Monday, November 16, 2009

More Brains

Just finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The all-important "hook" of the book is the way art can explain science. Lehrer demonstrates this by exploring a famous artist's uncannily prescient insight into the way the human brain functions, anticipating (often by decades) current neuropsychological research. Proust dealt with memory - perhaps obviously, given his most famous book. Gertrude Stein anticipated Noam Chomsky's language theories. Stravinsky, in the The Rite of Spring, not only caused a riot amongst an audience accustomed to symphonic music, but challenged the way we perceive beauty in sound. Virginia Woolf wrote about the self in ways that broke new ground. Paul Cezanne forced us to see differently. Walt Whitman dared to express his feelings in startling ways. George Eliot brought science to bear in her fiction, reflecting Darwin's growing influence. And French chef extraordinaire Auguste Escoffier, inventer of the menu, discovered the fifth flavour, which the Japanese call "umami," and understood how we can learn how to taste (and appreciate food covered in sauces, I imagine).
Lehrer's original premise is more than a crass book-marketing schtick. He rides what seems to be a wave of art-science reconciliation. C.P. Snow famously called art and science the "Two Cultures" (like east and west, destined never to meet), and there will be those who cling to this stark division to their last breath. But how refreshing it is to see thoughtful, insightful, and engagingly written portrayals of the overlaps - interdependencies or interconnections - that existed all along. Highly recommended.
"When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art." (p.197)
How many of us have been moved by a fictional account (book or film) of a major historical event, after being unconcerned when it was just "facts"? Framing an event within a powerful narrative - with human emotions and human lives that appeal to our empathy - can be the best way to convince people that something significant happened, or that anything happened at all. Think "Schindler's List" versus all the true-life accounts of the Holocaust. My personal epiphany about this came about 20 years ago when I read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, which ends with a (fictionalized but all too real) account of the 1973 coup in Chile that led to her uncle Salvador Allende's assassination. Although I knew the story, the novelization hit me powerfully.
Although I write plenty of nonfiction, it is important to remember how we all love a good story, and are perhaps more likely to engage with an issue if it's contained in art (writing or anything else).

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