Short Takes

Email|Print| Text size + By Barbara Fisher
November 11, 2007

Proust Was a Neuroscientist
By Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin, 242 pp., $24

That great artists have anticipated the discoveries of science is not news, but to hear that old news in an engaging form from a 25-year-old Rhodes scholar who has worked in both a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience lab and a four-star restaurant kitchen is news indeed. Jonah Lehrer writes, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. . . . Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery."

Lehrer presents the contributions that literary (Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf,) musical (Igor Stravinsky), painterly (Paul Cezanne), and culinary (Auguste Escoffier) artists have made to our understanding of how the mind works. Then he describes the experiments that have translated those dreamy compositions into scientific formulae. He is most surprising and inventive when correlating how Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" changed the way we hear music with the experiments that later tracked neurons in the auditory cortex and how Escoffier's innovations in the kitchen were designed to stimulate specific receptors that were later located on the tongue. That Gertrude Stein's prose exposed the deep structure of language long before Noam Chomsky and that Proust's meditations on memory's fallibility preceded the work of many neurobiologists are less original, but still enlightening.

Long Gone
By Richard Willis
Greenpoint, 192 pp., paperback, $20

Life on a farm in Marengo, Iowa, in the 1930s and '40s was just plain hard. Richard Willis recalls it without bitterness or nostalgia. He records it: what it looked like, sounded like, and felt like.

"This is the way it is supposed to be done. (I can hear the old man's voice as I write out his directions)." This is what language was used for - to explain the task - and Willis perfectly repeats the instructions. This is how you milk a cow without getting hit by her manure-soaked tail, how you husk corn in one unbroken motion, how you castrate a pig. Willis reports what the country schoolteacher earned, what a spring frock cost, how long the movie show lasted, what was served for dinner, and what was packed in lunchboxes. He spends little time on the thoughts or feelings of his critical, demanding father and no-nonsense, disappointed mother. His much younger brother appears only at birth and death. The constant demands of the farm seem to have left no room for anything as frivolous as an inner life. Willis escaped this grinding routine, moving into academia and the theater, and he looks back with a cold, clear eye.

Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle
By Janet Todd
Counterpoint, 297 pp., illustrated, $26

Fanny Wollstonecraft - love child of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the daring feminist critique "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"; half sister of Mary Shelley, wife of the poet and creator of Frankenstein; stepsister of Claire Clairmont, mistress of Shelley and Lord Byron - lived her life offstage. Waiting patiently to be called from the wings, she finally despaired and ended her life alone at the age of 22.

When her half sister, the beautiful and talented Mary, and her stepsister, the also beautiful and impressionable Claire, ran off with the romantic, fascinating, and already married Percy Bysshe Shelley, they left the plain and uncomplaining Fanny behind with her stepfather, William Godwin. Acting as messenger and go-between for the disobedient girls and their enraged, estranged, but financially beholden (to Shelley) father, Fanny was exploited, disregarded, and mocked. When the charismatic Byron was introduced into the menage, Claire took her chances with him, leaving Mary to compete only with Harriet, Shelley's wife, and his own natural inclinations. Shelley and Byron died young, while Mary and Claire fared somewhat better. The rejected Harriet and the forlorn Fanny both killed themselves.

Todd's account of these tragic wanderers presents them, perhaps unintentionally, as a bunch of foolish, self-indulgent, and self-pitying brats. It's hard to feel sorry for any of them. Shelley and Byron seem especially suspect, professing their belief in free love and radical politics as license to keep harems and neglect children.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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