Squids, Neuroscientists and Proust

You may be wondering what Marcel has to do with squids and neuroscientists.  As far as I know, Proust never had an encounter with a squid while on the coast at Cabourg, and probably not in Paris either.  And even though Proust was diagnosed with neuresthenia, I don’t think there were neuroscientists around in his lifetime.  Not that either of those things have anything to do with each other.  Or squids, either.

So when I saw the titles of two books that came out this past year, Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf, and Proust was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, my interest was piqued and I checked them out of the library.  The sub-title of the squid book is The Story and Science of the Reading Brain; this gives us a clue as to why Proust is featured in the title of this book.  And with a squid.

You see, once there was this squid that wanted to learn how to read; specifically, he wanted to read In Search of Lost Time…no, not really.  Here’s the real story: Once there was an author named Maryanne Wolf and she wanted to write a book about how the human brain developed the skill of reading and the changes that being able to read make in the brain.  She says:

“In this book I use the celebrated French novelist Marcel Proust as metaphor and the largely underappreciated squid as analogy for two very different aspects of reading.  Proust saw reading as a kind of intellectual ‘sanctuary’ where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise…The study of what the human brain has to do to read, and of its clever ways of adapting when things go wrong, is analagous to the study of the squid in earlier neuroscience.”

Clever, n’est-ce pas?  Actually, I think the author was probably looking for a title that was more alluring than her sub-title, one that would arouse people’s interest and cause them to run to their library to check this book out just to see what connection Proust had with squids- it hooked me, didn’t it?  Proust, squids-I’m all over that like a cheap suit.

So there really isn’t that much about Proust in this book, but there are some good quotes from him.  Here are two:

“I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

“We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires.  But by…a law which perhaps signifies that we can receive the truth from nobody, and that we must create it ourselves, that which is the end of their wisdom appears to us as but the beginning of ours.”

Notice that the quote from Maryanne Wolf ends with the word neuroscience.  Here’s a definition of that word from the Free Dictionary: Any of the sciences, such as neuroanatomy and neurobiology, that deal with the nervous system.  And a neuroscientist is a neurobiologist who specializes in the study of the brain.  Our second book is entitled Proust was a Neuroscientist.  See how it all ties together? 

Jonah Lehrer, the author, does not really mean to say that Proust was a neuroscientist, his premise is that “…when it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first” and so …”[he] shows how each [artist] discovered an essential truth about the mind that science is only now rediscovering” (from the book jacket). 

Marcel Proust, bien sur, is the artist that got to some ideas about memory and our senses role in memory that scientists are now finding a biological basis for, in our tongues and noses and brains.  Here’s a quote from Proust that Lehrer uses:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinching, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Jonah Lehrer writes:  “Neuroscience now knows that Proust was right…This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory…All our other senses (sight, touch, and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness.  As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past…Proust intuited this anatomy”.

Well, but did we really need science to validate this for us?  Isn’t the fact that we all can recognize the truth of what Proust says, in this and in all that he reveals about us and to us in his work, to the point that we elevate this work to classic status and continue to refer to it and to its author long past it’s milieu?  (For more on this book, go here.)

One thing is obvious.  Both of these authors chose Proust’s name to feature in their books’ titles because the name draws attention; it also announces that the author has read Proust, sees things in Proust’s work that apply to today’s concern’s and science’s findings, and also that the author understands that people will want to read a book that has Proust’s name in the title.

Which leads me to reveal the title of a work I have in mind:

Proust was a Locavore


3 comments on “Squids, Neuroscientists and Proust

  1. Nice post. I bought both books even after seeing, in bookstores, how little Proust content each has (via the index of the first, the table of contents of the second). They looked like interesting books anyway. Plus, I couldn’t help myself: they had “Proust” in their titles!

    Do you think that the popularity of Little Miss Sunshine has something to do with these titles?

  2. Touch2Touch says:

    Wonderful post.
    No, thank you, I didn’t need science to validate Proust’s discovery about taste and smell. Once he had named it, I was able to name the experience in my own life. I have been ever grateful to him for it.

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