The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)
Part II. HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD
Chapter 12. THE MODERN AND POST-MODERN WORLDS
THE ‘UNWORLDING’ OF THE WORLD
VIRGINIA WOOLF'S OFTEN QUOTED REMARK THAT ‘ON OR ABOUT DECEMBER 1910 human character changed’ is memorable for its playful specificity. It is usual to refer that specificity to Roger Fry's controversial exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which had opened in November 1910 at the Grafton Galleries in London. However, the change she meant was very far from specific: it was indeed all-encompassing. ‘All human relations have shifted’, she continued, ‘those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.’1 Pretty comprehensive, then: even Roger Fry could not be expected to have taken the credit for that.
The specificity of the date she gives for the beginning of the modern era, of the era of Modern-ism – for it is to that self-proclaiming consciousness of radical change that she refers – is designed to suggest not so much the swiftness of the transition, as the abruptness of the disjunction, between what had gone before and what was to come after. As I hope to show later, that disjunction was not as great as it might appear. The change had already been long in process: what was sudden was the revelation of the consequences. It was less an avalanche after unexpected snow than a landslide following years of erosion.
The changes were, right enough, though, changes that affected all aspects of life: as she says, not just art, but the ways in which we conceived the world in which we lived, related to one another, and even saw ourselves in relation to the cosmos at large. Modernity was marked by a process of social disintegration which clearly derived from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, but which could also be seen to have its roots in Comte's vision of society as an aggregation of essentially atomistic individuals. The drift from rural to urban life, again both a consequence of the realities of industrial expansion and of the Enlightenment quest for an ideal society untrammelled by the fetters of the past, led to a breakdown of familiar social orders, and the loss of a sense of belonging, with far-reaching effects on the life of the mind. The advances of scientific materialism, on the one hand, and of bureaucracy on the other, helped to produce what Weber called the disenchanted world. Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity. The state, the representative of the organising, categorising and subjugating forces of systematic conformity, was beginning to show itself to be an overweening presence even in democracies. And there were worrying signs that the combination of an adulation of power and material force with the desire, and power (through technological advance) to subjugate, would lead to the abandonment of any form of democracy, and the rise of totalitarianism.
The effects of abstraction, bureaucratisation and social dislocation on personal identity have been themes of sociology since Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, and their effects on consciousness in modernity have been explored in works such as The Homeless Mind, by Peter Berger and colleagues.2 Pervasive rationalistic, technical and bureaucratic ways of thinking have emptied life of meaning by destroying what Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy’ of meanings reflecting collective beliefs about life, death and the world in which we live. The resultant anomie, or loss of all bearings, the demise of any shared structure of values, leads to a sort of existential angst.
In his book on the subject, Modernity and Self-identity,3 Anthony Giddens describes the characteristic disruption of space and time required by globalisation, itself the necessary consequence of industrial capitalism, which destroys the sense of belonging, and ultimately of individual identity. He refers to what he calls ‘disembedding mechanisms’, the effect of which is to separate things from their context, and ourselves from the uniqueness of place, what he calls ‘locale’. Real things and experiences are replaced by symbolic tokens; ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralised process dependent on rules. The result is an abstraction and virtualisation of life. He sees a dangerous form of positive feedback, whereby theoretical positions, once promulgated, dictate the reality that comes about, since they are then fed back to us through the media, which form, as much as reflect, reality. The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’, another aspect of decontextualisation in modern life adding to loss of meaning in the experienced world.4
The ‘homeless’ mind: attachment to place runs deep in us. In neurological terms, the evolutionary roots of the integrated emotional system involved in the formation of social attachments may lie in more ancient and primitive animal attachments to place.5 Some animals bond as much with their nest sites as with their mothers.6 ‘Belonging’ comes from the same Old English word langian which forms the root of ‘longing’. It means a sense of powerful emotional attachment to ‘my place’, where I am ‘at home’, and implies a sense of permanence. In the last hundred years this has come increasingly under attack from at least three of the defining features of modernity: mobility, which ensures a permanently changing population, who do not necessarily have any prior attachment to the place where they now find themselves; an extreme pace of change in the physical environment, fuelled by consumption, the need for convenience of transport, exploitation of the natural world, the transformation of agriculture from an ancient culture into a business, and increasing urbanisation, all of which results in the familiar scene quickly becoming alien; and the fragmentation of social bonds within communities, for a host of reasons, devastatingly and meticulously captured in a work such as Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, leaving us feeling less and less as if we belong anywhere.7
Thus our attachments, the web of relations which give life meaning, all come to be disrupted. Continuities of space and time are related: the loss of sense of place threatens identity, whether personal, or cultural, over time – the sense of a place not just where we were born and will die, but where our forefathers did, and our children's children will. Continuities of time are disrupted as the traditions that embody them are disrupted or discarded, ways of thinking and behaving change no longer gradually and at a pace that the culture can absorb, but radically, rapidly and with the implicit, and at times explicit, aim of erasing the past. And, as Putnam demonstrates, the sense of community – the ultimate attachment, connectedness with one another – also weakens radically.
The changes that characterise modernism, the culture of modernity, then, are far deeper and wider than their manifestation in art. They represent, I believe, a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and increasingly antagonistic to what the right hemisphere might afford.
In his account of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Toulmin sees a relationship between social, religious and political conflict, on the one hand, and the hungering for certainty that was exhibited in the science and philosophy of the age. Though he makes the perhaps understandable assumption that the first was the cause of the second, he himself cannot avoid noticing evidence that the second was, to a greater extent, the cause of the first. For the previous age of the humanists had been just as wracked by uncertainties in the social sphere, as in religion and politics, but a different attitude towards certainty had prevailed amongst its thinkers and writers. It was the hunger for certainty in the later period, representing in my view a shift towards the left hemisphere's values, priorities and modes of being, that led to a hardening of positions on all sides, to the relative intransigencies of both scientism and the Counter-Reformation, and to conflict.
When we come to the twentieth century, Toulmin identifies, I believe rightly, a still greater demand for certainty:
The ideas of ‘strict rationality’ modelled on formal logic, and of a universal ‘method’ for developing new ideas in any field of natural science, were adopted in the 1920s and 1930s with even greater enthusiasm, and in an even more extreme form, than had been the case in the mid-17th century … The Vienna Circle program was … even more formal, exact, and rigorous than those of Descartes or Leibniz. Freed from all irrelevant representation, content, and emotion, the mid-20th-century avant garde trumped the 17th-century rationalists in spades.8
And here again he makes, mutatis mutandis, the same assumption: that the demand for certainty was a response to the unrest in Europe occasioned by Fascism and Stalinism. I rather doubt that. For one thing the intellectual changes can be seen well before the rise of totalitarianism. What if Fascism and Stalinism were facets of the same mental world as modernism, both of them expressions of the deep structure of the left hemisphere's world?
MODERNISM AND THE LEFT HEMISPHERE
I will return to that question in due course. First let's see if there is any more direct evidence of a growing domination of the culture by left-hemisphere ways of conceiving the world. What would we expect to see?
Let me briefly recap. In cases where the right hemisphere is damaged, we see a range of clinically similar problems to those found in schizophrenia. In either group, subjects find it difficult to understand context, and therefore have problems with pragmatics, and with appreciating the ‘discourse elements’ of communication. They have similar problems in understanding tone, interpreting facial expressions, expressing and interpreting emotion, and understanding the presuppositions that lie behind another's point of view. They have similar problems with Gestalt perception and the understanding and grasping of wholes. They have similar problems with intuitive processing, and similar deficits in understanding metaphor. Both exhibit problems with appreciating narrative, and both tend to lose a sense of the natural flow of time, which becomes substituted by a succession of moments of stasis.9 Both report experiencing the related Zeitraffer phenomenon in visual perception (something that can sometimes be seen represented in the art works of schizophrenic subjects). Both appear to have a deficient sense of the reality or substantiality of experience (‘it's all play-acting’), as well as of the uniqueness of an event, object or person. Perhaps most significantly they have a similar lack of what might be called common sense. In both there is a loss of the stabilising, coherence-giving, framework-building role that the right hemisphere fulfils in normal individuals. Both exhibit a reduction in pre-attentive processing and an increase in narrowly focussed attention, which is particularistic, over-intellectualising and inappropriately deliberate in approach. Both rely on piecemeal decontextualised analysis, rather than on an intuitive, spontaneous or global mode of apprehension. Both tend to schematise – for example, to scrutinise the behaviour of others, rather as a visitor from another culture might, to discover the ‘rules’ which explain their behaviour. The living become machine-like: as if to confirm the primacy of the left hemisphere's view of the world, one schizophrenic patient described by Sass reported that ‘the world consists of tools, and … everything that we glance at has some utilization’.10 From neuroimaging, too, there is evidence that schizophrenics show abnormal patterns of brain activation, often showing excessive left-hemisphere activation in situations where one would expect more activation of the right hemisphere. This goes across a whole range of activities: for example, even the sense of smell appears to be abnormally lateralised. There is a decrease in expected right-hemisphere activation in limbic connections to the rhinencephalon (smell brain) and right orbitofrontal cortex, and an increase in left hemisphere activity during olfaction.11 When one considers how critical the sense of smell is for infant–mother bonding, and social bonding of all kinds, and the part it plays in grounding our world in intuition and the body, one appreciates that, tiny as this piece of the jigsaw may be, it is not insignificant.12 The right hemisphere is not functioning normally, and the left hemisphere takes its place. And, as it happens, drugs that help stabilise schizophrenia act to reduce dopaminergic activity, a form of neurotransmission on which the left hemisphere is dependent to a greater extent than the right.13
There are, then, remarkable similarities between individuals with schizophrenia and those whose right hemisphere is not functioning normally. This is hardly surprising since there is a range of evidence suggesting that just such an imbalance in favour of the left hemisphere occurs in schizophrenia.14 If that is what happens in individuals, could a culture dominated by left-hemisphere modes of apprehension begin to exhibit such features?
Odd as it may sound, there is striking and substantial evidence of precisely that.
MODERNISM AND SCHIZOPHRENIA: THE CORE PHENOMENOLOGY
The influential psychologist Louis Sass has written widely about the culture of modernism, its art, its writings and its philosophy, in connection with the phenomenology of schizophrenia. In The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind,15 Sass considers the parallels between the role of detached, introspective observation in philosophy, as discussed by Wittgenstein, and the reports of Daniel Paul Schreber, a provincial German judge who in middle age developed psychotic symptoms which he recorded in his Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.16 The importance of Sass's work is that it demonstrates how the nature of attention alters what it finds; and specifically that when we cease to act, to be involved, spontaneous and intuitive, and instead become passive, disengaged, self-conscious, and stare in an ‘objective’ fashion at the world around us, it becomes bizarre, alien, frightening – and curiously similar to the mental world of the schizophrenic. Sass explores the idea that ‘madness … is the end-point of the trajectory [that] consciousness follows when it separates from the body and the passions, and from the social and practical world, and turns in upon itself’.17 For Sass, as for Wittgenstein, there is a close relation between philosophy and madness. The philosopher's ‘predilection for abstraction and alienation – for detachment from body, world and community’,18 can produce a type of seeing and experiencing which is, in a literal sense, pathological.
In Wittgenstein's own words, ‘staring is closely bound up with the whole puzzle of solipsism’.19 Over-awareness itself alienates us from the world and leads to a belief that only we, or our thought processes, are real. If this seems curiously reminiscent of Descartes's finding that the only reliable truth was that his own thought processes guaranteed that he, at least, existed, that is not accidental. The detached, unmoving, unmoved observer feels that the world loses reality, becomes merely ‘things seen’. Attention is focussed on the field of consciousness itself, not on the world beyond, and we seem to experience experience. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein actually notes that when this kind of staring attention takes over, others appear to lack consciousness, to be automata rather than minds (as Descartes had also found). This is a common experience in schizophrenia and a core experience of Schreber's. There is a lack of seeing through, to whatever there is beyond.
Engagement reverses this process. Wittgenstein's own ‘anti-philosophy’ is seen as an attempt to restore sanity to the philosophical mind caught up in the hyperconsciousness of metaphysical thought. He noted that when we act or interact – even, perhaps, if all we do is to walk about in our surroundings rather than sit still and stare at them – we are obliged to reckon with the ‘otherness’ of things. As Sass puts it, ‘the very weight of the object, the resistance it offers to the hand, testify to its existence as something independent of will or consciousness'; moving an object ‘confirms one's own experience of activity and efficacy’.20 One is reminded of Johnson's response to Berkeley's idealism by kicking a stone, and saying: ‘I refute it thus.’
In his ground-breaking work Madness and Modernism, Sass goes on to draw a multitude of closely argued parallels between the reported experiences of schizophrenics and the world picture of modernism and post-modernism.21 His purpose is not to pass a value judgment, simply to point out the parallels, in the literature, the visual arts and the critical discourse about art of this era, with every aspect of the core phenomenology of schizophrenia. His argument is compelling and illuminating, but it has a fascinating broader significance. What Sass picks up in modern culture and identifies with schizophrenia may in fact be the over-reliance on the left hemisphere in the West, which I believe has accelerated in the last hundred years. In fact Sass himself discusses this possibility (along with several others) in an appendix called ‘Neurobiological Considerations’.
Although the phenomenology of schizophrenia comprises an array of symptoms and experiences, these relate to a group of core disturbances in the relationship between the self and the world. Perhaps the single most important one is what Sass calls hyperconsciousness. Elements of the self and of experience which normally remain, and need to remain, intuitive, unconscious, become the objects of a detached, alienating attention; and levels of consciousness multiply, so that there is an awareness of one's own awareness, and so on. The result of this is a sort of paralysis, in which even everyday ‘automatic’ actions such as moving one leg in front of another in order to walk, can become problematic. ‘I am not sure of my own movements any more’, says one patient. ‘It's very hard to describe this but at times I'm not sure about even simple actions like sitting down. It's not so much thinking out what to do, it's the doing of it that sticks me …’ Another says: ‘People just do things, but I have to watch first to see how you do things …’ And another: ‘I have to do everything step by step, nothing is automatic now. Everything has to be considered …’22 This goes with an inability to trust one's own body or one's intuitions. Everything gets dragged into the full glare of consciousness. Ulrich, the antihero of Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities, describes being so aware of ‘the leaps that the attention takes, the exertion of the eye-muscles, the pendulum movements of the psyche’ occurring at every moment, that just keeping one's body vertical in the street is a tremendous effort. This puts one in mind of the psychologist Chris Frith's identification of the core abnormality in schizophrenia as ‘an awareness of automatic processes which are normally carried out below the level of consciousness’.23
Associated with this is what Sass calls a loss of ‘ipseity’, a loss in other words of the pre-reflective, grounding sense of the self.24 The self has to be constructed ‘after the fact’ from the products of observation, and its very existence comes into doubt. This gives rise to a reflexivity, whereby attention is focussed on the self and its body, so that parts of the self come to appear alien. There is a loss of the pre-reflective sense of the body as something living and lived, a loss of the immediate physical and emotional experience which grounds us in the world, since bodily states and feelings fall under the spotlight of awareness, and are deprived of their normal compelling immediacy and intimacy. Emotions lose their normal directedness towards action, towards other beings, arising from a personal past and directed towards a personal future, in a coherent world of other beings.
There is a veering between two apparently opposite positions which are in reality aspects of the same position: omnipotence and impotence. Either there is no self; or all that the observing eye sees is in fact part of the self, with the corollary that there is no world apart from the self. Whether there is no self, or everything is embraced in the self, the result is the same, since both conditions lack the normal sense we have of ourselves as defined by an awareness that there exists something apart from ourselves. This position is associated, in schizophrenia, with a subjectivisation of experience: a withdrawal from the external world and a turning of attention inward towards a realm of fantasy. The world comes to lack those characteristics – the ultimate unknowability of aspects of the world that exceed our grasp, and the recalcitrance of a realm separate from our fantasy – that suggest a reality that exists apart from our will. At the same time, the world and other people in it are objectified, become objects. In a term borrowed from Heidegger, Sass sees an ‘unworlding’ of the world: a loss of the sense of the overarching context that gives coherence to the world, which becomes fragmented and lacking in meaning.
Although there may be some variations in the terms used, there is little dispute, following the work of Louis Sass, Giovanni Stanghellini, Josef Parnas, Dan Zahavi and others, that these clearly interrelated phenomena – hyperconsciousness, loss of ipseity and ‘unworlding’ – are fundamental to the experience of subjects with schizophrenia.25
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCHIZOPHRENIA AND MODERNIST ART
I mentioned the relationship between such experiences and the condition of the introspective philosopher: but, as in the Enlightenment, where increased self-consciousness brought what needed to remain intuitive into the glare of reason, with the result that we all became philosophes malgré nous, the relationship between schizophrenia and modern thought goes further than philosophy proper, into the culture at large. Sass identifies the same phenomena that characterise schizophrenia in the culture at large. ‘I used to cope with all this internally, but my intellectual parts became the whole of me’, says one patient. Compare Kafka, who speaks for the alienated modern consciousness, noting in his diary how introspection ‘will suffer no idea to sink tranquilly to rest but must pursue each one into consciousness, only itself to become an idea, in turn to be pursued by renewed introspection’.26 The process results in a hall of mirrors effect in which the effort at introspection becomes itself objectified. All spontaneity is lost. Disorganisation and fragmentation follow as excessive self-awareness disrupts the coherence of experience. The self-conscious and self-reflexive ponderings of modern intellectual life induce a widely recognisable state of alienated inertia. What is called reality becomes alien and frightening.
The disintegrating stare that Wittgenstein noticed is a characteristic of schizophrenia. ‘Persons in the schizophrenia spectrum’, writes Sass elsewhere, ‘often seem to move in on the stimulus field in the sense of engaging in a kind of fixed, penetrating, over-focused stare that dissolves the more commonly recognised Gestalts in favour of their component parts.’27 But it is also a feature of modernism, and, for all of us, it has the effect of bringing about wilfully the fragmented world of the left hemisphere. According to Susan Sontag, it is the mode positively invited in the viewer by modernist art. ‘Traditional art invites a look’, she wrote. ‘[Modernist art] engenders a stare’.28 The stare is not known for building bridges with others, or the world at large: instead it suggests alienation, either a need to control, or a feeling of terrified helplessness.
The effect of hyperconsciousness is to produce a flight from the body and from its attendant emotions. Schizophrenics describe an emptying out of meaning – each word ‘an envelope emptied of content’, as one patient puts it, with thought become so abstract as to attain a sort of ineffable vacuity. They may feel themselves entirely emptied of emotion, except for a pervasive feeling of anxiety or nausea in the face of the sheer existence of things. Bizarre, shocking and painful ideas or actions may be welcomed as a way of trying to relieve this state of numbed isolation. So it is, too, in modernism: Sass compares Antonin Artaud (who himself suffered from schizophrenia): ‘I can't even find anything that would correspond to feelings’, and suggests that the ‘theatre of cruelty’, which Artaud originated, was a response to this devitalised condition. ‘I wanted a theatre’, he told Anaïs Nin, ‘that would be like a shock treatment, galvanise, shock people into feeling.’29 These sentiments are reminiscent of the explanations given by patients who harm themselves, so as to relieve the numbness of no-feeling. The patient etherised upon a table in the opening of ‘Prufrock’ seems prophetic of the anaesthetised state of modernism, in which everything physical and emotional is cut off.
Sass points to a dehumanisation, a disappearance of the active self, in modernism. There is, in its place, a certain fragmentation and passivisation, a loss of the self's unity and capacity for effective action: either an impersonal subjectivism, such as one finds in Virginia Woolf's The Waves – ‘subjectivity without a subject’, as he puts it; or alternatively the most extreme kind of objectivism, refusing all empathy, stripping the world of value, as in Robbe-Grillet's ‘The Secret Room’. This ‘story’ consists of a series of static descriptions of a woman's corpse. Its cold, clinical detachment expresses better than any purely abstract art the triumph of alienation over natural human feeling, over in fact the body and all that it implies. One could say that the stabbed corpse stands in here for the body in general, and its fate at the hands of modernism. His description of the woman's flesh and bloody wounds in terms of geometry, the fragmented manner and the disruption of time sequence, all contribute to a sense of unreality, despite Robbe-Grillet's manifesto of describing what ‘simply is’. Being is not so simple.
Robbe-Grillet's story and a number of others are carefully compared by Sass with characteristic schizophrenic discourse. The parallels include lack of a cohesive narrative line, dissolution of character, neglect of conventional space–time structure, loss of comprehensible causal relations, and disruption of the symbol–referent relationship – or, as I would say, the all-important sense of metaphor. Most interestingly schizophrenics emphasise the static, and downplay emotional and dynamic, aspects of the world, evoking a universe more dominated by objects than by processes and actions. This parallels the preferences of the left hemisphere for inanimate things, for stasis, over what is living and evolving.
In modernism the disruption of narrative, with formal devices drawing attention away from the inherent temporality of language, empties human action and intention of the meaning they have in a world to which we respond, and which responds to us. According to Heidegger, ‘care’ is only possible within temporality, in which we are directed towards our own future, and that of others who share our mortality, a care which is grounded in a coherent past. All of this, coupled with the forcible alienation caused by the bringing into awareness of what is required to remain latent, results in a detachment and irony that are inimical to pathos, a subversive disengagement and spirit of mockery towards life and art. Here is Walter Benjamin:
The art of storytelling is coming to an end … It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences. One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is continuing to fall into bottomlessness.30
If one had to sum up these features of modernism they could probably be reduced to these: an excess of consciousness and an over-explicitness in relation to what needs to remain intuitive and implicit; depersonalisation and alienation from the body and empathic feeling; disruption of context; fragmentation of experience; and the loss of ‘betweenness’. Each of these is in fact to some degree implied in each of the others; and there is a simple reason for that. They are aspects of a single world: not just the world of the schizophrenic, but, as may by now be clear, the world according to the left hemisphere.
The problem of an unstable alternation between subjectivism and objectivism that Sass identifies in modernism (either polarity being at odds with a world in which there is still what I call betweenness) is associated with a derealisation and ‘unworlding of the world’, just as it is in schizophrenia. The world is either robbed of its substantiality, its ‘otherness’, its ontological status as an entity having any independence from the perceiving subject; or alternatively seen as alien, devoid of human resonance or significance. In either case the ego is passivised. In the one case it is little more than an impotent observer of inner experiences, sensations, images, and so on (derealisation); in the other it is transformed into a machine-like entity in a world of static neutral objects (unworlding). Instead of one consistent inhabited viewpoint, there arises an obvious perspectivism, or relativism, an uncertainty and multiplicity of points of view. This has the effect of either, on the one hand, drawing attention to the presence of a particular perspective, thereby displaying a recognition of its limitedness, or alternatively attempting to transcend such limits by inhabiting a variety of perspectives. This goes with the belief that there is no true world, because everything is, as Nietzsche famously said, but ‘a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us’.31 Though this is something Nietzsche recognised in the modern mind, he did not welcome it: in fact he dreaded its consequences, speaking of that ‘great blood-sucker, the spider scepticism’ and warning that our excessive self-consciousness will destroy us.32 We are the ‘Don Juans of cognition’, he said, whose ‘knowledge will take its revenge on us, as ignorance exacted its revenge in the Middle Ages.’33
There is what Sass calls an aesthetic self-referentiality in modernism, the work of art become ‘a form of drama in which consciousness watches itself in action’ (Valéry);34 either emptying itself of external attachments or representational content, so that the formal elements become themselves the content; or exploiting representational or narrative conventions self-consciously and without context, so that they themselves become the focus of the work. In other words there is a shift of the plane of attention to the surface, whether of the canvas – Greenberg's famous ‘flatness’ of modernist painting – or of the written medium, to the mechanics of the process of creation, as in the Verfremdungseffekt, in which we no longer suspend our disbelief, but have disbelief thrust upon us. (Schizophrenics experience, precisely, a loss of visual depth. One patient describes the external world as ‘like a two-dimensional transparency, something like an architect's drawing or plan’.) Attention is focussed on the medium, not on the world beyond that medium, which is effectively denied. The self-reflexive tropes of postmodernist literature and criticism concentrate attention on language, and undercut the possibility of existence beyond language. As Erich Heller says of Nietzsche's portrait of the ‘last philosopher’: ‘Nothing speaks to him any more – except his own speech; and, deprived of any authority from a divinely ordered universe, it is only about speech that his speech can speak with a measure of philosophical assurance.’35
SELF-REFERENTIALITY AND THE LOSS OF MEANING
Ultimately there is nothing less than an emptying out of meaning. The influential contemporary neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has referred to the left hemisphere as ‘the interpreter’, the locus of self-consciousness, of conscious volition, and of rationality, which since the Enlightenment we have seen as being our defining qualities as human beings.36 An interpreter is not an originator, however, but a facilitator, and should be involved in mediating between parties. The more we rely on the left hemisphere alone, the more self-conscious we become; the intuitive, unconscious unspoken elements of experience are relatively discounted, and the interpreter begins to interpret – itself. The world it puts into words for us is the world that words themselves (the left hemisphere's building blocks) have created. Hence there is Nietzsche's ‘speech about speech’. The condition is a lonely, self-enwrapped one: ‘nothing speaks to him any more’. The left hemisphere, isolating itself from the ways of the right hemisphere, has lost access to the world beyond words, the world ‘beyond’ our selves. It is not just that it no longer sees through the two-dimensional surface of the canvas to the world behind, through the window to the world beyond the pane, focussing instead on the plane before its eyes: it no longer sees through the representation of the world that is left hemisphere ‘experience’ at all, to a world that is ‘Other’ than itself. Man himself keeps getting into the picture, as Heidegger says of the modern era.
The interpreter's task is to look for meaning. But that meaning can only come to the representational world by allowing a betweenness with the world it re-presents – as words need their real world referents to have meaning. Constantly searching for meaning, but not finding any, it is oppressed, as the schizophrenic is oppressed, by an unresolved and irresoluble sense of meaningfulness without a focus, a sense that ‘something is going on’. Everything, just as it is, seems to have meaning, but what it is is never clear. The more one stares at things the more one freights them with import. That man crossing his legs, that woman wearing that blouse – it can't just be accidental. It has a particular meaning, is intended to convey something; but I am not let in on the secret, which every one else seems to understand. Notice that the focus of paranoia is a loss of the normal betweenness – something that should be being conveyed from others to myself, is being kept from me. The world comes to appear threatening, disturbing, sinister. When implicit meaning is not understood, as Wittgenstein surmised, paranoia is the result: ‘Mightn't we imagine a man who, never having had any acquaintance with music, comes to us and hears someone playing a reflective piece of Chopin and is convinced that this is a language and people merely want to keep the meaning secret from him?’37
It may seem paradoxical that the other thing that happens when one is fixated by aspects of the environment and stares at them is precisely the opposite of this freighting with an excessive sense of meaning: they lose meaning completely. They lose their place in the order of things, which gives them their meaning, and become alien. The stare can either freight something with meaning or empty it completely of meaning, but these are not as opposed as they seem: cut loose from the context that would normally give things their meaning implicitly – no longer having ‘resonance’ for us – they mean everything or nothing, whatever we care to put on them, rather as the subject has to be either omnipotent or impotent. In an early scene in his novel La Noia (translated into English as Boredom), Alberto Moravia describes staring at a tumbler till it no longer seems to have a purpose or a context, is no longer something with which, as he says, ‘I feel I have some sort of relationship’, and becomes
an absurd object – then from that very absurdity springs boredom … 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 …38
Devitalisation leads to boredom, and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism. The high stimulus society in which we live is represented through advertising as full of vibrancy and vitality, but, as advertisers know only too well, its condition is one of boredom, and the response to boredom. Since the rise of capitalism in the eighteenth century, when according to Patricia Spacks boredom as such began, an ‘appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements’ has lain at the heart of successful bourgeois society, with its need above all to be getting and spending money.39 Use of the word ‘boredom’ and reports of the experience have escalated dramatically during the twentieth century.40 It has infested the places of desire and further saps vitality: by 1990, 23 per cent of French men and 31 per cent of French women already reported being bored while making love – ‘l'atrophie du désir.’41 There is a vicious cycle between feelings of boredom, emptiness and restlessness, on the one hand, and gross stimulation and sensationalism on the other: in fact Wordsworth makes the point in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. So Anton van Zijderveld, in his excellent study of cliché, notes that ‘it can be observed that speech becomes gross and hyperbolic, music loud and nervous, ideas giddy and fantastic, emotions limitless and shameless, actions bizarre and foolish, whenever boredom reigns.’42 Modernist art from Dadaism to the present day has its share of artworks that illustrate Zijderveld's point. Scheler speaks of our ‘ “culture” of entertainment’ as a collection of ‘extremely merry things, viewed by extremely sad people who do not know what to do with them.’43 Zijderveld connects the phenomenon with advertising and the exigencies of a mass market. Of course he is right. But like Scheler I would prefer to see a little beyond such formulations in socioeconomic terms, valid as they clearly are in their own way.
I would relate both the boredom and sense of devitalisation, and the associated demand for stimulation, to the needs of an ‘unplugged’ left hemisphere.44 Disconnected from the grounding effects of the right hemisphere, which could lead it out of itself and back to what I have called ‘the Other’, it can find nothing except what it already knows. Newness would come from the imagination, which reconnects us with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves: all that is open to the left hemisphere acting alone is novelty (The Shock of the New should really have been entitled, were it not ambiguous, The Shock of the Novel). Crude sensationalism is its stock in trade. The left hemisphere, with its orientation towards what is lifeless and mechanical, appears desperate to shock us back to life, as if animating Frankenstein's corpse. When the Austrian experimental artist Hermann Nitsch crucifies a dead lamb, he reminds us that he is flogging a dead horse.
In Eric Fromm's study On Disobedience, he describes modern man as homo consumens: concerned with things more than people, property more than life, capital more than work. He sees this man as obsessed with the structures of things, and calls him ‘organisation man’, flourishing, if that is the right word, as much under the bureaucracy of communism as under capitalism. There is a close relationship between the mentality that results in bureaucratic organisation and the mentality of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils. To that extent one might say that their antipathy represents little more than a farmyard scrap between two dogs over a bone. These preferences – for things more than people, status or property more than life, and so on – align with those of the left hemisphere, and what I want to explore here is the close relation between a concern for materiality and a simultaneous impulse towards abstraction.
REPRESENTATION: WHEN THINGS ARE REPLACED BY CONCEPTS, AND CONCEPTS BECOME THINGS
Once we can no longer hold together what the left hemisphere calls – because it separates them – spirit and matter, things become simultaneously more abstract and more purely ‘thing-like’: the Cartesian divorce. If one thinks about an archetypal piece of modernist art, such as Duchamp's urinal, or Carl André's pile of bricks, one is struck by the fact that as a work of art each is at the same time unusually concrete and unusually abstract. The realms just do not cohere, or, as in what I would call a true work of art, interpenetrate. Again one is reminded of schizophrenia. Asked to describe what a Rorschach blot resembles, a schizophrenic patient may either describe the literal characteristics of the blot – the very disposition and quality of the strokes on the page – or declare that it represents some vague concept such as ‘motherhood’, or ‘democracy’.45
That the left hemisphere is concerned with abstraction has been a theme of the first part of the book, but it also has a preference for inanimate things, particularly as they have use for us. There is no paradox involved: materialists, as I suggested earlier, are not people who overvalue, but who undervalue, matter. They see it only under Scheler's lowest realm of value: that of utility and sensation. The abstraction is reified, the concept becomes a thing ‘out there’. The world in our time has become a ‘world picture’, according to Heidegger: not a new world picture, but rather ‘the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age’.46
In his book The Philosopher's Gaze: Modernity in the Shadows of the Enlightenment the philosopher D. M. Levin writes that re-presentation, the left hemisphere's role, is the characteristic state of modernity. The process of re-presenting a thing not only distances us from it, and substitutes an abstraction, a token, for the thing itself; it also objectifies, and reifies it, so as to bring it under control. What ‘presences’ is not accepted as it presences, but, he writes,
subjected to a certain delay, a certain postponement, a certain deferral, so that the ego-logical subject can give what is presencing to itself, can, in other words, make itself the giver of what it receives. In this way, the subject exercises maximum epistemic control. We might say that the emblem of such an attitude – the correlate in the realm of vision – is the stare.47
As he points out, even worse is that
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.48
Levin's point that this enables the mind actually to believe that it creates the world and then gives the world to itself, is a perfect formulation of the process whereby the left hemisphere, interposes a simulacrum between reality and our consciousness – like trompe l'oeil shutters in front of a window, bearing an exact replica of the view – and then interprets its own creation as the reality. This nightmare of claustrophobia is taken further by Magritte, who painted many pictures designed precisely to dislocate our intuitive sense of the relationship between the representation and the thing represented. In his painting of 1963, La lunette d'approche (see Plate 14), the view, from a partly open window, of sea, sky and clouds, appears to be on the surface of the glass, and beyond the open window is just an empty blackness (on closer inspection the upper right-hand window reveals that the representation is actually becoming the reality).
The whole process is reminiscent of the wonderful image of Borges and Casares, in their short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’, of a vast map, 1:1 scale, that is exactly co-extensive with the terrain it ‘covers’, both metaphorically and literally.49 The piece builds on an idea of Lewis Carroll's in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, where a map is referred to as having ‘the scale of a mile to the mile’. As one of Carroll's characters remarks, noting some practical difficulties with this map, ‘we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’
The normal relationship of reality to representation has been reversed. At the beginning of this book, I summarised the left hemisphere's role as providing a map of the world. That map now threatens to replace the reality.
My contention is that the modern world is the attempt by the left hemisphere to take control of everything it knows so that it is the giver to itself of what it sees. If it is Gazzaniga's interpreter, it is, finally and self-referentially, its own interpreter (a role hitherto, according to William Cowper, reserved for God).
Ultimately this process of re-presentation affects our sense of our own identity. Again Borges, much of whose writing in one form or another unknowingly explores the relationship between the worlds of the two hemispheres, has the measure of it:
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor … Besides I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things. Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger … Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.50
Boredom and anxiety are different manifestations of the same underlying condition.51 Kafka said that his deepest feelings towards other people were indifference and fear. According to Elias Canetti, that makes him a representative modern man.52 One might think that this had much to do with Kafka's particular character, and there is no doubt that Kafka had a somewhat schizoid personality – such personalities lack warmth, find it difficult to engage with the world or other people, and tend to combine indifference with a state of chronic anxiety. In fact a remarkable number of the leading figures of modernism displayed schizoid or schizotypal features: Nietzsche, de Nerval, Jarry, Strindberg, De Chirico, Dali, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Bartok, Stravinsky, Webern, Stockhausen and Beckett are just a few that spring to mind. (By contrast a remarkable number of Romantic artists – and indeed artists of all times other than the modern – exhibited the contrasting features of affective conditions such as melancholia or bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.)53 Canetti's point, however, is that Kafka's indifference and fear are part of the modern condition. Fromm describes modern man as lonely, bored, anxious and passive.54 This combination of anxiety or fear with boredom and indifference is also remarkably like the emotional range of the schizophrenic subject, where apathy and indifference are varied mainly by paranoia. Both schizophrenia and the modern condition, I suggest, deal with the same problem: a freewheeling left hemisphere.
RISE IN ILLNESSES CHARACTERISED BY RIGHT-HEMISPHERE DEFICITS
One line of thought suggests that, if there is a shift in the way we, as a culture, look at the world – a change in the mental world that we all share, reinforced by constant cues from the environment, whether intellectual, social or material – that might make the expression of psychopathological syndromes that also involve such shifts more common. Put simply, if a culture starts to mimic aspects of right-hemisphere deficit, those individuals who have an underlying propensity to over-reliance on the left hemisphere will be less prompted to redress it, and moreover will find it harder to do so. The tendency will therefore be enhanced. Though we need to be cautious in how we interpret the evidence, it is nonetheless a matter of interest that schizophrenia has in fact increased in tandem with industrialisation and modernity.
In England schizophrenia was rare indeed, if it existed at all, before the eighteenth century, but increased dramatically in prevalence with industrialisation.55 Similar trends can be observed in Ireland, Italy, the United States, and elsewhere.56 However, even at the end of the nineteenth century schizophrenia appears to have been relatively rare compared with the first half of the twentieth century, when it steeply increased.57 There are, however, very considerable problems involved in studies of the prevalence of schizophrenia,58 and for methodological reasons, it is not clear whether the rates of schizophrenia are at present continuing to rise, or have reached a plateau, or are maybe even falling – on that point, studies can be found to support almost any conclusion. What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.59Descriptions of melancholia, or of manic-depressive (now called bipolar) disorder, are immediately recognisable in accounts from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, yet there are no descriptions of schizophrenia.
That it may be reinforced or promoted by the nature of the environment in the broadest sense – both physical and psycho-social – would appear to be confirmed by research. After controlling for all confounding factors, mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.60 City dwelling is associated with higher rates of depression, certainly, but even more with schizophrenia, in the genesis, or expression, of which it is the most potent environmental factor.61 The relative risk of developing schizophrenia in an urban rather than a rural setting is nearly double, and the evidence suggests that it is more likely that the urban environment causes psychosis than that high-risk individuals migrate to urban areas.62 The concept of ‘social defeat’ has been developed as an explanation of the high levels of schizophrenia in immigrant populations, particularly those from the West Indies into Britain.63 It is acknowledged that urban environments are more competitive. This is in part a reflection of capitalist culture, which is always most strongly expressed in cities for a host of obvious reasons. It is also because the kind of social order that would have valued an individual for anything other than their earning power has been lost. It's a culture, if that is still the right word for it, of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
If I am right in detecting that the left hemisphere world has come to predominate, with that of the right hemisphere receding in importance, other illnesses reflecting such an imbalance might also have become more prevalent. Have they?
Anorexia nervosa is by its nature an attack on the flesh, on embodied being – and it increased in prevalence during the twentieth century. Looking for explanations in terms of the social environment, it has been attributed in the popular press to the emphasis on the glamour of thinness. While this may have played a part in triggering episodes of illness in some cases (more typically in bulimia nervosa), this misconstrues the nature of the illness. Cases of what is called ‘holy anorexia’ can be traced for centuries, although not with the frequency we see now, a classic example being that of St Catherine of Siena; and the drive in such cases appears to be a desire for purification, and mortification of the flesh. Although anorexia is increasing rapidly in South Africa, it is still rare in contemporary West Africa, though even there cases exist. When subjects in such a context are asked to explain their motivation, they attribute their anorexia to a spiritual desire for purification and atonement, meaning abjuration of the flesh.64 Contemporary sufferers in the West often speak in similar terms, though not usually using overtly religious language: they speak of purification, a hatred of the body, a desire ultimately to ‘disappear’. The body image, dependent on the right parietal lobe is grossly distorted, to a psychotic degree, so that patients on the point of death through starvation may still see themselves as fat. Often the sense of the self – who one is at all – is lost. Anorexia is also in many cases associated with other forms of deliberate self-harm, such as cutting or burning, a condition which is also on the increase in the West, and is the most blatant form of attack on the body. Both anorexia and episodes of self-harm are used to numb feelings, although sometimes self-harm can be used to recall the sense of being alive at all, the experience of something in the body, in a state of otherwise total dissociation from feelings and from physical existence.
We would expect, on the basis of the psychopathology, with its distortions of body image, deliberate attacks on the body through starvation and other methods, loss of self-identity, numbing of feelings, desire for perfection, and need to be delivered from the contradictions and ambiguities of embodied existence, that this condition should be associated with over-reliance on the left hemisphere at the expense of the right. And this is exactly what research suggests – not just imaging and EEG studies, but lesion studies, and tests of cognitive function.65 Particularly striking is the case of a patient with a long history of anorexia nervosa who had a total and virtually instantaneous recovery after a left-hemisphere stroke affecting motor and sensory function of the right side of her body. Prior to the stroke, she wrote, ‘anorexia controlled my life and influenced things which I did or did not do … relationships – lost interest in them. Only interested in anorexia.’ After the stroke she reported that ‘I have no feelings of guilt. I no longer count calories. I am relaxed about eating/around food. I can eat out in restaurants now.’66
Multiple personality disorder is another dissociative disorder, which has features of hypnotic suggestibility. It is also a characteristically modern condition, hitting popular consciousness in the 1950s, and first incorporated into DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1980, although a small number of case reports of so-called ‘double personality’ aroused a good deal of interest in the late nineteenth century.67 It also clearly involves, albeit unconsciously, the most blatant abdication of responsibility (‘it wasn't me – it was my other half!’). This too is likely to be a right-hemisphere-deficit syndrome. Ramachandran describes a patient with a right-hemisphere stroke who was ‘halfway between anosognosia [denial of disability, which we have seen is a left-hemisphere speciality] and multiple personality disorder syndrome’ as a result of two lesions, one affecting the right frontal lobe and the other the right cingulate.69 EEG studies support the idea of right-hemisphere dysfunction coupled with relative left hemisphere overactivation in multiple personality disorder.69 Left-hemisphere hyperactivation fits with the fact that multiple personality disordered patients exhibit first-rank symptoms of schizophrenia, and describe being the passive victims of a controlling force, since schizophrenia is another condition in which there is a failure to integrate left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere processes, with a dysfunctional right hemisphere and an overactive left hemisphere, giving rise to the sense of alien control.70 Although examination of epileptic patients with two distinct personalities has led to the suggestion that multiple personalities might represent the differing personalities of the two hemispheres, this model clearly cannot account for the majority of patients who have not just dual, but literally ‘multiple’ personalities, in some cases over a hundred.71 They must be able to dissociate a multitude of different parts within the fragmented ‘whole’ of their selfhood – a process which by its nature suggests a key role for the left hemisphere.
Anorexia nervosa, multiple personality disorder and deliberate self-harm are linked by ‘dissociation’: there is a sense of being cut off – and often a craving to be cut off – from one's feelings, and from embodied existence, a loss of depth of emotion and capacity for empathy, a fragmentation of the sense of self; and these features also characterise what is known as ‘borderline’ personality disorder. Once again, this may be a condition whose prevalence is increasing. Though it is possible in retrospect to see elements of the clinical picture in descriptions of behaviour going back to ancient Greece, the condition was first described only in 1938.72 Yet it has grown in the space of 70 years to become ‘certainly one of the commonest psychiatric diagnoses’.73 Here too there is evidence of right-hemisphere dysfunction, with many regions of the right hemisphere appearing underactive.74 There is even evidence of alterations in structural brain asymmetry in borderline personality disorder, with strong leftward deviations in the parietal region, especially marked in those who demonstrate clear dissociative states.75
Then there is autism, a condition which has hugely advanced in prevalence during the last fifty years. While it may be that some of the rise is due to greater awareness of the condition, it is unlikely that this explains the very large increase. Autism, and Asperger's syndrome, which is often thought of as a type of high-functioning autism, were first described in 1943 and 1944 respectively. The research was quite independent, despite the temporal proximity: Asperger was not aware of Kanner's paper, describing the first case histories of classic autism, when he wrote his own. Since that time rates have steadily climbed, and continue to climb. Again, both these conditions are marked by clinical features strongly suggestive of right-hemisphere hypofunction, and the resulting picture is one of left-hemisphere dominance. There is in autism an inability to tell what another is thinking (lack of ‘theory of mind’); a lack of social intelligence – difficulty in judging nonverbal features of communication, such as tone, humour, irony; an inability to detect deceit, and difficulty understanding implicit meaning; a lack of empathy; a lack of imagination; an attraction to the mechanical; a tendency to treat people and body parts as inanimate objects; an alienation from the self (autistic children often fail to develop the first-person perspective and speak of themselves as ‘he’ or ‘she’); an inability to engage in eye contact or mutually directed gaze; and an obsession with detail.76 All these features will be recognisable as signs of left hemisphere predominance.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the deficits at the neurological level, in any of these conditions, including schizophrenia, are confined to the right hemisphere only, or that the pattern of right hemisphere deficits in each condition is the same – manifestly it is not. One of the many factors that might modulate the clinical picture would be which areas of the right hemisphere were functioning abnormally, and in what way, as well as precisely what is happening in the left hemisphere at the same time: the brain is a dynamic system, and change in any one place causes changes elsewhere. But if we look at the clinical picture in each of these conditions and ask ourselves which aspects of the phenomenological world of the sufferer are distorted or absent, and in what way, and correlate that with the findings at the neurological level, I believe the deficits reveal a repeated pattern of hypofunction of the normal right hemisphere, and an exaggerated reliance on the provisions of the left.
THE SELF-PERPETUATING NATURE OF THE LEFT HEMISPHERE WORLD
The development of mass technological culture, urbanisation, mechanisation and alienation from the natural world, coupled with the erosion of smaller social units and an unprecedented increase in mobility, have increased mental illness, at the same time that they have made the ‘loner’ or outsider the representative of the modernist era. His apprehension of life has become fragmentary, and the welter of disparate information and surrogate experiences, taken out of context, with which we are deluged intensifies the sense of fragmentation. Increasing virtuality and distance from other human lives tends to induce a feeling of an alien, perhaps hostile environment. Social isolation leads to exaggerated fear responses, violence and aggression,77 and violence and aggression often lead, in turn, to isolation. Structures which used to provide the context from which life derived its meaning have been powerfully eroded, and ‘seepage’ from one context into another produces bizarre, sometimes surreal, juxtapositions which alter the nature of ourattention to them, facilitating irony, distance and cynicism at the expense of empathy. In this way the experience of life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reproduces many of the experiences until now confined to schizophrenics. At the same time people with schizoid or schizotypal traits will be attracted to, and be deemed especially suitable for, employment in the areas of science, technology and administration which have, during the last hundred years, been immensely influential in shaping the world we live in, and are, if anything, even more important today.
Thus a culture with prominent ‘schizoid’ characteristics attracts to positions of influence individuals who will help it ever further down the same path. And the increasing domination of life by both technology and bureaucracy helps to erode the more integrative modes of attention to people and things which might help us to resist the advances of technology and bureaucracy, much as they erode the social and cultural structures that would have facilitated other ways of being, so that in this way they aid their own replication.
THE PROBLEM OF ART IN THE MODERN WORLD
I commented at the beginning of this chapter that the disjunction between modernism and what preceded it was not as great as it seemed. The movement known as Aestheticism which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century has been seen as the last flowering of Romanticism. By now effete and etiolated, Romanticism, it is believed, finally expired, to be replaced by the counter-Romantic distancing ironies of Absurdism and the Dadaist movement, and by the beginnings of modernism in Russia and France. The idea suggests a revolution: a time-expired idea or set of ideas embodied in a culture is overthrown by the new more vigorous growth of an opposing movement. I suggested that this was not the case in the Reformation, the Enlightenment or the Romantic ‘Revolution’, but that instead in each case there was not a discontinuity, but a continuity, whereby a slippage occurred in the balance between the hemispheres.
Aestheticism was an extension of the self-consciousness of Victorian art, and a precursor of the self-consciousness of modernism. It conceptualised ‘the Imaginative’, as the Enlightenment had cultivated ‘Phansie’, in the place of imagination. The left hemisphere ‘creates’ newness by recombining in a novel fashion what is already known, not as imagination does, by allowing something that we thought we knew to be truly revealed for the first time. It is like those children's books with pages split into three, in which you can invent a new animal by putting together the head of a camel, the body of a seal and the legs of a goat. It produced, by the reliable contrivances of inversion or random juxtaposition, the novelty of the artificial, the bizarre, the unnatural and the obscurely menacing: Gerard de Nerval, with his green hair, taking a lobster for a walk on a string; the perverse self-indulgent world of Huysman's À Rebours (‘Against Nature’); or de Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror (from ‘mal d'aurore’, an ‘evil dawn’) speaking of the ‘chance encounter of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissecting-table’.
The Aesthetes’ creed of ‘art for art's sake’, while it sounds like an elevation of the value of art, in that it denies that it should have an ulterior purpose beyond itself – so far, so good – is also a devaluation of art, in that it marginalises its relationship with life. In other words it sacrifices the betweenness of art with life, instead allowing art to become self-reflexively fulfilled. There is a difference between the forlorn business of creating ‘art for art's sake’, and art nonetheless having to be judged solely ‘as art’, not as for another purpose. In the process of creation, the artist's plane of focus needs to be somewhere beyond and through the work of art, not just on its being art, otherwise it becomes less than art. In viewing the art work, we too are carried beyond the work of art, precisely because the artist was not focussed on the art as such, but in something beyond it; and that is part of its greatness, by which, as it might seem paradoxically, we come to judge the work of art solely on its merits as a work of art – not, in other words, for some ulterior purpose for which art is being used. We come to see not the work of art, but the world according to the art work, as Merleau-Ponty says, necessitating that it is neither opaque nor wholly transparent, but ‘semi-transparent’. To take a couple of examples: Duccio, in painting a Madonna and Child, was not producing ‘art for art's sake'; nor was Degas, in painting L'Absinthe, his famous portrait of absinthe drinkers in a Paris café. If either had focussed on the plane of the wooden panel, or the canvas, itself, and the ‘pure’ business of aesthetics, they could not have produced the great works these represent. Duccio was taken up in the spirit of devotion to his divine subject; Degas in the pity of the human scene before him. Yet one need not share Duccio's religious beliefs to appreciate the work of art; and indeed seen as a ‘work of art’, rather than as an object of devotion, those beliefs become certainly not irrelevant, but secondary. The work could have been the product of sincere piety, or alternatively of pure aesthetic manipulation, and yet a poor work of art. Similarly, the social commentary in L'Absinthe is scarcely irrelevant, but cannot itself form the basis of a judgment on its artistic worth. It seems that while works cannot be created for art's sake, they must be judged for art's sake, not for some ulterior purpose. The plane of the focus of attention for the creator and the viewer are different; we are allowed to regard artists and their work in a way that they must not regard themselves. Put that way it is not that different from any human relationship: I might regard Mother Teresa in a way that would worry me if I believed it was also the way she saw herself.
As, with the advance of modernism, art became ever more self-conscious, it encountered further problems. Alienation, fragmentation, decontextualisation: the defining features of the modern world were as problematic for art as they were for society, since art, like society, derives its meaning and power from connection, cohesion, context. The predicament of art in the modern period could be said to be how to respond to this challenge. And its problem is made more intractable by a different sort of deracination – more than just the severance from place, or even from history, but the inevitably consequent severance from the roots of all meaning in shared values and experiences, the vast implicit realm from which imagination draws its power. Once this rupture has occurred, it can no more be remedied by a conscious effort of the will than a flower plucked from the plant can be made to grow again by being stuck back on the stalk.
Many artists saw that the modern world was fragmented, incoherent, decontextualised and alien, a world where the implicit and intuitive had been lost. But art itself cannot succeed if it too is fragmented, incoherent, decontextualised and alien, nor if it becomes explicit and discursive – if it becomes about its own plight. I have argued that a work of art is more like a living being than a thing. That our encounter with that being matters and means something depends on the fact that any living being is in itself whole and coherent, and forms part of a larger context in which we too are involved and engaged. If it is itself experienced as fragmented, incoherent, decontextualised and alien it ceases to live. It also becomes merely opaque – the eye rests on the wrong plane, the plane of the work itself, rather than passing through it. The work of art no longer succeeds in letting us see the world anew, as Merleau-Ponty had suggested, but obtrudes itself as the focus of our attention.
In response to this dilemma modernist art has tended to diverge. The reaction of one influential strand to the experience of a world as seen by the left hemisphere was to adopt the features of that world in the work itself. By doing so it constantly risked, and only by chance at times evaded, triviality. It became itself recruited to the left hemisphere's campaign. Others (and I believe they have been the minority, at least in the visual arts and music), including artists as various as Egon Schiele, Marc Chagall, and Stanley Spencer, have grappled with this conundrum and been impelled to truly imaginative, intuitive solutions, creating often idiosyncratic works of great power. Many great artists such as Picasso or Matisse, Stravinsky or Schoenberg, move uneasily between these positions, at times their intuitions leading them (as happened with great artists in the age of the Enlightenment) gloriously to sweep away the precepts of modernism itself.
Few artists of the period have escaped the problem entirely; many have not escaped it at all. But this fact is carefully obscured, I believe, by two tendencies in the criticism of modernism (themselves both modernist tendencies). The first is a willingness to accept an explicit manifesto or message (again, as in the Enlightenment) as a substitute for imaginative experience: this is often an apparently coded message, which thereby flatters the decoder. We seem to see art, where we have nothing more than a text. The other tendency complements it: in the absence of a message we tend to ‘stare’ at it until it is freighted with meaning. It's rather like the projections we make into a Rorschach blot. We mistake our lonely monologue for a dialogue. Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dadaism, rather gave the game away when he proclaimed, at the outset of modernism, that art had become ‘a private affair – the artist produces it for himself’, and judgment had become completely subjective.78
The field of modernism is vast: the term has been applied to a bewildering array of different groups, cliques, and movements within poetry, the novel, drama, cinema, the visual arts, architecture, and music, and it has been applied to politics and sociology. There are common features, however. One might start by considering the self-conscious vision of itself as modern, in the sense not of building on the past while taking it in a new direction, but of sweeping it away altogether. Its inception was therefore marked by a series of explicit manifestos demanding a grand new beginning that involved destruction of what had gone before, and a breaking of the mould as an end in itself. There was a sense that man, too, was capable of being refashioned by a transformation of society and art according to a theoretical ideal, refashioned in a new image. There was a glorification of the power of science and technology, an exultation – as in the Enlightenment, but more shrill – at the triumph of man over nature, now assured by industrial might. An unfaltering belief in the future complemented an uncompromising scorn for the past. Above all there was a belief – more than that, an intoxicating self-excitement – in the sheer power of the human will, in our power to shape our destiny. It is not, I think, by accident that the age of modernism also saw the rise of totalitarian ideologies in Russia, Germany and Italy.
Nazism is ‘the very epitome of the modern’, writes the historian of modernism, Modris Eksteins; ‘the modernism of Nazism was unmistakable … political extremism was in lockstep in the modern era with cultural adventurism.’ He notes that the close ties between Marinetti's Futurism and Mussolini's Fascism have never been doubted; and, he goes on, there is a fascination with the unleashing of demonic power, the ‘uncompromising shredding of the past’.79 Cultural Revolution and totalitarianism are spiritual allies.
The ‘profound kinship’ between modernism and fascism is explored at length, and with tact and subtlety, by Roger Griffin in his book Modernism and Fascism.80 ‘War is the world's only hygiene,’81 declared the Futurists. The resonances there are unfortunate, but not, I think, insignificant. An admiration for what is powerful rather than beautiful, a sense of alienated objectivity rather than engagement or empathy, and an almost dogmatic trampling on all taboos, lies at the heart of the modernist enterprise. The Futurists espoused a culture of youth and violence: ‘we want no part of it, the past,’ they cried. Their call for a novelty ‘however daring, however violent’,82 sits uneasily close to the pervasive modernist (and post-modernist) concern, from its very inception to the present day, with a strangeness sometimes bordering on the perverse, and a fascination with the amoral restlessness of modern urban life. One might not want to go as far as Paul Virilio does, when he makes the direct connection between the German Expressionists (who did call for murder) and Ilse Koch, the ‘Bitch of Buchenwald’, who turned prisoners skins into art brut (the Russian poet Mayakovsky also called for skulls to be turned into ashtrays). Not all modernist art, clearly, leads to the bloodbaths of Hermann Nitsch or the mutilations of Rudolf Schwarzkogler. But one can surely agree with Virilio that the unanchored re-presentation of reality as art, however dislocated or disturbing – an extension of the aesthetic creed, art for art's sake – which is endemic in modernism is part of a much more profound failure of compassion and an erosion of pity.83 Pity may in fact be the only taboo left for modernism, after what Ortega called the ‘ban on all pathos’ in modern art.84
At the same time, obviously and worryingly, totalitarian movements have had none of the characteristics that would lend themselves to making good art. If there is anything in the idea that modernist art partakes of the same nature as Leninism, Fascism or Stalinism there is clearly a difficulty here. Lenin is reported to have said: ‘I'm no good at art, art for me is something like an intellectual appendix. And when its use as propaganda, which we need at the moment, is over, we shall cut it out, as useless – snip, snip.’85 This was the era of which Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote that those with voices had their ‘tongues … cut out, and with the stump that remained they were forced to glorify the tyrant’.86 According to Martin Sixsmith, suicide was ‘an astoundingly common outcome’ for poets and writers in the years after 1917 (e.g. Mayakovsky, Esenin): ‘the Kremlin was bent on wiping out originality – imagination was no longer needed or welcome.’87 Later the Nazis and Stalinists discouraged imagination, which was decadent and useless, and, as with Leninism, glorified art only where it might have a political purpose beyond art.
As modernism progresses, alienation, through shock and novelty, become defences against the boredom and inauthenticity of modernity. The inauthenticity against which modernism reacted is not in doubt. But there are, as I suggested in Chapter 7, two directions in which, under such circumstances, one might go. One can see the problem as a contingent loss of the authenticity of the right-hemisphere world and try to re-engage the right hemisphere, by patiently clearing away the adhesions of familiarity overlying one's subject; or one can see the right hemisphere's world as intrinsically inauthentic and try to sweep it away altogether. Newness (seeing afresh what one thought of as familiar, as though for the first time – the patient process of Romanticism) and novelty (deliberately disturbing the representation of reality in an attempt to ‘shock’ oneself into something that feels unfamiliar) are contrary concepts. Viktor Shklovsky's call, in his essay ‘Art as Technique’, to ‘make it strange’ could represent either. It has usually been interpreted as the second, but I do not think this is what he had in mind, as his delight in Tolstoy – and in the novels of Sterne – would suggest. He noted that Tolstoy ‘describes an object as if he were seeing it for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time’, and wanted to recapture that authenticity. Indeed, although his essay was taken as a manifesto by the Formalists, it is clear that what he is talking about is not sensationalism, shock tactics or bizarre distortions at all – in fact, the opposite. ‘Habitualisation’, he writes,
devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war … art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known… .’88
As one sees from the examples of tactful obliqueness, metaphor and subtly inverted point of view which he chooses in that essay, his belief is that by the implicit, and by an indirectness that borders on indirection, one can make something that the explicit had deadened to total inauthenticity come to life again: as ‘perceived and not as … known’. I would therefore make an important distinction between Shklovsky and the majority of those who espoused the slogan of ‘make it new’. But Shklovsky's more subtle understanding, representing the right hemisphere's bid to take back to authenticity what had become exhausted by over-familiarity, was not to prevail.
Steiner's mot, that ‘originality is antithetical to novelty’ (see p. 375 above), puts its finger on a huge problem for the willed, self-conscious nature of modernist art, and art since modernism. For there is no polarity between the tradition and originality. In fact originality as an artist (as opposed to as a celebrity or a showman) can only exist within a tradition, not for the facile reason that it must have something by ‘contrast’ with which to be original, but because the roots of any work of art have to be intuitive, implicit, still coming out of the body and the imagination, not starting in (though they may perhaps later avail themselves of) individualistic cerebral striving. The tradition gets taken up – aufgehoben – into the whole personality of the artist and is for that reason new, rather than novel by an effort of will. There's a fear that without novelty there is only banality; but the pay-off is that it is precisely the striving for novelty that leads to banality. We confuse novelty with newness. No one ever decided not to fall in love because it's been done before, or because its expressions are banal. They are both as old as the hills and completely fresh in every case of genuine love. Spiritual texts present the same problem, that they can use only banalities, which mean something totally different from the inside of the experience. Language makes the uncommon common. It can never create experience of something we do not know – only release something in us that is already there.
Fig. 12.1 Turin Spring, by Giorgio de Chirico, oil on canvas, 1914 (private collection/Peter Willi/Bridgeman Art Library/© DACS 2009)
In subtle ways, disengagement is discernible at the outset of modernism. For example, de Chirico's paintings are undoubtedly visionary, but the light that had drawn one into connection with the world becomes in his paintings harsh, mordant, giving rise to abnormally sharp contrast; shadows are irrational, surfaces flattened, objects juxtaposed without being brought into relation, producing an effect that is threatening and disconcerting (see Figure 12.1). Perspective, that had been used to engage, here becomes the concomitant of a steeply angled geometricity that appears alien. Increasingly perspective is deliberately disrupted, and the depth of the painted field replaced by the surface of the canvas (see Plates 12 and 13).
When Kazimir Malevich in 1913 exhibited his black square, in 1915 his black circle, and in 1917 his white square (‘White on White’) he was, of course, making a statement – though using art to ‘make a statement’ is itself another aspect of left hemisphere domination. But he was also, by adopting such simple geometric forms, especially in black and white, adopting what we now know to be left-hemisphere preferences. Cubism in turn replaced the subtle softness of textured living surfaces, exactly what we need our right temporoparietal regions to interpret, by dislocated, abstracted surfaces, composed of rectilinear shapes, represented from a multitude of viewpoints (which therefore cannot be inhabited), intersecting randomly, and destroying the sense of depth. The demand that all surfaces of an object be represented in a single plane again goes straight back to the left hemisphere's tendency to represent schematically: there is a deliberate emphasis on fragmentation, and simplification into the regular shapes of cylinders, cubes, or spheres which the left hemisphere prefers. Viewed from a neuropsychological standpoint, modernist art appears to mimic the world as it would appear to someone whose right hemisphere was inactivated: in other words, it brings into being the world of the left hemisphere.
Even the Zeitraffer phenomenon, discussed in Chapter 2, which follows a breakdown in the integrated flow of movement in time and space brought about by the right hemisphere, is there from the outset. The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting published in 1910 declares: ‘on account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves’.89 That this was quite untrue (provided one's right hemisphere is intact) did not prevent it being accepted as obvious. It became the job of painting to reproduce this deficit. In the novel, similarly, the flow of narrative, which both images the right hemisphere's continuous appreciation of time and its understanding of the meaning of human action, became disrupted; the flow of time was replaced by static scenes and dislocated sequence, tending to disrupt character and meaningful action, reproducing the world as experienced by those with right-hemisphere deficits. ‘Freedom’ from context, which only the right hemisphere can provide, is intrinsic to the character of modernist art. Above all, art in the modernist age becomes theoretical, conceptual – even if, in some cases, its ostensible theory or concept is that one should be intuitive.
One would expect the human face and body, both highly dependent on the right hemisphere for their appreciation and expression, to suffer in characteristic ways. It will be remembered that subjects with right hemisphere brain damage cannot gauge the proper relationship of what come to be seen as body ‘parts'; there is an impairment of proprioception – the unreflective awareness of where the ‘parts’ are; and they lose a sense of intuitive ‘ownership’, so that the body seems to be motivated by an alien force, or alternatively an inanimate object. The left side, particularly the left hand, may be disowned.90 In an essay entitled ‘Some simple reflections on the body’, Paul Valéry wrote that the body
at times takes on a sudden charge of impulsive energies that make it ‘act’ in response to some interior mystery, and at other times seems to become the most crushing and immovable weight … The thing itself is formless: all we know of it by sight is the few mobile parts that are capable of coming within the conspicuous zone of the space which makes up this My Body, a strange asymmetrical space in which distances are exceptional relations. I have no idea of the spatial relations between ‘My Forehead’ and ‘My Foot’, between ‘My Knee’ and ‘My Back’ … This gives rise to strange discoveries. My right hand is generally unaware of the left. To take one hand in the other is to take hold of an object that is not-I. These oddities must play a part in sleep and, if such things as dreams exist, must provide them with infinite combinations … [The body] has no past [emphases in the original].91
Here, in addition to exhibiting a failure of the sense of the relation of the parts of the body, an impairment of proprioception (he can only be aware of the position of his body ‘parts’ if he can see them), a sense of the body as acting in an alien manner, and the feeling that his left hand is not his, Valéry confirms the left hemisphere view by insisting that ‘the body has no past’ – a quite bizarrely counterintuitive notion that nonetheless indicates the left hemisphere's lack of sense of lived time; by suggesting that the unconscious life of dreams may not exist at all; and reporting the body as asymmetrical (true from the left hemisphere vantage point, less so, if true at all, from the right). And, believe it or not, this is the least objectified of three ‘bodies’ that, according to Valéry, we possess: it's the one we experience – the other two being the body ‘which others see’, and the body known to science. We see the same in the visual representation of the body in the art of the period. The figures are distorted and dislocated: faces become barely recognisable as such, with deliberate disruption of the capacity for subtle expression. The deanimation of the body reaches its most disturbing apotheosis in the bizarrely distorted and dismembered marionettes of Hans Bellmer, but is obvious in mainstream artists such as Picasso (see Figure 12.2).
Fig. 12.2 Woman in a Red Armchair, by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas, 1932 (Musée Picasso, Paris/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library © Succession Picasso/DACS 2009)
The list of names of the main movements in modernism could be seen, from the neuropsychological point of view, as a catalogue of left-hemisphere modes of apprehension. This is not a value judgment on the individual works of art produced, some of which were extraordinarily powerful, even beautiful – merely a reflection on the process that has affected our view of the world during the modern period. Some, such as Cubism, I have already mentioned. Pointillism reduces Gestalt figures to a mass of discrete particles, and the continuity of lines and surfaces to a series of discrete dots (in this anticipating mechanical, digital reproduction, though pointillism draws attention to the disjunctions, where technology aims to hide them): this is the way the left hemisphere represents continuous flow. Dadaism and its off-shoots, Absurdismand Surrealism, express the value of total disjunction, random juxtaposition and the emptying out of meaning: as will be remembered, the left hemisphere has an advantage in processing such non-Gestalt and meaningless phenomena. Abstract painting similarly favours left-hemisphere processing. Collage represents the concept of the whole as composed of independent pieces. Minimalism emphasises the simple forms that are preferred by the left hemisphere. Functionalism preaches that utility is the over-riding consideration in form. One of its most famous proponents, Le Corbusier, famously reduced the rich concept of ‘home’ to that of une machine à habiter. Another, Mies van der Rohe, declared an outright refusal of all local colour: only the abstract and universal were to be admitted. Modernism in general openly rejected the unique specifics of time and place, and of concern for the context of different peoples at different times for different purposes, in favour of timeless universalities. The abstract shapes of modernist art and sculpture, too, resist any attempt at contextualisation. Futurism declares the left hemisphere's preference for the future over the past. Perhaps above all the revolutionary zeal and the opposition to every kind of authority on principle confirm that we are in the left hemisphere's world.
Walter Pater's aphorism that all art aspired to the condition of music alluded to the fact that music is the least explicit of all the arts (and the one most directly attuned to our embodied nature). In the twentieth century, by contrast, art has aspired to the condition of language, the most explicit and abstracted medium available to us. What the artist, whether painter, sculptor, or installation artist, has written about his or her creation is as important as the thing itself, and is often displayed next to the work of art, as if guiding the understanding of the onlooker – as if in fact the work could not speak for itself. Written material often obtrudes (as, incidentally, it does in the paintings of schizophrenics) within the frame of the artwork itself, as it never had before, except during the Reformation, and to a greater extent. Similarly performances of contemporary music are prefaced by a text written by the composer explaining his or her intentions, aspirations, and experiences during the composition.
Music is the most physically compelling of the arts. The tension in the intervals between successive tones (melody), co-occurring tones (harmony) and stresses (rhythm) are immediately and involuntarily conveyed as the relaxation and tension of muscular tone in the physical frame, and have manifestly direct effects on respiration and heart rate. Its origins lie in dance and song. It has direct effects also on physical, as well as mental, well-being: for example, it alleviates anxiety, depression and pain in patients with physical illnesses.92 Under certain circumstances it can be essential to maintaining health. At a Benedictine monastery in the South of France,
chanting was curtailed in the mid-1960s as part of the modernisation efforts associated with the Second Vatican Council. The results could not have been more disastrous. The monks had been able to thrive on only about four hours sleep per night, provided they were allowed to chant. Now they found themselves listless and exhausted, easily irritated, and susceptible to disease. Several doctors were called in, but none was able to alleviate the distress of the monastic community. Relief came finally, but only when Alfred Tomatis convinced the abbot to reinstate chanting. As he recalled: ‘I was called by the Abbot in February, and I found that 70 of the 90 monks were slumping in their cells like wet dishrags … I reintroduced chanting immediately. By November, almost all of them had gone back to their normal activities, that is their prayers, their few hours of sleep, and the legendary Benedictine work schedule.’ The decisive factor, it seems, had been a simple matter of sound.93
Yet since the twentieth century music has aspired to, and attained, a high level of abstraction.94 Its appeal has become very largely cerebral and highly self-conscious, with a structure which may be so complex as to be imperceptible from within the experience of the work, or alternatively chaotic, or even aleatory. As Schoenberg put it: ‘how the music sounds is not the point.’95 Schoenberg, it might also be noted, started out composing music of which the sound very obviously was the point. Melodic line has largely been abandoned in avant-garde music, and its harmonic structures are hard to appreciate intuitively, even if they are appreciable conceptually. Though the analytic left hemisphere may add to the experience of music, the same principle applies here as everywhere: the products of the left hemisphere's work need to be returned to the right hemisphere where they can live. It is in this no different from the process of musical performance, which may represent hours of effortful analysis, and piecemeal labour behind the scenes, all of which has to be forgotten when it is transmuted into the living work once again. Mathematics needs to be taken up into the living frame if it is to work in music – as it is in the music of J. S. Bach, for example: it needs, in a word, to be embodied. Music is, of all the arts, the one that is most dependent on the right hemisphere; of all aspects of music, only rhythm is appreciated as much by the left hemisphere, and it may not be accidental that, while contemporary art music has become the preserve of a few devotees (in a way that was never previously true of new music in its time), popular music in our age has become dominated by, and almost reduced to, rhythm and little else.
In 1878, Nietzsche could see the beginnings of the process, and wrote prophetically:
our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists.96
‘The symbolic replaces that which exists’: surely the perfect expression of the triumph of theory and abstraction over experience and incarnation, of re-presentation over ‘presencing’, in other words of the left hemisphere, there at the core of music and the other arts. And he continues that ‘the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual’.
The problem of modernism, as Sass points out, is one of excessive self-consciousness. The question of what style to espouse, and with it the need to make a conscious decision to be something never before seen or heard, began to be more and more oppressive from the period of the later Romantics onwards – composers not just being intuitively drawn to imitate something they had heard elsewhere, as in the past, but deliberately inventing themselves and their art, rather than discovering it. This resulted, perhaps inevitably, in the decision to abandon our intuitive sense of harmony, melody and tonality.
It may seem unjustifiable to speak of an intuitive sense of harmony, melody or tonality, since these are now widely believed to be purely culturally determined, with the implication that they could be refashioned at will. But that is not the case at all. Music, of course, evolves, and what constitutes harmony, for example, has changed slowly over the course of time. The dominant seventh was considered a discord until the nineteenth century, and even the major third was once – in organum, therefore until the fourteenth century – considered a discord. (This is in itself fascinating, because it shows that the ‘melancholy’ minor third was accepted before the more ‘optimistic’ major third.) But generally there is intercultural understandability. Mongolian music, for example, does not sound harmonically incomprehensible, and certainly not unpleasant, to the Western ear. The acceptability and emotional meaning of music is not purely culture-bound. In fact it is almost universal.97 For example, Norwegians acculturated to a Western musical tradition make precisely the same associations between particular emotions and particular musical intervals as are made in Ancient Indian music – a radically different musical tradition.98 This would accord with most Westerners’ experience of Indian music, acknowledged as it is to be complex and based on different musical principles from our own.
Studies of adults from different cultures, and from different generations, studies in preverbal infants and even studies in animals and birds, show remarkable agreement in what is perceived as consonant and pleasurable, and what is seen as dissonant and disagreeable.99 Specifically there are universal natural preferences at the physiological level for harmony over dissonance.100 Harmony causes changes in the autonomic nervous system, with a slowing of the heart.101 Dissonance activates areas of the brain associated with noxious stimuli, and harmony areas associated with pleasurable experience.102 Babies as young as four months old prefer consonance to dissonance, and infants already associate the minor key with sadness.103 In terms of the hemispheres, the right hemisphere is more sensitive to harmony, more involved in the processing of it, and more sensitive to the distinctions between consonance and dissonance.104 And there is a specific right hemisphere link with processing consonance, and a left hemisphere link with processing dissonance.105
The appreciation of harmony is inherently complex. It is the last aspect of musicality to develop, beginning around the age of six, and reaching maturity only by puberty. Harmony in music is an analogue of perspective in painting. Each produces what is experienced as ‘depth’: each is right-hemisphere-dependent. They developed together at the same time in the Renaissance; and, similarly, they declined together with modernism, harmony becoming more precarious as painters such as Picasso started deliberately disorientating the viewer through manipulation of perspective.
Bach's music is full of discords, and one would have to be musically deaf not to appreciate them – in both senses of the word ‘appreciate’, because such moments are especially to be relished, as are the wonderful passing dissonances and ‘false relations’ in the music of, for example, Byrd and his contemporaries. But they are introduced to be resolved. The same element that adds relish to the dish makes it inedible if it comes to predominate. The passing discords so frequent in Bach are aufgehoben into the wider consonance as they move on and resolve. Context is once again absolutely critical – in fact nowhere can context be more important than in music, since music is pure context, even if the context is silence. Thus, in harmony as elsewhere, a relationship between expectation and delay in fulfilment is at the core of great art; the art is in getting the balance right, something which Bach consummately exemplifies.
There is an enormously subtle range of emotional expression over the entire range of the harmonic, with the tiniest changes making enormous differences in meaning. But we cannot make the same subtle discriminations of emotional timbre between discords, because the human nervous system, and the mammalian nervous system from which it derives, appreciates discord as distress, so that all threatens quickly to become merely angst-ridden, and the emotional range is inevitably reduced. The sound of modernist music tends to be intrinsically alien, minatory, which is why it is used in films to convey a sense of some frightening ‘other world’ (for example, at points where such an effect was required in the film 2001, Ligeti replaced Strauss).
The left hemisphere plays an important part in rhythm perception, though more complex rhythms are right-hemisphere-dependent106 and rhythmic skills are preserved in total left-hemisphere ablation. Despite Plato's assertion that rhythm comes mainly from the mind, which possibly reflects more on Plato than it does on rhythm, there are again limits to what the human frame can experience and what the human brain can appreciate. Honegger is supposed to have said:
I myself remain very sceptical about these rhythmic refinements. They have no significance except on paper. They are not felt by the listener … After a performance of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movementsthe players in the orchestra all remarked: ‘One has no time to listen or appraise. One is too busy counting eighth notes.’107
Many composers, as might be imagined, have found themselves ambivalent about the process. Tippett lamented the loss of melody, described by Haydn as ‘that which is most difficult to produce – the invention of a fine melody is a work of genius’, and by Mozart as ‘the essence of music: I should liken one who invents melodies to a noble racehorse, and a mere contrapuntist to a hired post-hack’.108 Hindemith was sceptical of serial music, likening it to one of ‘those sickeningly wonderful merry-go-rounds on fairgrounds and in amusement parks … the idea is, of course, to disturb the customer's feeling of gravitational attraction by combining at any given moment so many different forms of attraction that his sense of location cannot adjust itself fast enough.’109 The lack of tonal centres destroys the listener's anchor point for hierarchies of intervals. Although the composer may understand where he is going, the listener simply cannot, because we do not have sufficient short-term memory to cope with this degree of apparent formlessness.
Yet composers such as Benjamin Britten, Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, as well as more recently Morten Lauridsen, John Tavener, and James MacMillan, have found their own way to producing at times hauntingly beautiful music that is intuitively, rather than purely theoretically, grounded, expressive rather than rationalistic. For them modernism has been a way of continuing, while at the same time expanding and enlarging, the possibilities of what, for want of a better term, we are obliged to call the Romantic. And jazz, less self-conscious about self-invention, less insistent on escaping the idioms of melody, harmony and rhythm – though treating them with a freedom that can be exhilarating (if sometimes pushing the bounds of the perceptible) – seems to me one of the great creations of the modernist era.
THE SUCCESSES OF MODERNISM
Most theories of beauty from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond share the same concept of beauty: an organic whole which shows harmony between the parts. Western and Eastern concepts of beauty, despite their having evolved largely independently, are remarkably consonant.110 This will hardly surprise any Westerner familiar with Oriental art in all, or any, of its forms. Despite individual exceptions there is general agreement across cultures. This is why translations of poetry and fiction sell widely in many languages, why exhibitions of Japanese art, concerts of Indian, Indonesian or Japanese music, and even performances of oriental drama in the West are so successful; and why Western art galleries are popular attractions for large numbers of visitors from the East, and performances of Shakespeare, and concerts of Western music or ballet, are in demand in China and Japan, where some of the best performers of classical European music now originate. Even the completely untutored, indigenous populations of places such as Papua New Guinea, who have had no exposure to classical Western music, appreciate and understand intuitively the emotional import of the music of Mozart. None of this would be possible without the existence of non-socially constructed values that enable the apprehension of beauty and the understanding of its expression through art. There is a developing acceptance by psychology and the social sciences that human universals clearly do exist.111
In music there is an intuitive language, the dialects of which are literally as widespread as, and older than, the human race. That is not just my intuition, but what the research demonstrates. Modernism experimented, unsuccessfully in my view, with abandoning it. In the visual arts, the ways in which humanity has used colour and form are nowhere near as cohesive, but aesthetic preferences, if not representational techniques and skills, are generally shared. Again deliberate attempts to reverse or abandon these are interesting mainly as experiments. But the conventions of language itself – not the language of music or visual art – are something one simply cannot reverse, at least not for long, if language is one's medium. This has had a protective effect on poetry within modernism. The attempt was made to abandon them, and figures such as Kurt Schwitters, mainly known for his collage art, wrote Dadaist ‘poems’ consisting only of nonsense syllables and sounds, but this was not to prove a fruitful departure. Even Eliot's The Waste Land, a collection of fragments, at times randomly collated, its elaborate spoof footnotes suggesting that meaning is not in the words themselves, but needs further decoding in order to be unlocked, was something of a dead end, an interesting culturohistorical document, like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, rather than powerful poetry – although its borrowings make it gleam in places like a magpie's nest.
In music and the visual arts the formal conventions embodied intuitive wisdom that could not be discarded without loss of meaning. However, the very stuff of language, unlike notes or colours in themselves, has meaning and intuitive power that is relatively resistant to the abandonment of conventions. This puts it in a special category. As a result, the era of modernism, starting in France in the mid-nineteenth century with figures such as Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and carried forward by later figures such as Ponge, and in the English-speaking world by such figures as Hardy, Frost, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Stevens, and latterly Larkin, has proved exceptionally rich, with powerful and original poetry, comparable with that of any age, being written not just by the great names, but by many lesser known figures who may not have established reputations, but who have written one or two truly great poems. This seems to me to apply more to the modern era than to any other in literary history. As Philip Larkin wrote in the preface to his superb Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, surely one of the most rewarding anthologies ever compiled, ‘Looking at what I have chosen, I see that it represents a much greater number of poets than are to be found in the volumes corresponding to this one for the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries.’ I take this to be a direct result of the relative freedom of modernism. Minor poets in a received style relatively rarely produce other than acceptable conventional poetry. Where intuition, however, is relatively untrammelled by such conventions, there may be much dross, but there will also often be sapphires to be found in the mud.
Finally it seems to me that one of the great achievements of modernism has been in cinema. Some of the same considerations apply here as apply in the case of poetry. The very stuff, the ‘vocabulary’, of visual imagery has meaning and intuitive power, and though there might be something called abstract art, an abstract film (Derek Jarman's Blue notwithstanding) is as unlikely a creation as an abstract poem. The contribution of modernism has been liberating here, too, unleashing intuition rather than, as I would claim of modernist art and music, starting out by declaring the means of intuitive expression out of bounds. And here, too, alongside the Tarkovskys, Polanskis and Paradzhanovs, the great poets of cinema (Tarkovsky being one of the few artists of whom one can genuinely use the term Shakespearean), there are many lesser figures who have produced great works.
With post-modernism, meaning drains away. Art becomes a game in which the emptiness of a wholly insubstantial world, in which there is nothing beyond the set of terms we have in vain used to ‘construct’ meaning, is allowed to speak for its own vacuity. The set of terms are now seen simply to refer to themselves. They have lost transparency; and all conditions that would yield meaning have been ironised out of existence.
Subjects with schizophrenia display what Sass describes as ‘a distinctive combination of superiority and impotence’.112 This, too, he sees as a characteristic of the modernist stance, but it is perhaps most evident in post-modernism. In post-modern literary criticism, the impotence is obvious: if reality is a construct without any objective existence, and if words have no referent, we are all absolutely impotent to say or do anything that has meaning, raising the question why the critic wrote in the first place. Why would any solipsist write? The attempt to convince another of one's point of view explodes the solipsist's position. Nonetheless an intrinsically superior attitude of the critic towards the authors that form his or her subject is evident. Where the author thought he was doing something important, even profound – was, in Wordsworth's phrase, ‘a man speaking to men’ – the critic can reveal that he was really playing a word game, the rules of which reflected socially constructed norms of which the author was unaware. The author becomes a sort of puppet, whose strings are pulled by social forces behind the scenes. He is ‘placed’. Meanwhile the work of art gets to be ‘decoded’, as if the value of the work lay in some message of which the author was once more unaware, but which we in our superiority can now reveal.
This coded-message model, which ‘has very much the status of an axiom in most versions of structuralism’,113 is the perfect expression of the left hemisphere trying to understand right-hemisphere language. Aware that there is more going on here than meets the eye, the left hemisphere sets about making things explicit, in an attempt to discover what it is; but meanwhile is not really aware of the ‘thisness’ of the work of art, in which the real ‘meaning’ lies, at all. Instead its supposed decoding is a demonstration of its own cleverness. But ‘literary value’, as Severin Schroeder writes, ‘cannot be reduced to the things that are described and the opinions that are conveyed; it is always a matter of how certain things are presented and expressed. And this How cannot be reduced to another What.’114 That How, the uniqueness of the work of art that is akin to the uniqueness of a person, is appreciable only by the right hemisphere.
The advice to a critic has to be that given to every doctor by Hippocrates: ‘above all, do no harm’. Be careful not to import something that will obscure the view; a patient, tactful approach to the otherness of the work, however, might yield a glimpse of something rare.
Separating words from their referents in the real world, as post-modernism does, turns everything into a nothing, life itself into a game. But the coupling of emotionally evocative material with a detached, ironic stance is in fact a power game, one that is being played out by the artist with his or her audience. It is not so much a matter of playfulness, with its misplaced suggestion of innocence, as a grim parody of play. It is familiar to psychiatrists because of the way that psychopaths use displays of lack of feeling – a jokey, gamesy, but chilling, indifference to subjects that spontaneously call forth strong human emotions – to gain control of others and make them feel vulnerable. So where, for example, performance artists display material that would normally call forth strong emotional reactions, and then undercut, or ironise it, this is a form of coercive self-aggrandisement. If others show their revulsion, their vulnerability is made obvious – they have been manipulated, and they appear naïve, at a disadvantage; if they do not, they have been forced to be untrue to their feelings and dissemble, like the playground victim that smiles timidly and fatuously at his tormentors, thus tacitly confirming the bully's power.
The trend in criticism towards a superiority born of the ability to read the code is perhaps first seen in the culture of psychoanalysis, which, writes Sass, claims to reveal ‘the all-too-worldly sources of our mystical, religious, or aesthetic leanings, and to give its initiates a sense of knowing superiority’.115 It is closely allied to all forms of reductionism. Reductionism, like disengagement, makes people feel powerful. When the eighteenth-century purveyors of phantasmagoria revealed the apparatus that had given rise to those spectacular effects, they were also revealed as the clever ones who know, and the audience were asked temporarily to enjoy the feeling of being in the presence of a greater intelligence. Their readiness to believe had made dupes of them. They had allowed themselves to be moved, where they should, if they had known, been serenely unmoved, permitting perhaps a knowing smile to play about their lips. It's hard not to feel that there is a degree of Schadenfreude about it, as in the older brother who tells his younger sister she is adopted; or the psychopath who manipulates people's feelings of compassion to rob them. Of course good psychoanalysis carefully eschews the superior position, but the point that it is built into the structure, and that one needs to be constantly vigilant not to succumb to it, remains valid.
The knowing superiority of reductionism is also clear in modern scientific discourse. Reductionism is an inescapable consequence of a purely left-hemisphere vision of the world, since the left hemisphere sees everything as made up from fundamental building blocks, the nature of which is assumed to be obvious, or at least knowable in principle in isolation from whatever it is they go to make up. Its model is simple, and it has ramified into popular culture, where it has been adopted unreflectively as the ‘philosophy’ of our age. Within that culture it has had a corrosive effect on higher values, inducing a sort of easy cynicism, and encouraging a mechanistic view of the human.
At the intellectual level it is brought into focus by the debate about the nature of consciousness. In a bold inversion, Nick Humphrey claims, in his book Seeing Red, that it is those who are sceptical of the idea that we can explain consciousness reductively who are really feeling smug and superior. Such scepticism ‘taps straight into people's sense of their own metaphysical importance’, he writes, and ‘allows people the satisfaction of being insiders with secret knowledge’.116 Those are hard claims to refute, and he might have a point. Equally some people might feel that the same charges could be levelled at those neuroscientists who believe in the power of their intellect to reveal the ‘true’ nature of consciousness, of which the rest of us remain ignorant.
When one comes to Humphrey's own explanation of consciousness, one is naturally curious to know what paraphernalia he is going to reveal behind the phantasmagoria. He claims two things. The first is in line with many other accounts of consciousness: that it is the consequence of re-entrant circuits in the brain, creating a ‘self-resonance’. Sensory responses, he writes, ‘get privatised’ and ‘eventually the whole process becomes closed off from the outside world in an internal loop within the brain … a feedback loop’.117 The perfect image of the hermetic world of the left hemisphere: consciousness is the projection of a representation of the world ‘outside’ onto the walls of that closed-off room. His particular contribution in this book, though, is to go further and imagine that a genetic development occurred whose ‘effect is to give the conscious Self just the extra twist that leads the human mind to form an exaggeratedly grandiose view of its own nature’. The self and its experience ‘becomes reorganized precisely so as to impress the subject with its out-of-this-world qualities’. If ‘those who fall for the illusion, tend to have longer and more productive lives’, then evolution has done its work. The sense we have of consciousness, then, as hard to get to the bottom of is just a ‘deliberate trick’ played by the ‘illusionist’ in our genes, to make us better at surviving.118
One could point out that, while this certainly might offer a sort of explanation of why consciousness, with its sense of something beyond our grasp (what Humphrey describes as its ‘out-of-this-world’ qualities), exists as it does, it gets no nearer to what, or what sort of a thing, it is, or how it comes about – thus tending to confirm the sceptic's view. But that is to set the bar rather high, since nobody has ever got near to explaining what consciousness is, despite references to re-entrant circuits, positive feedback, mental representations that are illusions, and gene wizardry. His attempt to discount our intuition that there might be something here that lies beyond what materialism alone can account for is definitely ingenious. As a strategy for accommodating a mind-boggling difficulty into the existing paradigm without having actually to alter the paradigm, it is in fact spectacular. In that respect, it reminds one of the explanation given by Philip Gosse, the Victorian father of marine biology and a biblical Fundamentalist, for the existence of fossils in rock dating back millions of years, long before, according to the Bible, living things had been created. They were, he said, suggestions of life that never really existed, put there by God to test our faith. As with Gosse's explanation, it's hard to know what sort of evidence might be allowed to count against Humphrey's belief, though similarly his account might give rise to some incredulity in more sceptical minds.
Some of those who are sceptical, but are cited by Humphrey as examples of the self-deluding conviction that consciousness takes quite some explaining, are the philosophers Stuart Sutherland (‘Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it’); Thomas Nagel (‘Certain forms of perplexity – for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life – seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to these problems’); Nakita Newton (‘Phenomenal consciousness itself is sui generis. Nothing else is like it in any way at all’); Jerry Fodor (‘Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious’); and Colin McGinn (‘Isn't it perfectly evident to you that … [the brain] is just the wrong kind of thing to give birth to [phenomenal consciousness]? You might as well assert that numbers emerge from biscuits or ethics from rhubarb.’)119 Although I do not completely agree with the last, I believe the fundamental point is valid. To these one could continue to add: I have cited Wittgenstein above, whose view is similar to Nagel's, but their position is really in a long line of what has conventionally been considered wise scepticism about the absolute power of human understanding, including Montaigne, the Buddha, Socrates and St Paul.120
The point here is that scientific materialism, despite its apparent opposition to the post-modernist stance, shows similar left-hemisphere origins. They share a sense of superiority, born of the conviction that others are taken in by illusions, to which those in the know have the explanation. It is there, beautifully revealed in that impotent, self-enclosed, boot-strapping circuitry, ‘the whole process … closed off from the outside world in an internal loop within the brain’. It is an example of positive feedback, and it is just this that the left hemisphere, being cut off from reality, its self-reflections reverberating endlessly round its mirrored walls, exemplifies. The structure of scientific realism, like post-modernism, reflects its left-hemisphere origins.
Some aspects of the post-modern condition, it may be objected, surely have an affinity with the workings of the right hemisphere. In stark contrast to the Enlightenment, it could be said that our own age lacks conviction and embraces whatever is unclear, indeterminate, fluid and unresolved. If the Enlightenment demonstrated its reliance on left-hemisphere modes of being by its optimism and certainty, its drive towards clarity, fixity and finality, why do I claim that post-modernism is also an expression of left-hemisphere functioning?
The difference depends on the level of consciousness. In the Enlightenment, although the process of alienation of the observing subject was well under way, there was as yet little doubt that there existed a world for it to observe. Its construction of the world as clear, orderly, fixed, certain and knowable, was inevitably a simulacrum substituted for the ever-changing and evolving, never graspable actuality of experience, but it was nonetheless taken for a reality – as though the frescoes on the wall of an eighteenth-century dining room were taken for the world outside.
A couple of hundred years and another level of self-consciousness later, the observing subject is not just aware, but aware of its own awareness. It is no longer an option to ignore the fact that all cannot be made to agree, that all is not fixed, certain and knowable, and that all is not necessarily going to end up being redeemed by human control. The post-modern revolt against the silent, static, contrived, lifeless world displayed in the fresco on the wall is not because of its artificiality – the fact that it is untrue to the living world outside – but because of its ‘pretence’ that there exists a world outside to be true to. The contrast is not between the fixity of the artificial and the fluidity of the real, but between the fixity and the chaos of two kinds of artificiality.
Post-modern indeterminacy affirms not that there is a reality, towards which we must carefully, tentatively, patiently struggle; it does not posit a truth which is nonetheless real because it defies the determinacy imposed on it by the self-conscious left-hemisphere interpreter (and the only structures available to it). On the contrary, it affirms that there is no reality, no truth to interpret or determine. The contrast here is like the difference between the ‘unknowing’ of a believer and the ‘unknowing’ of an atheist. Both believer and atheist may quite coherently hold the position that any assertion about God will be untrue; but their reasons are diametrically opposed. The difference is not in what is said, but in the disposition each holds toward the world. The right hemisphere's disposition is tentative, always reaching painfully (with ‘care’) towards something which it knows is beyond itself. It tries to open itself (not to say ‘no’) to something that language can allow only by subterfuge, to something that reason can reach only in transcending itself; not, be it noted, by the abandonment of language and reason, but rather through and beyond them. This is why the left hemisphere is not its enemy, but its valued emissary. Once, however, the left hemisphere is convinced of its own importance, it no longer ‘cares'; instead it revels in its own freedom from constraint, in what might be called, in a phrase of Robert Graves's, the ‘ecstasy of chaos’.121 One says ‘I do not know,’ the other ‘I know – that there is nothing to know.’ One believes that one cannot know: the other ‘knows’ that one cannot believe.