Friday, July 11, 2008

Proust Was a Neuroscientist was disappointing

I'm still inspired by the passage on George Eliot from Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist that I posted last week. It's one of many passages that show Lehrer to be an engaging and graceful writer. But the enthusiasm with which I began reading his book waned as I kept going. Proust Was a Neuroscientist was a disappointment.

One problem: an exaggerated emphasis on the purported difficulty of modern art, music, and writing. Swann's Way offers "fifty-eight tedious pages" before Proust's narrator tastes the madeleine. Fifty-eight? That depends on the edition. Tedious? When I read the first fifty pages of Swann's Way (Penguin edition) in one sitting, I knew that I had found my way to the greatest reading experience of my life.

The tendency to exaggerate difficulty is most prominent in Lehrer's discussion of Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. A sampling: "a monstrous migraine of sound," "a gunshot of chromatic bullets," "clots of sound," "sadistic newness," "epileptic rhythm," "schizophrenic babble." Granted, Lehrer is taking into account the anger and incomprehension of some of the work's first listeners. But his characterizations of Stravinsky's work are often cast in terms of a present-day "we" still pained by the music: "Our cells can sense the chaos here; we know that this particular wall of sound is irresolvable. All we can do is wait. This too must end."

Another problem: Lehrer is sometimes remarkably dismissive, most conspicuously in his chapter on Gertrude Stein and Tender Buttons. Stein's poor reader must trek on, "suffering through her sentences," which offer "one jarring misnomer after another" in a "drift toward silliness" and "literary disarray." Though Lehrer notes that Stein's sentences "continue to inspire all sorts of serious interpretations," he doesn't engage what serious readers (Marjorie Perloff, for instance) have made of Tender Buttons. And his breezy observations about Stein's "lack of influence" ("her revolution petered out, and writers went back to old-fashioned storytelling") would come as a surprise to many contemporary poets (John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, and Bernadette Mayer, for instance).

Jonah Lehrer is writing with a noble purpose: to encourage dialogue between the humanities and the sciences. I'm not sure that readers of Proust Was a Neuroscientist will be moved to read Proust or Stein or listen to Stravinsky if they haven't done so before. But I am thinking that it might be fun to read Middlemarch again — a thought I never imagined having before reading this book.

All Proust posts (Pinboard)

comments: 1

Lee said...

I've been wondering whether to order this one, but now I think I'll also reread Middlemarch instead.