Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

Was Proust a neuroscientist? Well, in a manner of speaking, perhaps; much as one might playfully assert that Dante was an astrophysicist, Chaucer a behavioural psychologist, Dryden an anthropologist or Milton a geologist. In another word: no.

What Jonah Lehrer actually means by this title is not that Proust secretly nipped off to the lab when he wasn’t fiddling with the drafts of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, but that his descriptions of the way our minds work “intuited some of modern neuroscience’s most basic tenets”. Lehrer says much the same of Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, as well as one painter (Cézanne), one composer (Stravinsky) and one chef (Auguste Escoffier). In each case, the non-scientist is complimented on discovering some key fact about mind and body years before these qualities became the subject of rigorous scrutiny.

As a former assistant in a neuroscientist’s laboratory, Lehrer is well placed to bring CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” together, and if his title is a bit irritating, the essays themselves are often thought-provoking and informative, especially for those who know little about recent work in perception, memory, the structure of the brain and the oddities of consciousness. Unlike many popularisers of science, Lehrer finds equal and complementary value in our available ways of considering the universe. Science is better at mapping and explaining physical reality; the arts excel at exploring that wealth of subjective experience which is our basic condition on the road from non-existence to extinction.

So far, so admirable. One shortcoming of this very readable book is that, while it will leave the averagely cultivated reader better informed about science, the things it has to say about art can be either obvious or wrong. For example: Lehrer contends that Virginia Woolf was “emboldened by Joyce”. This seems doubtful: Woolf’s diaries throb with her dislike of Ulysses and her contempt for its author. Lehrer also pays some of his subjects the left-handed compliment of praising them for their neurological prophecies while damning them for the very qualities that admirers usually see as their defining splendours. He dismisses the long overture to Swann’s Way which precedes the famous passage about involuntary memory as “58 tedious pages”. Tedious? Proust was not Dan Brown, nor was he meant to be.

Other irritations include Lehrer’s use of ostentatious slang: Proust’s madeleine is a “cookie”, Stravinsky was a “Hipster”, “TS Eliot ... made difficulty cool”, Transfigured Night is Schoenberg’s “riff” on Wagner, and so on. And he has no distaste for clichés (“uncanny resemblance”) or redundancies (“gelatinous jelly”). All of which merely disfigures the book rather than maiming it, since the nuggets of neurological information enfolded in its eight brief chapters are never less than suggestive and sometimes fascinating. There are the germs of a first-rate popular book on the nature of consciousness here; let’s hope Lehrer will go on to write it.

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