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.


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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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