The Frontal Cortex

Newsweek

There’s an interview with me in Newsweek.com:

NEWSWEEK: What surprised you most while doing the research for this book?

Jonah Lehrer: One thing was how seriously all of these artists took their art. They really believed that their novels and paintings and poetry were expressing deep truths about the human mind. As Virginia Woolf put it, the task of the novelist is to “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day … [tracing] the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” In other words, she is telling writers to get the mind right. Everything else is secondary.

And Woolf wasn’t the only one. Proust was confident that every reader, once they read his novel, would “recognize in his own self what the book says…This will be the proof of its veracity.” George Eliot famously said that her art was “simply a set of experiments in life.” Whitman thought he was expressing deep “truths about the body and soul” that the science of his time had yet to understand. In other words, all of these artists believed that their art was capable of being literally true, just like science.

Comments

  1. #1 Jen
    January 10, 2008

    yet another reference to your book, quel surprise

  2. #2 Pawlie Kokonuts
    January 10, 2008

    True, true, and true again. I typically find more truth in novels, by far, than in so-called non-fiction. Why do people act surprised when I say this? It is not psychosis. It is the basis for all art. (Incidentally, add Richard Ford’s “The Lay of the Land” to this pantheon; captures ‘what is,” in this time and place, like Joyce did for Dublin in his time.)

  3. #3 lily
    January 10, 2008

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  4. #4 cat
    January 10, 2008

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  5. #5 Alan
    January 11, 2008

    “Proust was confident that every reader, once they read his novel, would “recognize in his own self what the book says…This will be the proof of its veracity.”

    Is it true, the saying: arsa longa, vita brevis? Anyone who has honestly devoted the required months of their lifetime poring over “Recherche du Temps Perdue” may come to the same conclusion. Most of us mere mortals end up not reading his magnum opus If proof of veracity was the test, one is left wondering what he meant, and of what value is such veracity, if it is unaccessible to the vast majority due to the exigencies of daily life.

  6. #6 peggy
    January 11, 2008

    Alan,
    It is actually A la recherche du temps perdu (it is time and not the search for it which is lost). Alain de Bottin’s book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, gives a detailed, witty and persuasive answer to why Proust believed that. Proust’s own brother lamented that one would have to break a leg or otherwise be laid up for a long time to get through the book.

  7. #7 Public Heretic
    January 12, 2008

    Fascinating — of course, the “veracity” that Proust assumes will be found by his readers probably assumes a lot of details of his own cultural background. It’s not clear that we all have the same “selves” waiting to be revealed. Perhaps the only truths that such a novel can provide are those that are already present in the audience that receives them.

  8. #8 Alan
    January 14, 2008

    Peggy,
    Thanks for suggesting the Alain de Botton book, How Proust Can Change Your Life. I heard somewhere that de Botton was a fan of Wittgenstein (no kidding)–even owning a door handle designed by the late philosopher. Anyone with time and inclination might go back and read the last page of How Proust Can Change Your Life and the last page of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Did Wittgenstein influence de Botton’s conclusion about Proust’s writings?