Do artists intuit scientific truths?

Jonah Lehrer’s book, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” is based on a misunderstanding. Nonetheless, it is engaging, informed, wide ranging and altogether worth reading. At times it has the whip-smart feel of the best term paper you’ve ever read; if only one could adjust the thesis a bit, it would settle in to what is its real nature — a provocative meditation, not a genuine discovery.

Lehrer’s claim is that certain select artists effectively discovered modern truths of neuroscience simultaneous with, or even before, scientists did themselves. He makes his case through chapters on each of eight artists: Marcel Proust, George Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Paul C├ęzanne, Auguste Escoffier, Igor Stravinsky, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf. The astonishing act of intuitive/artistic legerdemain illustrated by Proust is his discovery, neurasthenically ensconced in his famous cork-lined room, that memories are not solid recollections, but shift and change with time. Our memory is always the memory of the moment, never the recollection of eternity; each time we recall, we change the recollection.

Virginia Woolf’s discovery is that “the mind is not a place; it is a process.” Lehrer quotes from Woolf’s short, swirling masterpiece “To the Lighthouse” to illustrate the thesis: “Such was the complexity of things … to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now.” Lehrer proceeds to compare this to discoveries in neuroscience about the different functions of different parts of the mind.

Does the reader begin to see the trouble? I may as well assert that Judaism, with its theories of yetzer hatov (good inclinations) and yetzer hara (bad inclinations), anticipated neuroscience because the sages, too, understood the mind as a battleground of conflict. Samuel Johnson, long before Woolf (and as different in temperament as might be imagined), said that two things about the human heart may be contradictory, but both are true. Woolf’s exposition is more delicate, in service of Lehrer’s larger project (about which more in a minute) but all these examples are less anticipation than artistic statements of the prevailing intellectual ethos.

Although you pick your artists, you get your sensibility. Though Lehrer barely mentions them, you may as well mix Henry James, James Joyce and Henri Bergson all together to get the delicate stream of consciousness that is more true to what we know of the mind’s workings than, say, Anthony Trollope. The key is to choose a frame and then find an artist that fits. If you were doing sociology, Trollope’s stolid, knowing class-conscious characters work beautifully. For the brain, we go to those whose subject was not the workings of society as much as the workings of the introspective self (though Proust, comprehensive artist that he was, did both). Lehrer’s choices — Whitman, Stein, Woolf — paid attention to what went on within their own minds. And to suggest this is no more charged than to say that Sophocles anticipated Freud. Writers will, as sensitive and intelligent people, anticipate some of the discoveries of other fields — sociology, psychology and hard science. But did ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, who spoke of atoms, really anticipate modern physics, or did he imaginatively give voice to a possibility of the world that, in a way he could not have imagined, was proved true? Equally, when Lehrer writes that George Eliot celebrated freedom, the infinite possibilities of the individual to change, he might equally well have chosen Shakespeare or Bocaccio or the Bible.

What to my mind does not work so well as a definite thesis, works beautifully as an intriguing, elegant meditation. Lehrer is a young man (26 years old) of wide experience and remarkably broad, assured learning. He is lavishly gifted with associative abilities; one fact, one observation or apercu suggests another, and he is off and running. He noticed similarities and suggests affinities. The book is a short, readable feast.

Nevertheless, Lehrer’s larger project is the development not of a union of science and religion, though he makes the obligatory nod to C.P. Snow and E.O. Wilson in developing a culture that embraces both. His larger project is the development of a sensibility. There are science writers whose work shows an exquisite artistic sense, such as Loren Eisley and Lewis Thomas. There are writers who are intimately acquainted with the sciences, such as Richard Powers and Andrea Barrett. Lehrer offers us an image of these two great fields of human endeavor in concert. Images enrich one another, and each aids in understanding the other.

There are three principle joys in reading this book, none inferior to the other: What we learn about science, what we learn about art, and what we anticipate will come next from the pen of this gifted and sensitive observer of life and art.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.