THE ENLIGHTENMENT - HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)



THE ENLIGHTENMENT IS, OF COURSE, THE AGE OF REASON. THIS TERM, SO REDOLENT of clarity, simplicity and harmony, generates confusion, complexity and contradiction at the outset. ‘Rational and rationality, reason and Reason, remain hotly contested notions, whose users disagree even about the nature of their disagreement,’ wrote the philosopher Max Black.1 One principal distinction underlies most of the others; it is a distinction that has been understood and expressed in language since ancient times, and therefore is likely to have a substrate in the lived world. This is the distinction between, on the one hand, Greek nous (or noos), Latin intellectus, German Vernunft, English reason (allied to common sense - sensus communis, in Vico's sense rather than Kant's) and, on the other, Greek logos/dianoia, Latin ratio, German Verstand, English rationality. The first of these - flexible, resisting fixed formulation, shaped by experience, and involving the whole living being - is congenial to the operations of the right hemisphere; the second - more rigid, rarified, mechanical, governed by explicit laws - to those of the left.

The first, what I have called right-hemisphere sense, was traditionally considered to be the higher faculty. There are a number of reasons why this was so. For a start, the edifice of rationality (logos), the left-hemisphere type of reason, was weakened by the recognition that (in contravention of the consistency principle) a thing and its opposite may well both be true. But there is one problem that attacks the very root of logos. Although constitutive for science and much of philosophy, because of its being based on argumentation and the provision of proof, it cannot constitute - cannot ground - itself according to its own principles of proof and argumentation. The value of rationality, as well as whatever premises it may start from, has to be intuited: neither can be derived from rationality itself. All rationality can do is to provide internal consistency once the system is up and running. Deriving deeper premises only further postpones the ultimate question, and leads into an infinite regress; in the end one is back to an act of intuitive faith governed by reason (nous). Logos represents, as indeed the left hemisphere does, a closed system which cannot reach outside itself to whatever it is that exists apart from itself. According to Plato, nous (reason as opposed to rationality) is characterised by intuition, and according to Aristotle it is nous that grasps the first principles through induction. So the primacy of reason (right hemisphere) is due to the fact that rationality (left hemisphere) is founded on it. Once again the right hemisphere is prior to the left.

Kant is commonly held to have reversed these priorities. At first sight this would appear to be the case, since for him Verstand (rationality) plays a constitutive role, and is therefore primary, while Vernunft(reason) plays a regulatory one, once Verstand has done its work. Rationality, according to this formulation, comes first, and reason then operates on what rationality yields, to decide how to use and interpret the products of rationality. However, I do not think that Kant's formulation embodies a reversal as much as an extension. There was something missing from the earlier classical picture that reason is the ground of rationality, namely the necessity for rationality to return the fruits of its operations to reason again. Reason is indeed required to give the intuitive, inductive foundation to rationality, but rationality needs in turn to submit its workings to the judgment of reason at the end (Kant's regulatory role). Thus it is not that A (reason) The Master and his Emissary B (rationality), but that A (reason) The Master and his Emissary B (rationality) The Master and his Emissary A (reason) again. This mirrors the process that I have suggested enables the hemispheres to work co-operatively: the right hemisphere delivers something to the left hemisphere, which the left hemisphere then unfolds and gives back to the right hemisphere in an enhanced form. The classical, pre-Kantian, position focussed on the first part of the process: A (reason) The Master and his Emissary B (rationality), thus reason is the ground of rationality. My reading of Kant is that it was his perception of the importance of the second part of this tripartite arrangement, namely that B (rationality) The Master and his Emissary A (reason), the products of rationality must be subject to reason, that led him to what is perceived as a reversal, though it is better seen as an extension of the original formulation.

Reason depends on seeing things in context, a right-hemisphere faculty, whereas rationality is typically left-hemisphere in that it is context-independent, and exemplifies the interchangeability that results from abstraction and categorisation. Any purely rational sequence could in theory be abstracted from the context of an individual mind and ‘inserted’ in another mind as it stands; because it is rule-based, it could be taught in the narrow sense of that word, whereas reason cannot in this sense be taught, but has to grow out of each individual's experience, and is incarnated in that person with all their feelings, beliefs, values and judgments. Rationality can be an important part of reason, but only part. Reason is about holding sometimes incompatible elements in balance, a right-hemisphere capacity which had been highly prized among the humanist scholars of the Renaissance. Rationality imposes an ‘either/or’ on life which is far from reasonable.

The Enlightenment is, for all its love of unity, a most self-contradictory phenomenon: it was, one may fairly say, the best of times, it was the worst of times. The highest achievements of the Enlightenment, those for which eighteenth-century culture is widely admired, express the harmony and balance, often accompanied by an ironic, but tolerant, acceptance of human frailty, which, I believe, mark a high point in the co-operation of the right and left hemispheres, with, in my terms the left hemisphere having delivered itself back to the right hemisphere. But built into the foundations of Enlightenment thought are precepts that are bound to lead eventually to a less flexible and humane outlook, that of the left hemisphere alone.

Let us think, not of reason, but of metaphor. Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’.2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.3 Thinking cannot be severed from our bodily existence, out of which all metaphors arise.


The most influential Enlightenment philosopher, René Descartes, famously attempted to demonstrate precisely the opposite. He saw the body, the senses and the imagination as likely to lead, not only to error, but into the realm of madness. In the Meditations on First Philosophy he refers to the ‘madmen’ who trust their senses and end up imagining ‘that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass’.4

There is a deep irony involved here. The symptoms he describes are characteristic of delusions that occur in schizophrenia.5 But schizophrenia is not characterised at all by trusting the senses - rather by an unreasonable mistrust of them. It entails in many cases a wholesale inability to rely on the reality of embodied existence in the ‘common-sense’ world which we share with others, and leads to a dehumanised view of others, who begin to lose their intuitively experienced identity as fellow humans and become seen as devitalised machines. One's own body becomes no longer the vehicle through which reality is experienced, but instead is seen as just another object, sometimes a disturbingly alien object, in the world that is validated by cognition alone. Sufferers from schizophrenia have been known to see themselves as, for example, copying machines, or to contemplate cutting their wrists to find out whether they contain engine oil.

‘To lose one's reason’ is the old expression for madness. But an excess of rationality is the grounds of another kind of madness, that of schizophrenia. As Louis Sass argued in his Madness and Modernism and in The Paradoxes of Delusion,6 and Giovanni Stanghellini has further emphasised in Disembodied Spirits and Deanimated Bodies,7 schizophrenia is not characterised by a Romantic disregard for rational thinking and a regression into a more primitive, unself-conscious, emotive realm of the body and the senses, but by an excessively detached, hyper-rational, reflexively self-aware, disembodied and alienated condition.

Louis Sass has demonstrated, by his comparisons of Wittgenstein's critique of philosophy with Daniel Paul Schreber's detailed accounts of his own psychotic illness (Schreber was the subject of Freud's only study of schizophrenia), that there are extensive similarities between schizophrenia and the state of mind that is brought about when one makes a conscious effort to distance oneself from one's surroundings, refrain from normal action and interaction with them, suspend one's normal assumptions and feelings about them and subject them to a detached scrutiny - an exercise which in the non-mentally ill is normally confined to philosophers. The belief that this will result in a deeper apprehension of reality ignores the fact that the nature of the attention we bring to bear on anything alters what we find there. Adopting a stance that is normally found only in patients suffering from schizophrenia is not obviously a recipe for finding a higher truth.8

However, the Cartesian view of the world does just this. Referring to a famous passage from the Meditations on First Philosophy in which Descartes describes looking out of his window and seeing what he knows to be people passing by as seeming to him nonetheless like mere machines, wearing hats and coats, the philosopher David Levin comments:

What could be a greater symptom of madness than to look out of one's window and see (what might, for all one knows, be) machines, instead of real people? The point I want to make is that this, this kind of vision, is what the rationality he has embraced leads to. Not by mere chance, not by a momentary caprice, but by the inexorable logic of the rationality to which he is committed … Only a philosopher could, or would, talk in this way [with scepticism about the existence of other people]. In ‘real life’, outside the study, such a way of talking - such a way of looking at other people - would be judged mad, a subtle symptom of paranoia.9

Descartes held that there was ‘absolutely no connection (at least that I can understand)’ between ‘that curious tugging in the stomach which I call hunger’ and the desire to eat.10 Even pain was a mystery: ‘why’, he asks, ‘should that curious sensation of pain give rise to a particular distress of mind?’11 This seems to me to display a quite extraordinary lack of intuitive understanding. If there is, in fact, one place at which the relationship between the body and subjective experience can be intuitively understood, it is right there, in sensations such as pain and hunger. But then Descartes was not sure that he had a body at all:

I can make a probable conjecture that the body exists. But this is only a probability; and despite a careful and comprehensive investigation, I do not yet see how the distinct idea of corporeal nature which I find in my imagination can provide any basis for a necessary inference that some body exists.12

Descartes's rationality led him not only to doubt the existence of others, but to see knowledge of his own body as constituted by the intellect, rather than self-evident through intuition: ‘Even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone, and … this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood.’13 Thus, by an astonishing inversion, rationality becomes not merely constitutive of reason, but of intuition and the body. However, reason is not only rooted in the body, in our bodies, but in the physical and instinctual realm that we share with animals. As Lakoff and Johnson write:

Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in ‘lower’ animals … Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them … Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious. Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative. Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged … Since reason is shaped by the body, it is not radically free, because the possible human conceptual systems and the possible forms of reason are limited. In addition, once we have learned a conceptual system, it is neurally instantiated in our brains and we are not free to think just anything.14

The very basis of abstract thought, both in its concepts and in the manipulation of those concepts, lies in metaphors drawn from the body: ‘Reason is imaginative in that bodily inference forms are mapped onto abstract modes of inference by metaphor.’15

Descartes is one of the first and greatest exemplars of the left hemisphere's salience in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. If one thinks back to the neuropsychological literature on the appreciation of time, which has formed a significant part of my analysis of the differences between right and left hemisphere, and I believe casts light on the process of reason in early Greek paradox, one is struck by the view of time held by Descartes. According to Charles Sherover, Descartes had ‘problems with the very idea of temporal continuity, epitomised in his conviction that each moment is a somehow irreducible real self-enclosed atomic point in the structure of the universe, and is devoid of any sustaining continuity with any other moment’.16

A number of aspects of Descartes's philosophical stance can be summarised. Detached from the body, its tiresome emotions and its intimations of mortality, he aspired to be ‘a spectator rather than an actor in all the comedies’ the world displays.17 All-seeing, but no longer bodily or affectively engaged with the world, Descartes experiences the world as a representation. That has its rewards for Descartes, but it also has some profoundly negative consequences, not just for us, but for him. It is true that it enables him to achieve his prized goals of certainty and fixity, but it does so at the expense of content. Then again: objectification is, sure enough, a means to domination and control, but it succeeds by a strategy from which the ego itself cannot escape. Here is Levin:

The ego's possibility of mastering, dominating and controlling required, in turn, that objectification - reification - must be given priority, for objectification is the way that the world is brought before us in representation, made available for our technological mastering, and subjected to our domination. But the final ironic twist in the logic of this process of objectification is that it escapes our control, and we ourselves become its victims, simultaneously reduced to the being-available of mere objects and reduced to the being of a purely inner subjectivity that is no longer recognised as enjoying any truth, any reality.18

Each of these facets of Descartes's predicament recapitulates the phenomenology of schizophrenia. The sense of being a passive observer of life, not an actor in it, is related to the passivity phenomena that are a primary characteristic of the condition. Many of the paintings by sufferers show an all-observing eye, detached from the scene it observes, floating in the picture.

Affective non-engagement could be said to be the hallmark of schizophrenia. The sense that the world is merely a representation (‘play-acting’) is very common, part of the inability to trust one's senses, enhanced by the feeling of unreality that non-engagement brings in its wake - nothing is what it seems. Such an inability to accept the self-evident nature of sensory experience leads to an emptying out of meaning. There is a characteristic combination of omnipotence and impotence, of being all there is and yet nothing at all, which again follows from the lack of betweenness with what is, with the shared world of common experience.

My purpose here is not to discount Descartes, but to illuminate the links between his philosophical enterprise and the experience of schizophrenia, which, as John Cutting has shown, appears to be a state in which the sufferer relies excessively on (an abnormally functioning) left hemisphere.19 I would argue that in all its major predilections - divorce from the body, detachment from human feeling, the separation of thought from action in the world, concern with clarity and fixity, the triumph of representation over what is present to sensory experience, in its reduction of time to a succession of atomistic moments, and in its tendency to reduce the living to the devitalised and mechanical - the philosophy of Descartes belongs to the world as construed by the left hemisphere.


As the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, one of the Enlightenment's earliest critics, saw, this Cartesian world view would lead to devitalisation, and in social terms, to bureaucratisation. The immediacy with which unnatural detachment induces boredom can be seen from the novelist Alberto Moravia's description of boredom, in his novel of that name:

Boredom to me consists in a kind of insufficiency, or inadequacy or lack of reality … yet again boredom might be described as a malady affecting external objects and consisting of a withering process; an almost instantaneous loss of vitality … The feeling of boredom originates for me in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is insufficient, or anyhow unable, to convince me of its own effective existence …20

The concept of boredom arose in the eighteenth century. Patricia Spacks, in her informative work on the subject, relates it to ‘the dreariness of non-engagement’.21 (According to Isaiah Berlin, ‘Vauvenargues, complained bitterly about the appalling emptiness of life … Madame de la Popelinière said that she wished to throw herself out of the window because she felt that life had no meaning and no purpose.’)22 I would connect the rise of the concept of boredom with an essentially passive view of experience; a view of vitality as mediated by novelty, a stimulant force which comes to us from outside, rather as the power supply comes to a computer, and in relation to which we are passive recipients (as the left hemisphere finds itself in relation to what comes to it from the right hemisphere). One might contrast this with the view of vitality, as the Romantics would come to see it, as the result of imagination bringing something into being between ourselves and whatever it is that exists ‘out there’, in which we act as fashioners of our own experience (as the right hemisphere experiences whatever it is that lies outside the brain).23 The connection with the left hemisphere is again apparent in the relationship between boredom and the experience of time: no longer a lived narrative, it is static, eternal, unchanging. Boredom is ‘a typically modern characteristic of the experience of subjective time’, writes Anton Zijderveld,24 an idea expanded on by Martin Waugh: ‘When we are bored, our attitude toward time is altered, as it is in some dreamlike states. Time seems endless, there is no distinction between past, present and future. There seems to be only an endless present.’25 That sounds oddly like Plato's realm of the ideal Forms.

In his book The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin lays out what it was about the Enlightenment that Romanticism later came to put in question. He refers to ‘the three propositions … upon which the whole Western tradition rested’: namely, ‘that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question'; ‘that all these answers are knowable, that they can be discovered by means which can be learnt and taught to other persons'; and ‘that all the answers must be compatible with one another’.26 These tenets could be said to be the foundations of Enlightenment thinking. When Berlin refers to the ‘Western tradition’, he is speaking of the Western philosophical tradition, that is, that part of Western culture dealing in explicit fashion with the resolution of ‘questions’ and ‘answers’. Although philosophers in the West since the time of Plato had behaved as though these tenets, Berlin's three propositions, were true, there was, until the time of the Enlightenment, enough implicit expression of cultural wisdom through the media of poetry, drama, painting, and, above all, religious ritual - in all of which it is easily perceived as far from true that all questions can be answered, that all answers can be taught, and that all answers are mutually compatible - that these tenets, though important in philosophy, had not come to shape the culture itself. But with the heightened self-awareness of the Enlightenment, these three, obviously false, propositions came to dominate not just academic philosophy, but the business of life itself; or, to look at it another way, in what became known as the age of les philosophes, we all became philosophers malgré nous.

The necessity for the Enlightenment of certainty and ‘transmissibility’ creates a problem for the arts, which are intrinsically ambiguous and uncertain, and where creative genius is not ‘transmissible’. There is a consequent downgrading of imagination in favour of fancy, and a mistrust of metaphor, as we have noted, which is equated with the lie. There are obvious continuities between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. They share the same marks of left-hemisphere domination: the banishment of wonder; the triumph of the explicit, and, with it, mistrust of metaphor; alienation from the embodied world of the flesh, and a consequent cerebralisation of life and experience. The right hemisphere bid for reason, in which opposites can be held in balance, was swiftly transformed into a move toward left-hemisphere rationality, in which one of the two must exclude, even annihilate, the other. The impulse towards harmony was replaced with the impulse towards singleness and purity.

If one looks at Reynolds’ Discourses, for example, a hugely influential book in its day, based on a series of lectures delivered to the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1791, one finds him criticising great figures of Renaissance art, such as Bernini, for portraying mixed emotions, something that had once been, and later would again be, considered a sign of genius. (Fortunately, Reynolds, whose writings were a consistent target for Blake, did not stick to his precepts in his own painting.) Where reason respects the implicit, the ambiguous, the unresolved, rationality demands the explicit, the clear and the complete.

The emphasis on ‘light’ in ‘Enlightenment’ suggests not just clarity and precision, but of course the banishment of the darker, more ‘negative’ emotions. The optimism of the Enlightenment is based on the belief that man can control his destiny. Death is correspondingly de-emphasised. From 1681, when Nahum Tate revised it, King Lear was for 150 years performed, believe it or not, with a happy ending, and other of Shakespeare's tragedies were performed with comedy resolutions. It is hard not to see in this a degree of denial, especially when one remembers other societies in which art was compulsorily optimistic. This is in keeping with the fact that the left hemisphere sees things literally as lighter, and is more prone to ‘positive’ emotions. (I put the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, in relation to the emotions, in inverted commas, because, even though they have been naturalised in the language to such a degree that it may now be hard to see the inherent bias in the terms, they suggest in typical left-hemisphere fashion that its favoured emotions are more valuable, more productive, even more substantial, than others. Literally they suggest that one set of emotions is based on the absence of the others - ‘negative’ implying denial, or ‘no-saying’, to something else that has prior or primary existence. It may be far from true, however, that ‘negative’ emotions such as sadness are negative in any sense; indeed to be without the capacity for sadness would mean a degree of detachment from the manifestly suffering world around one which bordered on the psychopathic.)


In this age vision became more akin to the model of the camera; perspective more the detached process that it initially avoided being in the Renaissance. Vision has become a more alienating process as we have progressed in self-consciousness in the West. Perhaps this was already foreseen in the Renaissance: written on the tomb of one of the first makers of eyeglasses, who died in 1317 and is buried in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, are the words: ‘God forgive him his sins.’27 The moral consequences of the discovery of optics are not to be under-estimated (though this is likely to be an effect, rather than a cause, of Western alienation, since, according to Joseph Needham, optics were ‘particularly well developed in ancient and medieval China’).28 Writing of the insidious effect of the metaphor of ‘reflection’ on our understanding of understanding, one modern philosopher writes: ‘The source of the turn to the idea of reflection in modern philosophy lies in modern optics. Modern optics is the analogue for the modern conception of the intellect as a source of “reflective” knowledge.’29 In fact the discoveries of optics were made by the Greeks, though they were later largely lost, and their power to change the way we ‘see’ the world took a vast leap forward with the Enlightenment. The word ‘reflection’ first started to be used to refer to thought processes in the seventeenth century. In 1690 Locke defined it as ‘that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them’, already seeing reflection as the process of self-reflection.30 As early as 1725, Vico was referring to ‘the barbarism of reflection’.31

We are used now to the idea that sights - even picturesque sights - are like a quarry that is pursued and ‘captured’ by the camera, but it may come as a surprise to learn that they were already being talked of in this way in the eighteenth century. According to Thomas Gray, those early tourists would already ‘capture prospects at every ten paces’, or ‘catch the diversity of views’.32 Equally William Gilpin's famous essays on the picturesque advise that the ‘first source of amusement to the picturesque traveller, is the pursuit of his object - the expectation of new scenes continually opening, and arising to his view’.33

The very existence of the idea of the picturesque - nature as like a painting - reveals that nature is thought to require improvement by human hand and eye. Nature now suffered under the Enlightenment in the same way that metaphor had done: from having been something revered because it opened a way out of the realm of the artificial towards a more profound reality, picturesque nature became Locke's perfect cheat, just a pretty deception. Faced with this, the sensible response of the Enlightened mind is not to seek beyond, to find a Nature that transcends the picturesque, but instead to do the opposite, to retreat, and to redefine Nature in terms of civilised behaviour. Thus when Mrs Elton, in Jane Austen's Emma, enthusiastically describes her proposed picnic party in the grounds of Mr Knightley's house, she is firmly put in her place: ‘There is to be no form or parade - a sort of gipsy party’, gushes Mrs Elton:

‘We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; - and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors - a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?’

‘Not quite. My idea of the simple and the natural will be to have the table spread in the dining-room. The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors. When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there shall be cold meat in the house.’

Nature was to be treated with suspicion: observed, perhaps, as a parent might observe with indulgence an unruly child, but needing as much instruction in good manners - how to eat cold meat. Nature yields to artifice, not artifice to nature.

The powerful all-surveying, all-capturing eye achieved its apotheosis in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. This was, tellingly, a prison design which enabled prisoners to be under total surveillance while being themselves unaware of when they were being watched, a project about which Bentham was so enthusiastic that he spent much of his time and personal fortune on it. It has become familiar through the writings on modern society of Michel Foucault, with obvious correlates in the present world of technological surveillance, and in this way one could say that Bentham's dream, or nightmare, was prescient.

Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, was an eccentric character. In some ways he prefigures the child-like adults for whom Dickens had so keen an eye. He has many of the features that would suggest a mild degree of autism, and more specifically deficits in right-hemisphere functions. He was socially awkward: according to J. S. Mill, he ‘probably never talked to women at all, except for his cook and housemaid’, and according to Mill's biographer, Packe, ‘courted women with a clumsy jocularity’.34 He had a peculiarly pedantic way of talking, and referred to his morning walks as ‘antejentacular circumgyrations’. With inanimate objects he was more at home, and had pet names for them: his stick was Dapple, and his teapot, through an impish uprising of his much-repressed unconscious, was Dick. Mill wrote of him that

he had neither internal experience nor external … He never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety … He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last … How much of human nature slumbered in him he knew not, neither can we know. Other ages and other nations were a blank to him for the purposes of instruction. He measured them but by one standard; their knowledge of facts, and their capability to take correct views of utility, and merge all other objects in it … Knowing so little of human feelings, he knew still less of the influences by which those feelings are formed: all the more subtle workings both of the mind upon itself, and of external things upon the mind, escaped him; and no one, probably, who, in a highly instructed age, ever attempted to give a rule to all human conduct, set out with a more limited conception either of the agencies by which human conduct is, or of those by which it should be, influenced.35

The description is uncannily reminiscent of Balzac's description of Fontenelle, another Enlightenment philosopher (see Chapter 11, n. 18 below).

As Mill suggests, Bentham wished to ‘give a rule’ to human conduct: he saw himself as a legislator of all that had hitherto gone unlegislated.36 He was a vehement critic of intuitive wisdom. ‘His lifelong distaste for organised religion - which he called “The Jug”, short for juggernaut’, writes Huw Richards, ‘was rapidly supplemented by a contempt for the British common law tradition espoused by Blackstone. He saw both as the product of superstition, deference and ancestor-worship, rather than logic and real human needs.’37 His great projects were those of classification; and indeed it was he who invented the words international, codify and maximise. Despite these tendencies to legislate for ‘Society’, Bentham held, in keeping with his personal temperament and with the world as seen by the left hemisphere, that ‘the community is a fictitious body’.38

The left-hemisphere preferences that he shows so obviously in some things were evidenced more subtly in others. Rather touchingly, he seems to have cherished all his life the memory of a moment in his youth when a young lady at Bowood, the seat of his patron Lord Lansdowne, had presented him with a flower, and wrote to her at the age of 80 to remind her: ‘to the end of his life he could not hear of Bowood without tears swimming in his eyes’. On such occasions he would, however, exclaim, in keeping with the optimistic, future-directed gaze of the left hemisphere: ‘Take me forward, I entreat you, to the future - do not let me go back to the past.’39

It might be anticipated that Bentham would not look favourably on poetry, and in this he can speak for a number of voices from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries. ‘Prose’, he wrote, and I would like to suppose that there was here at least some self-mocking humour, ‘is where all the lines but the last go on to the margin - poetry is where some of them fall short of it.’40 However, elsewhere, I have to admit, he wrote in all apparent seriousness that

prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is a natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature.41

Art is by its nature implicit and ambiguous. It is also embodied: it produces embodied creations which speak to us through the senses, even if their medium is language, and which have effects on us physically as embodied beings in the lived world. The Enlightenment is concerned primarily with the intellect, with all that ‘transcends’ (from the Enlightenment point of view) the limitations of the contingent and the physical, the incarnate and unique. Enlightenment art is, therefore, something of an oxymoron. The two art forms that are least vulnerable to explicitness are music and architecture - not because they are congenial to it, but precisely the opposite, because they are so inherently implicit (though one can ask what a poem or painting is ‘about’, the question becomes vapid when applied to music or architecture).

Probably for this reason music and architecture are the arts that survived best in this period, being least available to being hijacked into the world of explicitness. Haydn's music is one of the most complete expressions of the Enlightenment spirit in art. In it there is a sense of tension between opposites held beautifully in balance, a lightness and pleasure in symmetry, a sense of decorum, and all being in its place. But it also contains disconcertingly mysterious elements which suggest a world far beyond that of drawing-room order alone.42 Mozart so clearly displays elements of darkness and perturbation that it may be doubted whether he is really an Enlightenment composer, so much does he prefigure Romanticism, particularly in his later works; but this, too, is made all the more powerful for its restraint, and its relish for bitter-sweet emotions, and, in his operas particularly, for a combination of irony and compassion, so that (like many great artists of all ages - Chaucer, for example, in his treatment of Troilus) he is never superior to his characters, but acknowledges a shared vulnerability. This was also the greatest age of European domestic architecture, though that architecture is largely derived from the principles of the Italian Renaissance architects, above all Palladio. Here, then, is the best side of Enlightenment art.

Poetry was more easily subverted in this age of consummate prose. Poetry was a form of flattering lie: Lord Chesterfield recommended his son to tear a couple of sheets from a book of Latin poetry and take them with him to the ‘necessary-house’, where, once he had read them, he could ‘send them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina’ (the goddess of sewers);43 which led Keats to write of him that he ‘would not bathe in the same River with lord C. though I had the upper hand of the stream.’44 The Enlightenment belief was that there was a finite set of possible true ideas or thoughts, and that they existed in the abstract and were subsequently given embodiment in language. In this way they were certain and known, but they could be made to look new by wearing new clothes. Poetry adorned ideas with decorous clothing that would enable us to take pleasure in the familiar, but it did not bring new experiences. This was what lay behind Pope's famous line in praise of intelligent poetry: ‘What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd’, and he continued: ‘Expression is the dress of thought …’45 This later formed the basis of Wordsworth and Coleridge's attack on the Augustans in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, since they saw poetry as the work of the imagination, which is genuinely creative, in the sense that it brings new experiences into being - not as the work of fantasy, which merely recombines what we are already familiar with in a new way. This view is in line with Scheler's perception of the nature of poetry, which I quote at length because I know of no better exposition of this crucial point:

For this reason poets, and all makers of language having the ‘god-given power to tell of what they suffer’ [Goethe, Marienbader Elegie], fulfil a far higher function than that of giving noble and beautiful expression to their experiences and thereby making them recognisable to the reader, by reference to his own past experience of this kind. For by creating new forms of expression, the poets soar above the prevailing network of ideas in which our experience is confined, as it were, by ordinary language; they enable the rest of us to see, for the first time, in our own experience, something which may answer to these new and richer forms of expression, and by so doing they actually extend the scope of our possible self-awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. It is they who open up new branches and channels in our apprehension of the stream and thereby show us for the first time what we are experiencing. That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given (which would be superfluous), nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy (which can only be transitory and must necessarily be a matter of complete indifference to other people), but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed. The history of art may be seen, therefore, as a series of expeditions against the intuitable world, within and without, to subdue it for our comprehension; and that for a kind of comprehension which no science could ever provide. An emotion, for example, which everyone can now perceive in himself, must once have been wrested by some ‘poet’ from the fearful inarticulacy of our inner life for this clear perception of it to be possible: just as in commerce things (such as tea, coffee, pepper, salt, etc.), which were once luxuries, are nowadays articles of everyday use in general supply.46

The poetry of Dryden and Pope belongs to the best part of the Enlightenment - generous, non-dogmatic, wry in spirit; and elsewhere I have written of Sam Johnson's idiosyncratic refusal to fit his own precepts.47 But few would suggest that poetry of the Augustan Age is, at least consciously, concerned with presenting authentic experience, so much as representing it pleasingly, casting it in a certain light; not enlarging the kingdom of the mind, and making new discoveries, but tending its gardens and trimming its hedges as neatly and elegantly as possible. Of course great artists will always rebel against the limitations of the medium, which nonetheless are the condition of their mastery, as Goethe famously said.48 But these are the exceptions. When Reynolds is faced with the uncouth genius of Michelangelo, or Johnson faced with the still more uncouth genius of Shakespeare (or with the sublimity of the Scottish Highlands), and when they are able to recognise it, one feels that they succeed only because of their willingness to jettison all the theoretical baggage of the Enlightenment when faced with the enormity of experience.


The classical heroic couplet, with its pointed caesura, allows symmetry to equalise - in fact equality is essential to symmetry; and this punctuated, symmetrically self-referring motion can sometimes be used for deliberately puncturing effect:

Here thou, great ANNA! whom three realms obey

Dost sometimes counsel take - and sometimes Tea.49

This movement, constantly returning into itself and pausing, contrasts with the earlier, open, turbulent, river-like flow of Milton's syntax, always intimating something further and beyond, that would later be recaptured and transformed in its turn by Wordsworth; just as the ever-changing, growing, flowing form of the music of Bach contrasts with the self-contained perfection of classical form in Haydn. But this constant reining in of both motion and meaning every other line, with its closed, static, self-involved structure, in which rhyme and paronomasia discipline the strayings of the spirit, and bring everything neatly back to symmetry, is evaded in many of Dryden's best lines, such as the end of his elegy on the death of a friend, ‘Farewel, too little and too lately known’, with its final alexandrine almost sleepwalking beyond the frame of the poem:

Once more, hail and farewel; farewel thou young,

But ah too short, Marcellus of our Tongue;

Thy Brows with Ivy, and with Laurels bound;

But Fate and gloomy Night encompass thee around.50

or the wonderful crispness of his farewell to the seventeenth century:

All, all, of a piece throughout;

Thy Chase had a Beast in View;

Thy Wars brought nothing about;

Thy Lovers were all untrue.

‘Tis well an Old Age is out,

And time to begin a New.51

Symmetry is an intriguing concept. In the abstract it is undoubtedly appealing at a very deep level. The word itself means equal measure, and it is a feature of all the ideal typical shapes of ‘regular solids’ beloved of the Greeks. In mathematics the term refers not just to symmetry about an axis, but to any procedure which one can perform on an object and leave it unchanged. It also signifies independence from contingency - in other words, universality: if a law obeys symmetry, it is universally applicable. Newtonian mechanics obey symmetry. All these meanings ally it with the realm of stasis, of universals, of simple, ideal forms: the left hemisphere. Oddly, though, symmetry does not appear in the phenomenal world, although it is approximated by living things, which on closer inspection are, however, like the brain, not truly symmetrical, and are constantly moving and changing. And, though it is often stated that animals find symmetry in a mate attractive, humans appear not, in fact, to share such preferences.52 Even in cases where symmetry is clocked as more healthy, it is still experienced as less attractive.53 In fact symmetry in living faces, because it suggests something mechanical and unreal, borders on the uncanny, a perception that lies behind ‘the fearful symmetry’ of Blake's tiger. And, as one might expect, in portraiture of the Enlightenment ‘faces generally are represented more symmetrically than in any other Western style’, according to F. D. Martin. ‘That is one of the reasons why this portraiture is, as Wilde puts it, “once seen, never remembered”.’54

Symmetry - in poetry, in music, in architecture, in prose and in thought - was perhaps the ultimately guiding aesthetic principle of the Enlightenment. There is a relationship between symmetry and two other important Enlightenment qualities, both of them allied to the preferences of the left hemisphere: stasis and equality.

The relationship between the left hemisphere and equality is a consequence of its categorical method. Where one is dealing with individual people or things, when one respects the contingencies of the situation in which they find themselves, and by which they are modified, when one accepts that the things or persons themselves and the context are continually subject to change, no two entities are ever equal in any respect. (Cassirer notes that in Arabic there are between five and six thousand terms for ‘camel’, the category for which we have one.)55 However, once the items are classified and entered into categories, they become equal: at least from the standpoint of the categoriser every member of the category can be substituted by any other member of the category. In that sense there is an equalising drive built into the categorising system. But the categories themselves are nonetheless arranged in a hierarchical taxonomy, which means that, while the individual variations of living things are flattened out, the differences between categories become where the inequality resides.

So it is with the left hemisphere and stasis. Because the left hemisphere is dealing with things that are known, they have to have a degree of fixity: if their constantly changing nature is respected, they cannot be known. To the left hemisphere, a thing once known does not change, though it may move, or be moved, atomistically, according to the will, and it must indeed be made to move to fit in with the categorisations of the left hemisphere's will. Thus, where the left-hemisphere world obtains, the continual change and the individual differences of actual living things are exchanged for stasis and equality, as the butterfly is skewered, unmoving, a specimen in the collector's cabinet. At the same time, however, the left hemisphere achieves, through this process, power to manipulate, which I would claim has always been its drive. Power inevitably leads to inequality: some categories of things are more useful, and therefore more valued, than others. So the differences inherent in actual individual things or beings are lost, but those derived from the system are substituted. Similarly, though the thing itself no longer changes, manipulation inevitably leads to change: the recalcitrance of the particular is subjected to the Procrustean bed of the category it represents. So the changing, evolving nature of individual things or beings is lost, but those changes demanded by the system are substituted. And change and difference, outlawed at the individual level, return by the back door.


The French Revolution and the American Revolution are two of the most important and enduring legacies of the Enlightenment. As Berlin says, they have almost nothing to do with Romanticism:

… the principles in the name of which the French Revolution was fought were principles of universal reason, of order, of justice, not at all connected with the sense of uniqueness, the profound emotional introspection, the sense of the differences of things, dissimilarities rather than similarities, with which the Romantic movement is usually associated.56

(However, as I hope to show later, there is a track that leads direct from the Enlightenment to Romanticism - another case of there being a smooth transition from one hemisphere's agenda to the (in reality quite opposed) agenda of the other hemisphere, which I have argued for in the case of the Reformation.) The American Revolution, with its famous claims for the individual right to pursue happiness, expresses the left hemisphere's belief that any good - happiness, for example - should be susceptible to the pursuit of the will, aided by rationality. In doing so it has illuminated the paradoxical nature of rationality: that while the rational mind must pursue ‘the good’, the most valuable things cannot be pursued (the pursuit of happiness has not generally led to happiness). Such valuable things can come only as side effects of something else.

The left hemisphere misunderstands the importance of implicitness. There is therefore a problem for it, that certain logically desirable goals simply cannot be directly pursued, because direct pursuit changes their nature and they flee from approach: thus the direct pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity - despite being fine ideals - is problematic. The French Revolution famously championed liberty, equality and fraternity. The problem with bringing them to the fore as concepts and going for them explicitly, left-hemisphere fashion, rather than allowing them to emerge as the necessary accompaniment of a certain tolerant disposition towards the world, right-hemisphere fashion, is that they can be only negative entities once they become the province of the left hemisphere. This is because the left hemisphere, despite its view of itself as bringing things about, can only say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’ to what it finds given to it by the right hemisphere (just as the right hemisphere in turn can only say no or not say no to ‘the Other’, i.e. whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves: see Chapter 5 above). Thus, since there is no equality in the givenness of things as they actually appear to the right hemisphere, equality becomes, for the left hemisphere, a need and a drive to pull down anything that stands out as not equalling ‘equality’ - the essentially negative sense in which equality was pursued through the mayhem and carnage of the French Revolution. Neither is there any liberty in what is given by the right hemisphere, which delivers the world as a living web of interdependencies that require responses, and entail responsibility - not the exhilarating nihilism of ‘liberty’, in the sense of casting off all constraints. The liberty of the left hemisphere is, as is bound to be the case, an abstract concept, not what experience teaches us through living. This is what Edmund Burke was getting at in his 1775 speech on conciliation with America, when he said that ‘abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found’.57 The left hemisphere's version of liberty is a mere concept, not the freedom which can be experienced only through belonging, within a complex of constraints. Instead, because it has to positively do something (but the only thing it can do is to say ‘no’), it is obliged to proceed by negation: to set about eroding and dismantling the structures of naturally evolved traditional communities in which such experience of liberty could be achieved, seeing them as impediments to its own version of an unconstrainedly free society. Fraternity too lives in the relationships that are formed in the communities of kinship and society made possible by evolution of the right frontal lobe (not ‘Society’, a conceptual construct of the left hemisphere). The left hemisphere version of this is a sort of association of labour (Gesellschaft, in Tönnies’ terms, as opposed to Gemeinschaft)58 and the bureaucratic provision of what is called ‘care’, at the same time that the network of private and personal bonds and responsibilities in communities, in which fraternal feelings and the actual experience of care are made possible, is eroded.

The American Revolution is a rather different matter; for one thing, it was notably lacking in ‘Jacobins’. Its approach was not to do as much as possible to bring into being freedom by an effort of will (the French model), but as little as possible: a laissez-faire approach which approximates to Berlin's concept of negative liberty - as few restraints as possible. As such it enjoyed, unlike the French Revolution, the support of Burke. Whatever its rhetoric, its aim was the reduction of formal restrictions on society, while maximising communality, largely in the interests of economic well-being. Democracy as Jefferson saw it, with its essentially local, agrarian, communitarian, organic, structure, was in harmony with the ideals of the right hemisphere. But in time it came to be swept away by the large-scale, rootless, mechanical force of capitalism, a left-hemisphere product of the Enlightenment. What de Tocqueville presciently saw was that the lack of what I would see as right-hemisphere values incorporated in the fabric of society would lead in time to a process in which we became, despite ourselves, subject to bureaucracy and servitude to the State: ‘It will be a society which tries to keep its citizens in “perpetual childhood” it will seek to preserve their happiness, but it chooses to be the sole agent and only arbiter of that happiness.’ Society will, he says, develop a new kind of servitude which

covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate … it does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which government is the shepherd.59

This is, as John Passmore puts it, ‘Benthamite or Fabian perfection made manifest’.60

That this dislocation between the ideal and the reality has tended to obtain wherever societies have most stridently identified themselves with Enlightenment concepts (the ‘people's democracies’ of the world) is explained at one level perhaps by Elster's paradox that rationality contains the seeds of its own destruction. At another level, it is an expression of the reality that the left hemisphere cannot bring something to life: it can only say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’ to what it finds given to it by the right hemisphere. Once again this is Blake's perception that: ‘Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’ (see p. 200).

The most obvious expression of the necessarily negative force of the left hemisphere's project is the way in which the ideals of liberty, justice and fraternity led to the illiberal, unjust, and far from fraternal, guillotine. Anything that is essentially sacramental, anything that is not founded on rationality, but on bonds of reverence or awe (right-hemisphere terrain), becomes the enemy of the left hemisphere, and constitutes a bar to its supremacy; and so the left hemisphere is committed to its destruction. That there were, as at the Reformation, abuses of power, is not in doubt, and in the case of both priests and monarch, these were sometimes justified by reference to divine authority, an intolerable state of affairs. But, as at the Reformation, it is not the abuse, but the thing abused - not idolatry, but images, not corrupt priests but the sacerdotal and the sacred - that become the targets. The sheer vehemence of the attacks on priests and king during the French Revolution suggest not just a misunderstanding of, but a fear of, their status as metaphors, and of the right hemisphere non-utilitarian values for which they metaphorically act.

The destruction of the sacerdotal power of the Church was a goal of the French Revolution, as it had been of the Reformation. The Reformation, however, had not been nakedly, explicitly, secular: it had purported to replace a corrupt religion with a purified one. All the same its effect had been to transfer power from the sacerdotal base of the Catholic Church to the state, an essential part of the relentless process of secularisation, in the broadest sense - by which I mean the re-presentation of human experience in purely rationalistic terms, necessarily exclusive of the Other, and the insistence that all questions concerning morality and human welfare can and should be settled within those terms - which I would see as the agenda of the left hemisphere. The French Revolution, by contrast, was indeed openly opposed to the Church, but its most daring attack was on the sacramental, necessarily metaphorical, nature of royalty (and by extension the aristocrats, whose authority was reciprocally related to that of the monarchy). At the time of the Reformation, the effigies of saints had sometimes been dragged to the public square and there decapitated by the town's executioner. This not only in itself prefigures the French Revolution, and emphasises the continuity between regicide and the abolition of the sacramental, but also powerfully enacts two other left-hemisphere tendencies that characterise both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to which we now might turn.

The Master and his Emissary

Fig. 10.1 Matière à reflection pour les jongleurs couronnèes, by Villeneuve, 1793

Take the striking picture by Villeneuve reproduced in Figure 10.1. In her book, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, Linda Nochlin comments that ‘the imagery - and the enactment - of destruction, dismemberment and fragmentation remained powerful elements in Revolutionary ideology at least until the fall of Robespierre in 1794 and even after’.61 It will be remembered at the outset that fragmentation is a primary characteristic of left-hemisphere perception (see Chapter 2). Nochlin comments on such images of the beheading of the monarch that they represent ‘a castration image of unprecedented power and suggestiveness’.62 Whether or not that is the case, this engraving embodies perfectly the most important aspects of the left hemisphere triumph that it depicts. Immediately one notices the most obvious fact, that it represents the right hand, the left hemisphere's tool, taking ultimate power over the sacramental (note Villeneuve's irreverent reference to jongleurs couronnées, as though the mysterious element in kingship were simply a form of sleight of hand). It demonstrates not just the production of a fragment, with its congeniality to left-hemisphere preferences, but specifically the separation of the head from the rest of the body, a metaphor that could be said to go to the very foundations of the left-hemisphere world, with its tendency to reject the physical and retreat into an abstracted, cerebralised world disconnected as far as possible from the demands of the body.63 Further, at the same time that this particular head is so obviously reduced to an inanimate object, a ‘thing’ in the hand of the executioner, it appears nonetheless uncannily alive, almost managing a smile of contempt for its tormentor. It may be remembered that inanimate objects are the special territory of the left hemisphere, whereas all that is living belongs in the right hemisphere. The almost living nature of the head, which is nonetheless so clearly an image of the triumph of death, represents with shocking force the triumph of the left hemisphere. (I will deal laterwith the fascination with the ‘uncanny’, which derives from the loss of certainty over the distinction between the living and the purely mechanical).

Again, this picture parodies the sacrament that was most central to the world whose abolition it was celebrating, that of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the living body and blood of Christ. The king was a metaphor of the divine presence, by authority of which he ruled; the ostensio of the royal head here parodies the ostensio of the sacrament, of the living body, accompanied as it would be by the words hoc est enim corpus meum, ‘for this is my body’ - words which in their jumbled form, hocus pocus, became a shorthand for everything that was rejected in the sacramental world (becoming to the Enlightened mind no more than a world of jongleurs). Notice also the drops of blood falling from the head as if to confirm the parody, blood that that will be taken up, ‘drunk’ by so many, not as a sacrament for God's people, but with brutal utilitarianism, through the food for ‘the people’ that it will help to fertilise - the text below the picture expressing the wish that this ‘impure blood’ will make fruitful the ploughed fields. Once again the sacramental realm of the right hemisphere is subjugated to the functionalism and utility of the left hemisphere.

As David Freedberg has argued in The Power of Images, the need to mutilate an image indicates belief in its power.64 Koerner makes the point that iconoclasm, in granting so much uncanny power to images, came close to the idolatry it condemned.65 And again, referring to the treatment of statues before town courts as living criminals, ‘in similarly punishing and preserving idols, did not Münster's iconoclasts invest them with the seeming personhood they abhorred? How material did materiality become when, as sometimes occurred, a saint's effigy was decapitated by the town executioner?’66 Or is it, Koerner says, that they attack representation itself, the wood which represented a saint now representing representation itself? I would say not. The wooden image of the saint stands not for re-presentation but for metaphorical understanding, and it was that - metaphorical understanding - that came before the tribunal, was arraigned and executed.

So it was, too, in the age of the Enlightenment, where it was not wooden saints, but kings and dukes that were decapitated. Just as the statue did not have to be either wood or God, the king does not have to be either a mere person, like everyone else, or superhuman. That does not exhaust the possibilities. He acts as a metaphor for what we reverence, for the divine in the human. This metaphoric essence of royalty depends on the accidental qualities of the individual being submerged in the uniqueness of the role, as one expects the particularity of the actor to be lost in his role; except that the actor merely represents a king, whereas the royal person is a king (the distinction, again, between representation and metaphor). The attack on royalty in the name of utilitarianism depends on exposing the individual as ‘just a person’ without the qualities that the king holds metaphorically, the implication being that this invalidates his royal nature.

While the Enlightenment, then, was apparently all about enlightening our darkness, it had a dark side of its own. It is ‘a mental disorder’ wrote Descartes, ‘which prizes the darkness higher than the light’.67Descartes was rather keen on branding those who saw things differently from himself as mad. Dominated by the left hemisphere, his world is one of comedy and light - he was, after all, the spectator in all the comedies the world displays. But there is madness here, too, which, as I have suggested, approximates the madness of schizophrenia. The successors to the Enlightenment, the Romantics, who I shall argue belonged to a world more dominated by the right hemisphere, saw, instead of comedy and light, tragedy and darkness, their ‘madness’ approximating that of melancholia and depression. But darkness was not to be banished by a fiat of the Enlightenment, either.

It has become increasingly obvious to historians and social theorists of the last hundred years that the Enlightenment, despite its optimism about itself, was not just a period of uncomplicated progress in human understanding and in society and politics at large. The appeal to reason can lead to sweetness and light, but it can also be used to monitor and control, to constrict and repress, in keeping with my view that the aim of the left hemisphere is power. With time, a dark side to the Enlightenment became too obvious to conceal.


The uncanny was seen by Freud as the repression of something that should not be seen, that should not come into the light. My argument in previous chapters has been that the rise of modern Western man is associated with an accentuation of the difference between the hemispheres, in other words the evolution of a more, rather than less, ‘bicameral’ mind. The further accentuation of this difference in the Enlightenment, through the striving for an objective, scientific detachment - independent as far as possible of the ‘confounding’ effects of whatever is personal or intuitive, or whatever cannot be made explicit and rationally defended - led to an entrenchment of this separation. Much as the voices of the gods, from being a naturally integrated part of the world as experienced, came to appear alien to the Ancient Greeks, so at the Enlightenment the promptings of the right hemisphere, excluded from the world of rationalising discourse in the left hemisphere, came to be seen as alien. I believe this is the origin of the rise of the experience of the ‘uncanny’, the darker side of the age of the Enlightenment.

In her absorbing study of the phenomenon, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, Terry Castle explores the elements of phantasmagoria, grotesquerie, carnivalesque travesty, hallucinatory reveries, paranoia, and nightmarish fantasy which accompanied Enlightenment.68 There is an important common element to the classic loci of the uncanny. Citing Freud's famous essay of 1919, ‘The “Uncanny"’, Castle refers to

doubles, dancing dolls and automata, waxwork figures, alter egos, and ‘mirror selves’, spectral emanations, detached body parts (‘a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet that dance by themselves’), the ghastly fantasy of being buried alive, omens, precognition, déjà vu69

I would argue that these phenomena are related to the experiences of subjects with schizophrenia - living things experienced as mechanisms, or as simulacra of living beings, the living body become an assemblage of apparently independently moving fragments, the self losing its intuitive ipseity, no longer self-evidently unique, but possibly copied, reproduced, or subtly altered; and that, accordingly, the phenomena exemplify the disengaged workings of the left hemisphere, attempting to make sense in its own terms of what comes to it from the right hemisphere, from which it has become alienated. Indeed the experience of the uncanny could be said to be the defining experience of schizophrenia as first described by Kraepelin and Bleuler - what is known in current psychiatric terminology as ‘delusional mood’, in which the experienced world is bizarrely altered in a way that is hard to define, and appears vaguely sinister and threatening.

Freud was in fact quoting Schelling's formulation when he held that the uncanny is what should have remained hidden, but has been brought to light; in the uncanny, he saw evidence of past experience that had been repressed, a dark secret that is dragged into the light of consciousness. Freud emphasises that the uncanny effect does not proceed automatically from the idea of the supernatural in itself. Children imagine their dolls to be alive, for example, and there are fantastic occurrences in fairy tales, but neither of these are in any sense uncanny. The ghost appears in Hamlet, but however gloomy and terrible it is made to seem, it does not have the quality of the uncanny. In all these cases there is a context that is acknowledged to be removed from that of everyday reality. It is, as Freud says, when the story-teller rejects the possibility of supernatural happenings and ‘pretends to move in the world of common reality’ that the uncanny occurs. It represents the possibility, terrifying to the rational, left-hemisphere mind, that phenomena beyond what we can understand and control may truly exist. The uncanny takes its force from the context in which it appears. The phenomena of the right hemisphere appear uncanny once they appear in the context of the left-hemisphere world of the rational, the mechanistic, the certain, the humanly controlled. It is notable that some tales of the uncanny attempt to reassure the left hemisphere by revealing at the end, after the thrill of the uncanny has been experienced, that after all there is a rational, perhaps scientific, explanation of the phenomena. Such is the ending, for example, of one of the most famous of the early tales of the uncanny, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. In this it is like the popular contemporary presenters of phantasmagoria, who would reveal at the end of the show, to appreciative gasps at their ingenuity, the apparatus of lights, screens, ‘magic lanterns’, and so on, which were responsible for their effects.

Frankenstein, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley's story of the left hemisphere assembling a living whole - a man - from dead parts and bringing it to life, ends, as we know, rather less obligingly. But that was the message of Romanticism, not of the Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment, the living was thought to be the sum of its parts: and, if so, its parts could be put together to make the living again. For Romanticism, not only was the living not reducible to the mechanical - the world of the right hemisphere irreducible to that of the left - but even the inanimate world came to be seen as alive, the reintegration of the left hemisphere's realm into that of the right.