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Neurobiology and the literary imagination

This has been amply covered by the New York Times and Mind Hacks, but it fits so nicely into the interests of many of our contributors and readers, that I couldn’t resist mentioning it here: in the latest issue of n_1, Marco Roth has an excellent essay on “The Rise of the Neuronovel.”  In it he traces how–since the mid-1990s–novelists have increasingly drawn upon neurobiological explanations of human behavior in lieu of older psychological ideas about consciousness and work of the mind.  Following the rise of the neuronovel from Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, published in 1997, to last year’s Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen, Roth’s argument seems to dovetail broadly with one made by Nikolas Rose over recent years: neurobiology is increasingly playing a role in popular culture previously played by psychoanalysis–the pool of knowledge which underpins our basic, taken-for-granted assumptions about the self.  However, unlike Rose, Roth views these new assumptions as basically reductionistic and ultimately comes to a very negative conclusion about the neuronovel:

“By comparison with most 19th-century novels, and even with most 20th-century modernist novels of the “stream of consciousness” school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations. Iris Murdoch (whose fate it was to become better known, through her husband’s memoirs, as an Alzheimer’s patient than as a novelist) observed that the 20th-century novel had lost both religion and society. A mid-century novelist who wanted to write about society had first to take pains to reconstruct it, to research something that to George Eliot or Dickens had been more or less spontaneously available. And the 20th-century decline of religion meant a common moral frame of reference couldn’t be taken for granted either. So postwar writers as different as Nabokov and Sarraute and Bellow were thrown back on themselves. But at least they retained that subject matter: the personal, the self. It now seems we’ve gone beyond the loss of society and religion to the loss of the self, an object whose intricacies can only be described by future science. It’s not, of course, that morality, society, and selfhood no longer exist, but they are now the property of specialists writing in the idioms of their disciplines. So the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview, (Roth 2009).”

Marco Roth, “The Rise of the Neuronovel.” n + 1, issue 8.


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