of our world.
Idiots or the insane can dispense ironic wisdom or serve as objects to show
off the protagonist's sympathy and understanding. Septimus Smith, the
schizophrenic or shell-shocked First World War vet in Mrs. Dalloway,
offers a contrast to the bright world of postwar, aristocratic London, as
well as a useful sympathetic object for Woolf's title character.
Motherless Brooklyn, the orphaned narrator afflicted (or
blessed) with Tourette's syndrome determines to solve the mystery of his
beloved boss's most foul and unnatural murder. The novel shows an agreeable
openness about its derivative character, and perhaps the real purpose is to
provide cover for stylistic experimentation. While posing as an observing
doctor, the author indulges an impulse that would otherwise be seen as
pretentious. When Lethem puts his words into the mouth of a Tourettic
character, the very act of medicalization marginalizes any remnant modernism
as a case for abnormal psychology.
But to ground special perceptions
and heightened language in neurological anomaly ends up severely
circumscribing the modernist project. The stylistic novelty and profound
interiority of Ulysses or
To the Lighthouse
were called forth by normal protagonists and were proposed as new ways of
describing everyone and anyone from the inside out. Modernism seemed
revolutionary. The neuronovel refashions modernism as odd language for
describing odd people. The neuronovels prop up rigid social conventions of
Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances
exhibits the perils of this mixture of objective (medical) realism with an
attempt to write a novel of subjectivity. The novel is narrated entirely
from the point of view of Leo Liebenstein, a man who, suffering from Capgras
syndrome, believes his wife has been replaced by an exact replica. The
delusion sets in when Liebenstein wakes up from uneasy dreams.
then a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous
hospitalizations," he tells the reader, as though giving a medical report on
himself. What happens next is not a medical report but the flight of a
damaged mind. Liebenstein's tics and riffs effectively bury the plot of the
A neuronovel relies on something like a readerly meaning
impulse, but it also baffles and frustrates the same impulse. The
interpretive leap is disavowed by the pathological premise of the novel. By
turning so aggressively inward, this kind of novel bypasses the self, let
alone society, or history, to arrive at neurology. The deep logic of the
story is simple contingency. And mere biological contingency has a way of
The aesthetic sensation a reader gets from the
neuronovel is not the pleasure of finding the general in the particular, but
a frustration born of defeat. We want to make the metaphor work. But this
would be to insist on meaning or relevance when there isn't any. The reader
has to admit that his brain doesn't work like an autistic person's, a
Capgras sufferer's, and that when he loves or works or fears or talks, his
ordinary neurons fire or misfire for ordinary rather than extraordinary
reasons, whatever these may be.
Science may be replicating and
systematizing the earlier insights of the psychological novel. A novelist
can be a neuroscientist today by anticipating rather than following the
discoveries of brain science. A novelist could describe and mimic traits of
cognition that can only be described by future science.
AR The neurosciences have
claimed another victim: novels that break fundamentally new ontological
ground in psychology. Maybe Joyce's Ulysses was the last
novel to do that.
By Lorna Bradbury
The Telegraph, May 20, 2010
Edited by Andy Ross
"We overvalue the arts in relation to the sciences."
following his 2010 Royal Society of Literature lecture on Darwin and
McEwan is rare among his peers in taking an active interest
in the sciences and in welcoming scientific ideas into his fiction: "I'm not
interested in a form of modern intellectual who has no interest in science."
His novel Solar fashions a dark satire out of global
warming. The novel is steeped in research, and describes a technology —
artificial photosynthesis — that is not yet a reality but is within our
Solar has suffered at the hands of the
American literary establishment. McEwan: "Americans don't like an
unattractive character who is not redeemed at the centre of a novel. And
maybe it's a matter of British humour too."