Picture of Marcel Proust.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

I got a copy of Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer for Christmas. This is a series of essays on eight artists and their anticipation of scientific discoveries in neuroscience and linguistics. It focuses on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Escoffier, Proust, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and others.

There is a major error, one that should have been caught by his editor, or by the people who read the book before publication. This occurs on page 3. He refers to Descartes and the immortal mind. What he’s referring to is, of course, the immortal soul, which is distinct from the mind. He then goes on about Whitman and his experience with soldiers who experienced ghost limbs. This is the phenomenon of experiencing an amputated limb as being present. This then leads into the putative discovery by neuroscience that the mind and the body are one.

I have to confess that I am not a fan of Whitman, George Eliot, or Virginia Woolf. I find Whitman’s ego too obtrusive, and his poetry, his vers libre, rather too libre to be good. G. Eliot is tedious, and Woolf too overpraised by loony feminists.

What I found most interesting was the essay on Escoffier, cooking, and the physiology of taste and smell.

What I found frightening was a comment, buried in footnote, on Proust, that it might be possible to cure some mental illness by destroying certain memories. Some years back the psychologist Robert Lindner wrote a book called Prescription for Rebellion, and mentioned several stories of patients who had been mistreated by the medical profession (lobotomies, electro-shock, castration) and he asked whether it was better to have a sick soul, or no soul. My inclination has always been to answer that it is better to have a sick soul. (Interestingly this is also reflected in T. S. Eliot. I think it’s in his essay on Baudelaire that he remarks that when you suffer, even in hell, at least you know you exist.)

When he talks about Gertrude Stein, he brings in Chomsky’s work on syntax and syntactic structures. This is his only departure from neuroscience. Fortunately, he doesn’t deal with Chomsky’s efforts outside his proper field of linguistics.

Even if you don’t buy into his belief that art anticipates science, which is not all that new, Bernard Shaw has a character back a similar observation in the fifth play of Back to Methuselah (1920), he does write clearly and interestingly.