Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer


Ever since E.O Wilson famously declared there to be two distinct cultures within academia that suffered from “a mutual incomprehension”, the great art vs science divide has entrenched itself in our consciousness. Even as we speak, classrooms up and down the country are in a state of primordial flux, churning out the next generations of these two irreconcilable tribes. One will wear anoraks, develop bad skin and myopia, and form an ironclad will to explain the world through cells, forces and equations. The other will smoke Gaulouises, make flamboyant hand gestures, and develop a penchant for the transcendental.  Science will continue in its belief that everything in the universe can be explained, while art will continue with its gloriously useless flights of the imagination. Never shall the two meet.

Enter Jonah Lehrer. A fresh-faced former Rhodes Scholar with an easy smile and a shapely turn of phrase, Lehrer is a Renaissance man for our times. An Ivy League neuroscience graduate and former assistant in the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel, according to his marketing team Lehrer is also blessed with the sort of literary sensibility that makes Keats look like a philistine oaf. What’s more, he has a revelation to make: art and science are merely parallel roads leading to the same truth. Indeed, Lehrer can reveal that art, far from being a rarefied form of escapism with no application to the real world, has repeatedly pipped science to the post. The ‘truths’ about the human mind later eureka’d upon in labs around the world were first articulated in the works of great artists like Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman and George Eliot.

That which we might have thought of as an opposition is really a symbiosis, a ying and yang. In Lehrer’s words (like a good scientist he tells us the conclusion of the experiment before providing his proof), “Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural”. So science shouldn’t write off art as a complete waste of time, and vice versa. It turns out that literature can provide more than “a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences”, which is apparently all Lehrer was expecting when he decided to read Proust.  In other news, Joseph Ratzinger continues to subscribe to the tenets of Apostolic Succession and the Nicene Creed, and mammals of the Ursidae family appear to favour arboreal defecation.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist consists of eight essays, each following the same basic formula: Lehrer tells us the point, or ‘moral’ of a particular artist’s work (yeah, more on that later), and then goes on to explain how this moral was later verified and explained by neuroscience. Walt Whitman’s poetry anticipates the discovery that emotions are generated by the body; George Eliot told us that minds change before we discovered that neurons divide; the chef Charles Escoffier discovered how to unlock the common element that makes food taste delicious before science discovered umami and MSG; Proust discovered the subjectivity of memory before Kandel and Si theorised the function of prions; Cezanne’s post-impressionist paintings portrayed the world as, we have now discovered, it appears before the optical cortex assimilates it into a coherent picture; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring intuited that dissonance and harmony are states of mind before science knew that the cortifugal network adapts to impose a hierarchy based on the sounds to which it is accustomed; Gertrude Stein’s automatic writing experiments showed that language is held together by an invisible underlying structure that precedes meaning before Chomsky theorised universal grammar; and Virginia Woolf knew that identity is a continual act of self-creation before science discovered that consciousness is generated by neurons and electrical` impulses.

Lehrer covers some fecund ground and deftly synthesises an impressive range of theories and contexts. He writes with journalistic panache, and while it can occasionally feel that he is adapting his material to fit the snappy figures of his prose rather than vice versa (his penchant for ending paragraphs with significant-sounding clichés like ‘Life imitates art’ can sometimes grate), in general Lehrer admirably balances accessibility and detail. In a Gladwellian world where books that elegantly extract meaning from the abstruse and translate it for the masses are the publishing vogue, Lehrer seems well placed to help flesh out a scientific context still frequently overlooked in literary criticism, while showing science that there are limits to its materialism and that art isn’t completely useless. And good luck to him. But to anyone approaching this book from the literary side of the Great Divide, Lehrer’s armchair criticism will be as infuriating as his pop science is enlightening.

The main problem with Lehrer’s approach to literature – and it’s a fatal one – is that he summarises rather than analyses. All too often, in arguing against the reductivist attitude common to science, Lehrer is ironically guilty of reducing the complexity and conflict of the literature he intends to promote as a viable alternative – in short, that which gives it its power and significance – to an overriding message or, in his oddly anachronistic terminology, a ‘moral’ that we can extract from the whole.

Time and again, Lehrer takes the classic undergraduate shortcut of paraphrasing and translating, rather than explaining how and why a passage means what he wants it to mean. Giving a reading of a typically inscrutable passage of Gertrude Stein, he offers this:

This tricky paragraph `is about the trickiness of language. Although we pretend our words are transparent – like a layer of glass through which we see the world – they are actually opaque. Stein is trying to remind us that our nouns, adjectives, and verbs are not real. They are just arbitrary signifiers, random conglomerates of syllables and sound. A rose, after all, is not really a rose. Its letters don’t have thorns or perfumed petals.

While this is undoubtedly true as far as it goes – five minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that in a very general sense this is what most of Stein’s writing is ‘about’ – it doesn’t offer any insight into why Stein wrote what she actually wrote. If this was all Stein was trying to say, she could have saved us all a lot of time and bother by just writing ‘words are arbitrary signifiers’. Lehrer tells us what he takes to be Stein’s intention, but he never actually sheds any light on whether or not her methods were successful in achieving it.

The suspicion that arises from this tendancy is that Lehrer’s main critical criterion for the literature he includes is merely that it is ‘about’ something that fits into his argument, rather than anything to do with its execution. This suspicion was confirmed, at least for this reader, by the Coda. Lehrer upholds Ian McEwan’s Saturday – no sniggering at the back – as a template for the future of the novel as a combination of artistic and scientific endeavour, picking up the baton from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a novelistic investigation of the mind. This dystopian prediction shows off Lehrer’s critical blind spot to full effect. Now, in my personal view anyone who can’t tell the difference between the prose of Woolf and McEwan has no business in making proclamations about the future of the novel. But aside from this, there remains the fact that, while Woolf was an innovator who operated at the formal boundaries of her medium, in selecting Saturday as a modern-day equivalent Lehrer has unwittingly selected a novel that for many is the absolute epitome of middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill convention. As one literature professor recently put it in a blog post (in reference to Tom McCarthy slagging off the conventional middlebrow humanist novel):

I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time

Again, it’s tempting to suspect that Lehrer mainly chooses Saturday because it’s ‘about’ science. This tendency to define a novel by its subject matter is also evident in an apparent obliviousness to literary form as a generative component of the meaning to which he enjoys such unproblematic access. Mostly he just ignores it, but on the rare occasions when Lehrer does condescend to talk about form, his writing is tellingly vague: “And while her realist form touched upon an encyclopedia of subjects, her novels are ultimately concerned with the individual”, or, “the sprawling realism of Eliot’s novels ended up discovering our reality” – both statements that would elicit a snort of derision from any professor marking an undergraduate essay. Lehrer later quotes Proust’s contention that “The kind of literature which contents itself with ‘describing things’, with giving them merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces, is in fact, though it calls itself realist, the furthest removed from reality”.  How does this fundamental difference in the way that Proust and Eliot represented the world – one largely objective, one entirely subjective – help produce the meaning that he so glibly summarises? Again, Lehrer seems to approach literature primarily as a well-written message, rather than as a combination of form and content.

While the chapters on Whitman, Eliot, Proust, Stein and Woolf all suffer from this flaw, Lehrer is more convincing when talking about music and painting, and the Cezanne and Stravinsky chapters are the most successful in the book. Non-literary art fits more naturally into Lehrer’s style of analysis because he is able to equate the form – the actual substance – of the works of art in question with the neural` processes he describes. There are fewer external ideas to jar with the materialism of the explanation. He is able to offer enlightening discussions of how the discords of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the colours of a Cezanne painting interact with our auditory or visual sensors. But in literature – an art of words problematically connected to ideas – no such directness is possible. Lehrer is instead content merely to equate these processes with a dominant idea or ‘moral’ that he has himself extracted from the aesthetic whole. This approach is inescapably reductive.

It is probable that the constraints of space and the simplifying demands of writing for a popular audience forced Lehrer to gloss over the details of the texts he addresses. He is clearly a precociously talented writer and thinker (he was just 25 when Proust Was a Neuroscientist first came out in the US), and for all the frustrations of its Wiki-happy concision Lehrer casts some interesting contextual light on his chosen authors, even as he cheerily bulldozes the complexity of their works. However, interesting though they are, the specific links Lehrer draws between art and science tend to be pretty tenuous. For example, Eliot’s intuition in the 1860s that our personalities are fluid and subject to change does not in any specific way anticipate Pasco Rakic’s discovery in the 1980s that neurons divide. If, as Lehrer puts it, ‘life is chemistry and chemistry is physics’, then any experiential observation has a material micro-explanation. But Eliot wasn’t talking about cells, she was talking about personalities – and Lehrer is guilty of a classic false syllogism. Just because Eliot wrote of the nature of personalities, and personalities are ultimately derived from neurons, it does not necessarily follow that Eliot was writing about neurons.

Of course art anticipates science in very general ways.  We may not have verified the mechanism by which the mind changes on a physical level until the 1980s but its effects have been a preoccupation of literature since Shakespeare. The opposite scenario would be an ironic inversion – like starting to feel depressed because a doctor diagnoses you with depression. We tend to experience things – say, gravity, or respiration – before we work out why and how they happen. If we understand science to be empirical verification – explaining why what is, is – then it follows without saying that art must explore the experiences that science later finds a way to explain. Again, perhaps commercial demands forced Lehrer to make rather more of this not-exactly-groundbreaking argument than he would otherwise have done. A book using literary examples as a way of exploring the philosophical connotations of the discoveries of neuroscience may not have been as easy to market. But it might have made more sense.

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  1. Another thought-provoking and eloquent essay from Danny Byrne!
    I too am frustrated at the disregard that many otherwise intelligent people demonstrate for the *form* of literature. Whether out of laziness or ignorance, people focus on subject matter to the detriment of *how* the text forms, criticizes, and grapples with that subject matter. In film studies — which is the discipline that I study in — many professors commit the opposite fallacy. They assume that the entire meaning of a film (whatever “meaning” means) can be derived from studious analysis of camera angles, editing techniques, and other technical aspects of film-making. These things are hugely important (and they have a syntax and semantics all their own, which we as a culture are now massively habituated to), but I often wish we could focus more on ideology, thematic content, and the like. To use an example that appears in Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder,” I think it would be pretty ridiculous to talk about “Mean Streets” without touching upon honor, social role-assignment, and the constructedness of personal identity…
    Anyways, sorry for the tangential rant… I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your writing, and I look forward to your next review!

  2. Thank you kindly, sir. I know what you mean, there’s a balance to struck between ignoring form completely, and the unadulterated formalist approach that views subject matter as a footnote to style and structure. But clearly one doesn’t exist without the other. Of course it’s possible to talk of themes and ideas, whether in a novel or a film – but it’s the way that they intersect with and are shaped by form that makes it art rather than argument. Lehrer is clearly a smart cookie, but the entire edifice of his argument, at least on the literary side, is built on paraphrase and summary – he doesn’t seem to realise that when he approximates what someone like Gertrude Stein or Virginia Woolf was saying, that which gets lost in translation is everything that makes what they said important in the first place. At times he seems to imply that being retrospectively proved ‘right’ by neuroscience constitutes the major value of their work. I would suggest that that was missing the point rather

  3. Haven’t read Lehrer but as you imply the whole premise of the book seems flawed – if he’s primarily a scientist his approach is inherently unscientific in so far as (in Karl Popper’s terms)it’s neither provable nor unprovable. Proust might be called (banally enough) a neuroscientist but so too could Joyce or Svevo; Proust might equally be called a cognitive behaviourial therapist whilst (let’s see) Thomas Pynchon was a quantum physicist and Georg Trakl a pharmacist (he was actually). Does the sentence “Proust was a neuroscientist” actually have any meaning beyond furnishing the kind of “quirky, eye-catching” title that I read in Writers’ Yearbook 2010 is a sine qua non of publication these days? And didn’t Alain de Boton have the same crass idea of doing a layman’s guide to Proust only a few years before – a layman being anyone who can’t be bothered to read and interpret A la Recherche for themselves.
    Anyway, an excellent review, Danny.

  4. Cheers Oliver. Yes I thought perhaps Proust Was a Speculative Psychologist would be a slightly more apt if cack-handed book title, but I think I like Proust Was a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist even better. Perhaps Lehrer and de Boton might consider reviving the All-England Summarise Proust Competition? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IScaIp2fVIw&feature=fvst

  5. You need to take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the web. I’ll recommend this website!

    • Owen
    • April 2nd, 2012

    A bit late to get to this one.

    “In other news, Joseph Ratzinger continues to subscribe to the tenets of Apostolic Succession and the Nicene Creed, and mammals of the Ursidae family appear to favour arboreal defecation”.

    Nice little tidbit; made me laugh.

    You’re bang on about Lehrer’s Stein comments not really addressing what is most important about her work. I’ve read only one Stein book – “Tender Buttons” – , which I wrote on a little while back. I don’t actually like the book, although it does fascinate me. What fascinates me about it, though, certainly isn’t the “words-are-simply-arbitrary-signifiers” unmasking that, according to Lehrer, it enacts (as if such “unmasking” were in any way profound, or even necessary); I am fascinated, rather, by the idea that words so liminal could potentially still have deep artistic resonances (even though I’m not convinced that they do, in this case). If I were to discover that Stein wrote “Tender Buttons” simply to draw attention to a truism which, as you say, can be summed up in a single sentence, I might feel vindicated, but I would also be disappointed (and so no longer fascinated).

  6. Cheers. From what I remember, the Stein essay in Lehrer’s book was probably the worst example of him ramming a complicated and challenging piece of art into a monologic paradigm (Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar), and suggesting, not only that this is what Stein is ‘about’ (ie the notion that language retains a logical structure even without any adherence to semantic norms), but furthermore that this is why it’s significant – because a cognitive linguist has subsequently, in effect, ratified it.

    It’s interesting that you say you find Stein fascinating without particularly liking it, because Lehrer is clearly fascinated by an aspect of Stein (even if he’s really just subsuming it into an external theory with which he’s even more fascinated), but he’s incapable of saying anything about whether it actually has any merit. The ‘artistic resonances’ that Stein is primarily concerned with are absent from Lehrer’s analysis precisely because he doesn’t have a way to materialise aesthetic value judgements. There’s no accounting in Lehrer for why (if?) what Stein wrote should be called art and yet Chomsky’s ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ is merely an example.

    • grappler
    • June 24th, 2012

    This piece nicely sums up the frustration I’ve had with this book: “We tend to experience things . . . before we work out how and why they happen.” Duh.

    However, you may want to check some of the neuroscience. Pasko Rakic is strongly identified with the view (and the evidence backs him up, imho) that, in adulthood, *no* new neurons are generated, except in restricted parts of the brain such as the hippocampus and olfactory bulb–certainly not in the neocortex, where the functions underlying much of what we would call “personality” reside.

    • Thanks – actually my own knowledge of neuroscience is something close to zero, so anything in the review that implies otherwise is just me paraphrasing Lehrer. I’ve heard his scientific arguments and presumptions criticised elsewhere but I lack the background to contribute usefully to that aspect of the debate myself.

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