Reflecting their status in society at large, neurology and neuroscience have in recent years become major forces in American arts and media, charting new narrative pathways. If noted at all, this development has been written off as only another example of our culture's hunger for varieties of victimhood. But such a judgment trivializes the change. Going from a psychological, especially a Freudian, perspective to a neurological one involves nothing less than a shift in world view.
Freudianism, for example, brought a child-centered perspective to the arts: Childhood trauma, whether actual or Oedipal, was considered decisive in shaping the adult. Neurology, on the other hand, takes a brain-centered view, with an emphasis on wiring and neural circuitry that makes for ready links to computer culture. Psychoanalytically inspired literature stressed the importance of the family saga and made ample use of the guilt and blame arising from it. The neurological view makes less of the family and therefore must arrive at other narrative weights and measures than guilt and blame. In his elegy for Freud, W.H. Auden declared that, upon his death, Freud had been transfigured into "a whole climate of opinion." What remains of that climate of opinion is fast dissipating. Increasingly, it is neurology and neuroscience that excite the imagination, suggesting new aesthetic forms and new ways of conceiving human variation.
Consider, for example, the phonetic and semantic mayhem wreaked on the spoken word by Lionel Essrog, a detective by trade and the main character of Jonathan Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn (1999). When a pal of Essrog's jokes, "How do you titillate an ocelot?" and delivers the punch line "You oscillate its tit a lot," Essrog goes into verbal convulsions. "Eat me Ocelot!" he screams, followed by "Lancelot ancillary oscillope Octapot! Tittapocamus!" Essrog has Tourette's syndrome, which in his case is as susceptible to wordplay as some seizure disorders are to strobe lighting. Essrog's verbal volatility is among the qualities that make him a desirable foil for Lethem, whose interest in wordplay, human oddity, and broad physical humor is manifest throughout his work.
Essrog's Tourette's includes something he calls "meta-Tourette's," a compulsion to ceaselessly scan the environment for anything that could be remotely compared to the syndrome. He finds such a likeness in the tunnel walls of the New York City subway system, which, like the tunnel walls of his brain, are layered "with expulsive and incoherent language." He finds another likeness in conspiracy theory, which, he feels, displays a Tourettic "yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close." For Essrog, everything in the world is either like Tourette's, or it isn't. And whoever doesn't have Tourette's is likely in fear of it. "Tourette's teaches you," he says, "to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive--it teaches you this because you're the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way."
Tourette's syndrome plagues Essrog but also privileges him: "There were times," he reflects, "when I felt like a bolt of static electricity communing with figures that moved through a sea of molasses." As a private eye, Essrog belongs to a lineage dating back to Sherlock Holmes and beyond, in which the detec-tive is ultimately a damaged seer. For Holmes, the instrument of insight--and debilitation--was cocaine. For Essrog, it is supercharged brain cells and overloaded synapses. In his memoir, A Touretter's Tale (1998), Lowell Handler writes that "Tourette's may be viewed as a special power or a disability, but never anything in between." Today, Tourette's and other neurological conditions regularly appear in literature as special power and disability simultaneously.
For example, though Silencio, the autistic boy in cyber-punk novelist William Gibson's last book, All Tomorrow's Parties (1999), is, for the most part, incommunicative, he can bring the uncharted powers of a savant to bear on what captures his interest. As it happens, he is interested in watches, fascinated by them, more attuned to the fine points of a watch face than to expressions on a human face. In All Tomorrow's Parties, this fixation enables him to track a watch, and therefore its owner, to the other side of an "informational wormhole," a supposedly impassable barrier in cyberspace. For the watch's owner, a billionaire terrorist on the run, it's no consolation to know he has been run to ground by a boy whose only desire was to "find the watch, because it is part of the system of hands and faces and applied numerals."
Silencio has many of the attributes associated with autism in the new set of stock characters literature is assembling from neurology: Silencio is a boy; he is innocent (in Ryne Douglas Pearson's novel Simple Simon, made into the movie Mercury Rising, the autistic character is often referred to as "an extreme innocent"); he can sustain little human contact but has unlimited feeling for mechanisms and computers--cyberspace is his native ground.
The autistic savant as a kind of wired angel contrasts with the Touretter, whose explosive energies mark him as a member of the devil's party. For a writer like David Foster Wallace, obsessed with raising the stakes of his literary gambles (even unto the 1,000-plus pages of Infinite Jest), the Touretter is a ready-made trope for excess and overflow. In his latest book, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), Wallace describes the Tourettic condition known as coprolalia, or compulsive cursing, except that Wallace's coprolaliac is more bedeviled by slogans than by obscenities. He can't help shouting out:
"Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" Only way louder. As in really shouting it. Uncontrollably. I'm not even thinking it until it comes out and I hear it. "Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!" Only louder than that: "Victory--"
For some writers, neurology shapes literary form as well as content. In her forthcoming volume Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Lauren Slater (author of Prozac Diary) assumes the persona of someone with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) in order to test the expectations of veracity that have come to crowd around the memoir genre. The wild oscillations in behavior and belief associated with TLE give Slater a neurological persona for her mischievous literary end. We are meant to wonder about her reliability as a narrator even to the point of doubting that she ever had any form of epilepsy. Further, as Slater wrote the book, she realized she was making its very structure conform to the stages of an epileptic seizure.
In some recent work, neurological diversity frames ethnic diversity. In Freedomland (1998), for example, novelist and screenwriter Richard Price uses a policeman's description of his son's Tourette's to allow for reflection upon the racial conflicts that drive the plot: What are differences in skin color when compared to hardwired differences in the way the brain works? The cop, trying to keep abreast of scientific efforts to understand Tourette's, refers to a Dateline NBC segment that "explained how, like, there's a short in the chemical relay system from the brain to the body, and, you know, whenever the pressure builds up, there's your twitch, jerk, whatever. So we liked it and we got a copy of the show through our Tourette's association."
Price gets today's neurocentric view right on two counts. We're all becoming increasingly fluent in a sort of street neurology: "Whenever the pressure builds up, there's your twitch, jerk, whatever." When psychology ruled, psychobabble was plentiful. The rise of neurology is likewise echoed by neurobabble. Secondly, by alluding to the Tourette's association, Price pinpoints neurological difference as a new source of group and individual identity in our society. An excellent example of this can be found online in e-mail forums where high-functioning autistics (HFAs) discuss their differences from the neurological norm and demand that society show an understanding of neurological styles other than the neurotypical (NT). In fact, as blacks have called for whiteness studies, so HFAs, in effect, are now militating for NT studies.
No one has grasped the centrality of neurology to our time better than playwright and director Peter Brook, who, in his recent memoir, Threads of Time, characterizes the "inner landscapes of the brain" as today's "Valley of Astonishment," our contemporary locus of self-discovery. Brook himself has led the way into that valley, basing one recent play on the work of Oliver Sacks, and his latest work, I Am a Phenomenon, on Russian neurologist A.R. Luria's 1968 account (The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory) of a man with a synesthetic memory that was both inexhaustible and incapacitating. At the end of I Am a Phenomenon, Brook has the despairing main character travel to America in the hope that brain scans will reveal to him why, as Luria put it, "every sound he heard immediately produced an experience of light and color and ... a sense of taste and touch as well," and why, consequently, it all was unforgettable.
Brain scans are certainly one of the reasons for the success of neurology. The power of neuroimaging gives researchers and laymen alike reason to think we are close to perfecting a telescope for inner space, an instrument for drawing the map of laughter, dreams, language, and inspiration. But not everyone is eager to arrive at such a mind map. If there was resistance to Freud's attempts to understand behavior in terms of biological drives versus internalized social restraints, how could there fail to be resistance to attempts to coordinate our very personalities with small changes in our wetware?
This is the kind of resistance addressed by Lionel Trilling's son James in a controversial piece he wrote about his father for The American Scholar. "My father's worst problem was not neurosis," he argued, "it was a neurological condition, attention deficit disorder," which he himself inherited. Lionel Trilling had been high culture's leading advocate of Freudianism, but according to James, the elder Trilling adhered so fervently to psychoanalysis because it flattered his sense of uniqueness more than a neurological label would have done. James alleges that fear of neurology afflicted his mother, the literary critic Diana Trilling, as well. Both Diana and Lionel saw Diana's sister's grimaces, smacking of lips, and "convulsive yet deliberate grasping motions with the hands" as a sad failure of will rather than as the neurological disorder it truly was.
If literature can draw sustenance from neurology, so can literary criticism--starting with Shakespeare himself. After all, Hamlet has been shamelessly dragged from psychoanalytic couch to psychoanalytic couch. But there is far better reason to declare of Caliban--"You taught me language; and my profit on't/Is, I know how to curse"--that he was literature's first and greatest coprolaliac, progenitor to Lionel Essrog. Caliban, though, had plain and simple Tourette's. Our culture is showing signs of meta-Tourette's; like Essrog we scan the environment for neurological correspondences. ¤
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