Proust and other such neuroscientists! A cross-cultural investigation

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare wrote,” Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, wherin he puts alms for oblivion”. This fully accords with the discoveries of modern brain science. Proust in his famous novel, ‘’In Search of Lost Time’’ anticipates such discoveries by neuroscientists, such as Rachel Hertz, that smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus. Thus the taste of a petit madeleine evokes a rediscovery by Proust of Combray and a flow of associations- it is the part of the brain in which long term memory is centred. Lehrer in ‘’ Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ weaves an intriguing argument about the relationship between recent neuroscientific discoveries and the novels of George Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. A scientist, who has researched with Nobel Prize-winning, Eric Kandel, has a taste for philosophy; Lehrer intends to heal the rift between what C.P.Snow termed the ‘Two Cultures’. He wishes to accord respect to the truths and the intuitive discoveries, especially of modernist writers and painters.

‘’Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ illustrates how researchers have, for instance, located those receptors that are responsible for discerning new tastes and smells. In an interesting and amusing chapter, Lehrer explains how the latter discerning receptors take up a huge amount of DNA-about 3 per cent of the human genome. The nose contains at least 350 receptor types. Millisecond pulses have been detected in fruit flies have been doctored with fluorescent proteins which flash when an odour impinges. Scientists have studied the resulting flashes under high powered microscopes and mapped the resulting patterns as neon flashes in the fly brain. This is part of the melange contained in a light-hearted chapter about the French gastronomic chef, Auguste Escoffier, who created culinary symphonies by means of glutamate laden veal stock sauces that so delighted the Parisian haute bourgeoisie in the Hotel César Ritz.

In classical philosophy there exists the Hericalitean concept of the flux, a neo-Platonist view concerning chaos. This has certain parallels in the research by Kimura concerning random changes in DNA. Further discoveries by Elowitz on colourful bacteria in 2002 and fruit flies suggest that their variation is due to random atomic jostling. Jonah Lehrer quotes further research by Gage on junk genes that have the wonderful name of ‘’retrotransposons’’. Essentially this shows how individual diversity is created in line with evolutionary logic. These findings along with others on neural plasticity appear to accord with George Eliot’s belief, as exemplified by her treatment of character, that people have free will and this inspires her to produce a rich text such as ‘’Middlemarch’’, exemplifies this. A text which itself is open to alternative personal interpretations.

The chapter on Cezanne plunges into perception beyond impressionism; how the brain engages in an imaginative act when structuring forms out of ambiguous brushstrokes. The development of photography pushed Cezanne’s investigations in a new direction –with new postimpressionist studies he was attempting to figure how the mind creates the sense of external reality. In effect, Lehrer argues that this corresponds to how the conscious brain is involved in structuring the impressions which arrive onto the layers of the cortex. This part recently has been discovered to be sensitive to contrast and stripes. Thus Cezanne engages the viewer in a challenging and more ultimately satisfying process. From the abstract impasto, fresh to each viewer, the reality of adamantine structures emerges as Mont St Victoire or succulent green apples. Then, the reader is treated to an interesting coda on the clash between Zola’s naturalistic writing and Cezanne’s reaction to it when the latter finds himself, previously a close friend, reduced to an unflattering characterised in a novel as an unstable and wild artist.

‘’Proust was a Neuroscientist’’ teems with ideas and makes demands upon the reader tying together unfamiliar themes in a manner which finds a parallel in the author’s treatment of the music of Stravinsky. Yet it is mostly very clear in its exposition of complex physiology, although a glossary might have been usefully employed for physiological structures. Lehrer writes from a tradition which includes William James, and of course his brother, the esteemed novelist Henry. Pluralism and pragmatism, Rorty and Wittgenstein are all positively appraised. Dissecting self-awareness, as in his chapter on Virginia Woolf has harrowing aspects, however, two factors make this a thoroughly engaging read; it’s energetic pace and its provocative style. For instance, Lehrer doesn’t mention that Woolf was a victim of child abuse and this will have deeply traumatised her lonely sense of herself. However, being moved to sometimes argue with an exposition does not make it any the less valuable experience.

There is a growing interest; it would seem in both Proust and in neuroscience. In Nicholas Carr’s ‘’The Shadow lands’’, he poses the question whether new internet technology etc. and how it actually changes the brain. Merzenich and Kandel have both emphasised the plasticity of the organ. As we get more adept at scanning and highlighting in the new media, we are also damaging our ability to read, concentrate and thoughtfully reflect. The implication for child development adds to such concerns, as Maryanne Wolf has pointed out in ‘’Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain’’. This being an investigation into word poverty and dyslexia; learning literacy for which there seems to be little in built genetic planning. Hence, this short and accessible book of Jonah Lehrer is a valuable contribution to this debate and the fascinating discussion about how truth is variously constructed and validated in science and in literature.

Enlightening -Isaiah Berlin’s Letters from 1846-1960

A stenographer unscrambles taped musings of the polymath
A stenographer unscrambles taped musings of the polymath

Isaiah Berlin wrote in tribute to the memory of Dorothy de Rothschild of her personality, ”…..overwhelming charm, great dignity, a very lively sense of humour, pleasure in the oddities of life, an unconquerable vitality and a kind of eternal youth and an eager responsiveness to all that passed…” Reading this second volume of letters, now available in paperback, covering Berlin’s most creative period, these same characteristics might be aptly applied to Sir Isaiah himself. However, as this most self-aware of intellectuals recognised, his loquacity and compulsive socialising were driven by a persistent need to escape a sense of unreality, an inner void. In these letters he writes, ‘’my quest for gaiety is a perpetual defence against the extreme sense of the abyss by which I have been affected ever since I can remember myself…’’

He is at his clearest when actually writing rather than using the Dictaphone. His use of this device adds interest to the resulting text, transcribed by a sometimes confused stenographer. Here he is writing from Harvard to another editor of letters, in what he elsewhere termed his wretched Colefax-like hand,’’…my blindness to Mrs W’s true character makes you think of me as gazing through a telescope at remote, dimly distinguishable, dwarves round whom I construct mythologies which sometimes fit & sometimes don’t but always smother the subjects: I do that a little: I like rounded vignettes:& I cling to my hypotheses: it is the only sense I attach to understanding about people as opposed to moment-to-moment reactions to, or impressions of them…”

Berlin’s tendency to construct an overarching, grand scale view of people is interesting, indeed notable. When it comes to political philosophy it is the construction of universal systems, Marxism and Monism, theories he later studied and to coin the term, the ‘’counter-enlightenment’’, which overarching theories Berlin most deplores. The hesitancy and multiple qualifications in his communication, often results in a diffuse and difficult prose style. However, the thick impasto and layering of shades of meaning can also reflect, like some sort of rich expressionist painting, the intention of conveying a lasting and deep impression. If you can tolerate very lengthy sentences, laced with subordinate clauses, which are richly punctuated with colons and semi-colons; then memorable and multifaceted observations on the people, politics and those interesting times, emerge.

These were indeed both interesting and difficult times.The move from diplomatic service in the States to the daily grind of teaching and lecturing in post-war Oxford, Berlin found particularly irksome. Advising Chaim Weizmann and defending the newly found state of Israel in the period after the King David Hotel attack was a duty on which he focussed his considerable abilities and influence. Later he was to meet and to like Ben Gurion. However, as his interest turned once again to Herzen and Russian intellectual history, he was careful not to get side tracked. He was involved in Paris with the setting up the Marshall plan and frankly admitted his limitations when it came to discussions on economic practicalities. Yet he began to translate his beloved Turgenev and still found opportunities to advise government propagandists on what he saw as the dangers of mentioning Hegel and the imperative of countering Russian territorial ambitions. In addition to this involvement with high level politics he was pleased to be consulted by Churchill on his memoirs. When it came to making predictions, he agreed with his fellow don, Trevor-Roper on the accuracy of those proposed by that interesting Swiss cultural historian Joseph Burkhardt based on his study of the Italian renaissance.

At Oxford his coterie included brilliant talkers that included his mentor, Maurice Bowra, the witty Warden of Wadham; here described as having felt jaded in Greece, found Athens heavenly, full of jolly poets, and himself adored there. Sir Isaiah found a warm spot for that ‘’loveable scamp’’ Bob Boothby, talking over appeasement with which he recalled All Souls to be more than a little complicit. Then there was the scintillating company at lunch of the novelist Elisabeth Bowen. He entertains with the witty and erudite Lord David Cecil at New College, the renowned conversationalist and author of the brilliant biography of Lord Melbourne. We have only just begun the alphabet of Berlin’s extensive and amusing friends which extended far beyond the University to journalists, politicians, policy wonks (as they are termed in a less deferential age ), diplomats and heads of state. One of the pleasures of reading these letters lies in this investigation of this, the social hinterland of this philosopher of secular pluralism.

A supplementary reason for reading these letters is the insight they afford into Berlin’s relationship with women and otherchanging social attitudes. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, an exile from Russia, at the relatively late age of 46. There are indications of a developing maturity but there are also lapses into donnish backbiting, for instance A.L.Rowse is repeatedly characterised as a Malvolio in the fractious atmosphere of All Souls. This kind of gossiping is ultimately a sign of inanition and unworthy of an esteemed philosopher. However, it was a feature of the academic ambience at the time and Leslie, as Rowse is known amongst his Cornish friends, would probably have relished Berlin’s further remarks about his open emotionalism, ‘’Curious. In a way better than the stiff English upper lip, & stoicism, hypocrisy and inner rages..’’

Reading ‘’’Enlightening’’’ is no substitute for the study of Berlin’s works if you are interested in his approach to the history of ideas. On the other hand, given the range of his achievements, from founding Wolfson College to his friendship with Pasternak(he smuggled out ‘’Dr Zhivago’’ to the West) and also with the great poet Anna Akhmatova, these letters shine an interesting light on the author’s effervescent persona. In this splendid tome, his peculiar sort of Englishness, his fondness for vigorous debate and his concern to counter and defeat the monster of totalitarianism are sparklingly displayed.

Self-Portraits 1900-1912 (3) Zinaida Serebryakova

This portrait, At the Dressing Table was painted in 1909 and is remarkable for the dynamism of its composition; it also looks thoroughly modern as does Zinaida, who having been born in 1884, was then just 25. The sweep of the hair which extends from the mirror behind, combined with the arms adds to the energy and sense of novelty in the portrait. The hat pins in the foreground are splayed and are perhaps a reminder that this is a painting that according to the fashions, is indeed some hundred years old. This is a candid and charming, beguiling portrait. The lightness of the colours, the contrast and the surrounding items all engage the attention as does the intimacy and immediacy of the artist herself.

At the Dressing Table 1909

Zinadia Serebryakova was born on  December 10, 1884into what is now the Ukraine, on the estate of Neskuchnoye near Kharkov. Her maiden name was Lanceray. She was born into the cultured and artistic family known as the Benois – a fascinating family of architects, musicians, painters and sculptors. Her name in Ukranian is Зінаїда Євгенівна Серебрякова; and the Benois were the descendants of the French confectioner Louis Jules Benois, who came to Russia in 1794 after the French Revolution. More information can be easily found  about the talented Benois at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benois_family. There is also a moving piece about her on another wordpress blog at http://01varvara.wordpress.com/tag/zinaida-serebyakova/

Self-portrait 1921

In 1901, Zinadia studied painting under the famous Russian artist, Ilya Yefimovich Repin, also a Ukranian artist perhaps most famous for the grandeur of his panoramic realistic paintings like the “Religious Procession in Kursk Province“, 1880–83. He also painted an interesting portrait of Tolstoy and the chemist, Dmitry Mendeleyev, who made the discoveries which led to the Periodic Table. After studying under other portrait painters, Serebryakova, went to Paris in 1905 after visits to Italy. It was the year in which she married her first cousin, Boris who became a railway engineer.

Maxim Gorky reading in “The Penates” his drama Children of the Sun. Compressed charcoal and sanguine on paper. 28 × 49.5 см.(1905)
Medeleeff by Ilya Repin

She must have felt stimulated and perhaps at home in Paris, where she was later to return and forced to stay when exiled in 1924. In the intervening period she was to experience the full force of the repression following the October Revolution. Her husband died in a Bolshevik jail in 1919. However, the period of 1906 to 1916 were happy and productive. She lived in St Petersburg and Moscow  as well as upon her country estate. She was a wonderful painter of the countryside and of children, especially her own. Having been widowed and with the family estate plundered she was sadly left responsible for raising her four children and caring for her mother at a time of penury and impinging civil strife.

On the terrace in Kharkov-1919

In fact what is remarkable about Serebryakova’s work is its variety and its elegant peacefulness. It would seem that her work has become much more recognised in Russia with more frequent exhibitions. She lived in Paris without seeing her older two children for some 36 years and only achieved recognition in the Soviet Union in 1966. However, her innate zest for life and her inner serenity shines through her work and in the treatment of her sitters. An awesome selection of 411 of her works may be seen as a slideshow at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/zinaida-serebriakova.Another interesting website in French may be found at http://femmes-russes.russian-women.net/femmes-russes/Zinaida-Serebriakova.shtml. There is also an intriguing short photographic sequence in colour circa 1910 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJ8VRxS4nkE.There is a very useful and detailed link at http://artoftherussias.wordpress.com/category/ukraine/zinaida-serebriakova/-enjoy!There is also a short new You Tube Clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=Wo8v6EWrUmk If you are interested in her ballet paintings and want to improve your Russian there is also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ot17l5na1Zw

Portrait of Katya the Artist
Soviet Union Stamp 1988

Sketch of Anna Akhmatova