Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Two venerable and interconnected philosophical problems permeate Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer — a fascinating, succinct (197-page), if sometimes over-ambitious examination of the ways in which the work of Walt Whitman, Paul C?zanne, Igor Stravinsky, and five other artists anticipated some modern discoveries about the brain. Those two problems are the mystery of the conscious self — how and why it is we are aware of our own being in the world — and the question of free will.

Lehrer, editor-at-large for Seed magazine, does indeed argue specifically — and for the most part cogently — that the ideas and artifacts of the artists under discussion, all active in the late 19th and/or early 20th centuries, prefigured important scientific findings of the last two or three decades about human cognition and emotion. In the chapter devoted to Virginia Woolf, for example, he uses a passage from To the Lighthouse to show how the mind of the novel’s central figure, Mrs. Ramsay, makes manifest the often warring tides of our consciousness. She regards something her husband has just done as a “horrible…outrage of human decency.” One sentence after that, Mrs. Ramsay realizes that “there was nobody she reverenced as she reverenced him.” Later, at dinner, during a moment of supreme self-awareness as she gazes at a pear in a bowl of fruit, Mrs. Ramsay reflects, “Of such moments the thing is made that endures.”

Lehrer proceeds to tie Woolf’s theory and practice of fiction pretty convincingly to recent experiments that show that consciousness involves this kind of often contradictory flow of thought and requires Mrs. Ramsay?like attention. Patients with certain kinds of brain lesions, which keep them from knowing that they can see, nevertheless perform visual tasks, such as distinguishing a square from a circle, extremely well. They literally don’t see what they see, because their conscious minds cannot attend to it.

In the case of C?zanne, Lehrer asserts that the painter’s rough and somewhat deconstructed images approximate the raw visual data that one of the eye’s neural pathways (a recent discovery, with the technical designation V1) delivers to the brain. Our minds assemble these images into now-familiar-but-then-revolutionary and controversial C?zanne landscapes and still-lifes. In their radical tearing down of what we think we see, these works distinguish C?zanne from every artist who came before him and set the table — especially tables with still-lifes on them — for every artist who came afterward. He deconstructs the scene, the author says, “in order to show us how the mind reconstructs it.” Lehrer believes that C?zanne instinctively knew what researchers have now proven through empirical evidence: that the brain’s contribution to our sense and perception of the world is as generous as the world’s contribution of sense-data to the brain. (He also says that “a C?zanne painting has no black lines separating one thing from another.” But many of C?zanne’s paintings do include these black borders around objects they depict. In fact, on some canvases it looks as though they have strips of black tape around them, to mark them off from everything else crowding in so aggressively. Mrs. Ramsay would have liked them.)

In the work of Stravinsky, Lehrer finds the audio equivalent of C?zanne’s revolutionary and scientifically prophetic visual art.. As C?zanne taught us new ways of seeing — ways that at first affronted the eye of the beholder but now seem perfectly comprehensible, even “classic” — Stravinsky tortured his early audiences with noises that turned all musical conventions on their…well, ears. “Strauss is punked,” as Lehrer puts it. “Wagner is inverted, Chopin is mocked.” And he goes on to cite numerous contemporary responses to The Rite of Spring that prove how profoundly disturbing listeners found it. “It is the work of a madman,” Puccini said. Gertrude Stein wrote of a man sitting next to her who was “flourishing his cane…in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him.” Then “his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance.”

But in 1940, Walt Disney used The Rite of Spring as background music for Fantasia. Everything new is old again, one might say. But when it was new, Lehrer says, we now understand that Stravinsky’s music quite simply altered the brains states of those who heard it, at first inducing a kind of aural insanity and rage before its structure and elegance could be appreciated.

By some. I still don’t get it, I’m afraid. But we all do understand that comprehending any trailblazing aesthetic requires hard work. “To listen is an effort,” Stravinsky himself said. “And just to hear has no merit. A duck hears also.” This is one of the central ideas of Lehrer’s book. The artists he considers — chapters are also given to Whitman, Stein, Proust (of course), and George Eliot — all knew that what they were up to challenged their audiences to change their minds. The author shows that such cultural revolutions also produced changes in perceivers’ brains. And that we now have scientific ways of validating their prescience. Lehrer improbably includes the great French chef Auguste Escoffier in this eminent company, an inclusion based essentially on the great chef’s profound understanding of veal stock. Yes, veal stock. According to the chapter devoted to Escoffier, his veal-stock concept, and his employment of veal stock in every conceivable food, form, and format, parallels the work of a Japanese chemist named Ikeda, who determined that L-glutamate, in which veal stock abounds, is a human-tastebud joy molecule. It seems just a bit of a stretch to erect MSG (the powdered form of L-glutamate) as a cultural milestone as weighty as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. But then we read in the author’s note that Lehrer worked for a while not only in the lab of neuroscience Nobelist Eric Kandel but in the kitchens of Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin. And, polymath that he is, Lehrer is not one to leave anything in the refrigerator that he can throw into his literary/neuroscientific bouillabaisse. But generally, this prodigiously young and knowledgeable writer (there are 30 pages of notes and bibliography here) does what he sets out do. One could argue that all great art anticipates ideas that are later borne out more empirically and less intuitively — as Shakespeare and Aeschylus so notoriously anticipated Freud. But it does appear that modern neuro-imaging has begun to give us important new factual information about not only our brains but our minds and, in this case, our aesthetic responses.

There are limits to this knowledge, and in some ways these limits sound as constant, poignant bass notes throughout Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The question of who and what we are, really, and what consciousness is, will probably never be answered. “You don’t even exist,” Lehrer says near the end of the book, after having spent many of the previous 183 pages addressing the reader as if the reader’s illusion of a self were not an illusion. “Your head contains a hundred billion electrical cells, but not one of them is you or knows or cares about you…. The brain is nothing but an infinite regress of matter, reducible to the callous laws of physics.” This position almost requires that we give up the notion of what is commonly understood as free will. Our selves and our actions and our decisions are all parts of a story we tell ourselves, while our brains command our physical organism. As Lehrer says, however, consciousness is a necessary story — and, I would add, an amazing, mysterious, and powerful one. And even though “you” don’t exist in the way your brain tells your mind to think “you” do, “you” will learn a great deal from this book about how the work of great artists often presages the cold, hard facts of scientific discovery and gives them profound human meaning.