PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer

John Timpane
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Did you know there was science in poetry?

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 9780618620104
Author: Jonah Lehrer
Price: $24.00
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-11

Poets get there first. Sometimes you wish someone would listen.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist looks at a handful of the many artists who anticipated, by generations, truths about neuroscience, the mind, the brain and the nature of mental phenomena. The writer is in a prime position to write such a book. Jonah Lehrer worked in the lab of Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and is an accomplished science writer, as well as the proprietor of the blog Frontal Cortex.

Walt Whitman starts it off. For Lehrer, Whitman's revolutionary starting point is that there's no soul/body divide. The idea that the soul was somehow of different (usually superior) status or stuff from the flesh had bedeviled human thought for 5,000 years. Whitman sees no divide: The soul "is" the body. Some found that blasphemous (and some still do), but Whitman is already far beyond them: He's too busy praising the holiness of the body, the mystical sweep of the mind, the God in all and everywhere. It's what liberates him: Once that wall is down, we are free to see everything as sacred.

Whitman was not the first to have this idea. Sometimes, alas, Lehrer writes as if he was, but it isn't so. You can hear foretones of it in Anaximander, Anaxagoras, and many other ancient thinkers. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible speaks of "nephesh" -- not a "soul," but a self in and of the flesh, something animals have as well as human beings. Whitman's was, however, one voice that hauled this idea directly into the modern worldview.

The chapter on George Eliot is especially good. She was an unusually deep, current thinker for a novelist, and you can follow her questing mind as she adopts first Darwinism; then naive, utilitarian determinism; and then, at last, the needful step beyond that, better, closer to the truth: an acceptance that nothing completely explains either us or existence. Human beings always, like nature, will remain mysterious to themselves. Our motives always manage to escape our attempts to explain them.

Eliot steps apart from Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, T.H. Huxley, and John Stuart Mill, and in this particular, shows -- directly "because" she thinks as an artist -- that she was the greater thinker as well as imaginative writer. For too many scientists, engineering explains everything, in a closed-circuit determinist system. In fact, it "has" to. No it doesn't, Eliot said, and her fiction is great because she did.

Other painters, musicians, even gastronomers come up for treatment here. Most astonishing of all (in terms of neuroscience) is the prescient Marcel Proust, whose fiction nailed memory and how it works. Memory is not so much a faithful secretary recapitulating the past, as it is a creative, fallible, unreliable masquer, presenting images that may or may not reflect what really was. This has powerful significance for identity, since identity, to a large extent, "is" memory. Without the latter, the former disintegrates.

Yet that's the best we have. Our inner unreliable narrator tells us what we are. Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" is a monumental demonstration of the workings of memory in personal and communal life. Neuroscience now tells us he was absolutely right. To read Proust is to learn how memory colors, how it constructs, all we know and hope for.

The subtext of this book is that certain entrenched attitudes among scientists ought to go away. Too many science writers assume the infallibility of the science community. But Lehrer shows that this community has been wrong quite a bit, quite wastefully. His account of how Elizabeth Gould's research, showing that the brain can generate new neurons, to keep its operations fresh and current, is especially excellent. It's shameful: a brilliant woman's science long ignored, largely because of a male scientist's prestige and the lockstep march of obedient labs. There are many good science stories here, but this one is the most instructive.

Lehrer ends by calling for the arts and sciences to take each other more seriously. Several of the good scientists I know do, in fact, have their eye on the arts and heartily wish to build a bridge of fact to the richness of intuition they see there. As to the arts, I must differ with Lehrer: The arts of the last 50 years have embraced the sciences, especially painting, sculpture, gastronomy, music and performance art, but also widely literature. The folks who haven't kept pace are literary critics -- but then, they never do and never can.

Jonah Lehrer has written an enjoyable and stimulating book; he could fill a library with sequels. He is given to the overstatement of enthusiasm, but then, with a fertile subject like this, you'd be enthusiastic, too. And I don't understand why he limits himself to such recent artists -- surely Herakleitos anticipated much in Heisenberg, and so on.

Poets get there first. Proust Was a Neuroscientist is a sparkling introduction to the fact. Makes you wonder why folks have to be persuaded to pay attention to the poets of the moment.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.