Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Proust Was a Neuroscientist," says a neuroscientist.

I'm right in the middle of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, and it's good timing too because I just read an Art in America article called "Science & Art I" which plays off of Lehrer nicely (more about that in another post). Proust examines the work of writers Proust, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, George Elliot, Walt Whitman, painter Paul Cezanne, composer Igor Stravinsky and chef Escoffier through the eye of a neuroscientist and points out how, according to Lehrer, their work anticipated recent discoveries in neuroscience by decades. Yeah... there are a TON of problems with this premise, and even though I'm just itching to slam every aspect of the book on this blog, I admit that the whole reason I'm so worked up about it is that Proust is a highly original (not to say unprecedented), enthusiastic, and very weird project. The book was recommended to me through a scientist who is so smart it's hard to believe I actually know her, but I had it in for Lehrer before I even started. I was most recently subjected to the influence of art upon science, and vice verse, through the psychadelic musings of boys at college parties who try to impress freshmen girls with their deep thoughts and artistic passion. So what else can art + science do besides get you laid? According to Lehrer, they are two building blocks for examining our experience; and explaining WHY reality feels the way it does (the realm of science) must begin with an in-depth investigation of how reality actually feels (the realm of art). My problem with this attitude (which is, in itself, a correct, useful assumption) is the linear, scientific thinking of the author, as if every human endeavor is a step-by-step process to get from A to B, and every step that takes us closer to B is progress, and therefore morally better and truer than every step that came before. Every artist, every era has its own opinions but in my view art runs in circles; it regurgitates, zigzags, spins its wheels. Alernately art paves the way for science; it is science; it uses science, it mimics science, it rejects science. And this is possible, not only because art is such a patchwork of different motives and practices, but because science is as well. Humanity and nature are made absolutely the way they are; but art and science are both roundabout, imperfect ways that humanity came up with to deal with an absolute nature. Argue with me if you want (please do) but I don't think there IS a point A or B.

Some critics were upset that Lehrer viewed the arts only in terms of how they have informed science, arguing that this devalues the arts and misses the point of art. I don't see any problem with it, though; sifting through art history with a scientific filter is really no different than the Guerilla Girls' rewriting of art history from a type of feminist perspective or the Freudian reinterpretation of art (whose heyday is not yet over outside of Acadaemia).

Lehrer obviously knows that he's cherry-picking from a vast universe of possible meaning, right? I mean, he's a smart guy... he has to know there are no clear and simple answers or conclusions when it comes to art. Until you arrive at the essay on Cezanne, where he sums up artistic progress: "This is why the impressionists feel modern, while Delacroix and Ingres and Bouguereau do not: they realized the painter did not simply have a subject that he or she was duty bound to represent. The painter was an artist, and artists had ideas that they were compelled to express." (gee, if only Delacroix had had ideas and realized he were an artist). Or, "Cezanne invented postimpressionism because the impressionists simply weren't strange enough." Lehrer continuously uses the word "invent," giving a very false impression of one man suddenly creating a whole, complete modernism, or a complete whatever, by himself. He also repeatedly refers to Cezanne's paintings as "abstract," then in the next sentence marvels at how the subject is so recognizable and accurate. The way he tramples the language of art criticism and art history is remarkably similar to the way artists steal and misuse scientific language: describing a process in terms of evolution; glancing quickly over an article describing an article that explains the theory of relativity, then translating it with poetic license; and, most irritatingly, replacing useful descriptors like, "diligent," "two-sided," "multifaceted" or "lively," with psychiatric terms such as "O.C.D.," "bipolar," "schizophrenic," or "A.D.D." (notice how they always use the cool mental illnesses; no one ever gets up to defend their stuff in crit, points to their trendily primitive drawing, and says, "it's an almost mentally retarded kind of gesture.")

What's more, Lehrer always writes about the painters who are one step ahead in the "progress" of painting in a positive light while the painters who are "behind" are belittled. So he brushes aside Delacroix, Bouguereau (understandable) and Ingres to make way for the "motley group of young [Impressionists who] decided to rebel." They "invented the idea of painterly abstraction. ...They had broken with the staid traditions of academic realism." But once the art historical narrative progresses to Cezanne superceding the Impressionists Lehrer derides the "pretty paintings of Renoir and Degas" and as Cezanne was "freeing the artist from the strict limits of verisimilitude, impressionism was destined to go places those water lilies could never have imagined."

It wasn't always this way. When I first opened Proust and began the essay on Walt Whitman and how mind/emotion/spirit and body are one and how emotions arise from the body as well as mind, I was completely enchanted. Maybe, looking back, it's because I don't know a lot about literature beyond geekily enthusiastic participation in English class; I like it and I can really get into it, but when it comes to really getting the hard stuff, I have to have it completely spelled out for me in an attractive way for it to really click. And Lehrer spelled out Leaves of Grass in a very attractive way. He obviously knows more about literature than visual art; he doesn't speak with blind reverance of writing books as the making of a miracle of independant genius, like he does with Cezanne. His Whitman essay is more a play of ideas from multiple disciplines than a struggle to simply understand and explain the work at hand. He seems comfortable enough to tease his subjects a little, to play with ideas, which make the essays on the writers (so far I've only read the ones on Whitman, Elliot, and Proust) very enjoyable. I never knew that Whitman was a nurse in a Civil War hospital who was involved with the discovery of phantom limb sensation in amputees (a biographical detail that enlightens the poetic/neuroscientific link). Here the entire premise of reexamining literature through modern neuroscience works at its best; I saw Whitman's work in a new light. When I read his work and his biographical blurb in the histories of literature he is always pigeonholed; his work, chosen selectively alongside Melville and Twain, is used as a tool leading the way to a broader understanding of transcendentalism and sexuality of his time. I've never seen it with any other emphasis until Proust.

People are complaining left and right about his tenuous connections between literature and neuroscience in his essays on Elliot and Woolf; how he has fit their round peg of art into the square hole of his personal scientific theory (sorry, I couldn't come up with another metaphor). But seriously, what art critic or historian doesn't lift what they like from the pages or canvas and hold it to the light of whatever personal ideas they may concoct? Honestly, I can't comment on these essays because I don't know the work of Woolf and Elliot very well. But this book will definitely make me run out and read their work; I'm already reading Woolf's Orlando and enjoying it. Lehrer's biography for Elliot was particularly absorbing; rarely do I read about a woman artist who is described with relish as admirably ugly or more than a sponge for the male intellect of their time.

All in all, I guess... I'm glad I'm reading this book. Lehrer has raised both my awareness and my blood pressure.