Last night I rushed to get my son Alex to his 7.30 fencing practice. I grabbed Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist to bring with me, because there is only so much epée-rattling I can watch in a ninety minute period. I had finished long ago almost all of the book, except for the concluding chapter on Virginia Woolf. Lehrer's argument: Woolf realized that the self is an imaginary but necessary entity that makes coherent the chaotic onslaught of experience. Self, in other words, is a kind of retroactive effect of the choosing of what phenomena comes to attention and what is lost to the world's plenitude. In Lehrer's account, Woolf mapped this out artistically long before contemporary neuroscience did with CAT scans, brain lesion study, and experiments.
It's an intriguing chapter -- and the clanging of epées, the shouting, the adolescent jokes, and the general maelstrom of sensory stumuli that fencing practice generates really did emphasize for me the material bombardment from which we extract a narrative of being singular and choosing.
The book's coda makes explicit an argument that has been running quietly throughout Proust was a Neuroscientist. Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I'd like to quote this morning:
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.Lehrer's words here are powerful. His call to collaboration and dialogue is, I think, answered in part by initiatives like the Qu(e)ering series, the BABEL project, postmedieval. Like Lily's art in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, we need to keep seeking the "queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow," that "sudden intensity."