Podcast • July 16, 2013

Gerald Shea’s Song Without Words

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means ...

I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been — if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communication between souls.

Marcel, enthralled by the chamber music, appalled at the intermission chatter, in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: The Captive, the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, page 260 in Volume III of the Vintage edition, 1982.

Gerald Shea’s exquisite and affecting memoir of his deafness could be read as an extended riff on Proust’s fantasy. About halfway through his 70 years, Gerry Shea realized that he was severely deaf — that he’d been coping somehow, at a price, with an affliction he refused to notice. What he learned in stages was to observe how his brain works — how poetry and music, sign and spoken language and the “commerce of souls” actually work, perhaps for all of us. Shea is a word-master in his own right who comes almost to prefer the pure song — in the tradition of Mendelsohn, too, who wrote the little piano gems Songs Without Words and refused lyrics for them. But Gerry Shea got there the hard way — as a lawyer, not a musician.

Through the first half of his 70-years, Gerry Shea misheard almost everything. Example: the opening line of the Frank Loesser song, “I Believe in You,” came through as “You are the tear two ties of a keeper of incoming loot” — not “You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,” as writ. At Yale young Shea was a singing star but he didn’t belong in class. He took the star history lecturer Charles Garside to be saying that the emperor Charles V “indebited the minstrel stills of this automatic million,” when the professor was saying: “Charles inherited the administrative skills of his grandfather Maximilian…”

On such Jabberwocky in ears he didn’t know had been damaged by scarlet fever at age 5, Shea went from Yale to Columbia Law and then to a big job with the international firm of Debevoise Plimpton. He had mastered lip-reading and his own mode of translating the garbled nonsense in his ears — his “lyricals,” as he called them. But how in the world, you ask, did he avoid having his ears tested for all those years? The deeper riddle in our conversation is: why? And why, when severe deafness finally showed up unmistakably on a job test, he waited a year even to consider hearing aids or any other help. This is the point where the story became, for me, a heart-seizing meditation on afflictions imagined and denied, on identities chosen and clung to — stubbornly and with some cruel effects; and then the joy of letting go.

For me it was always a spiritual or perhaps intellectual problem. I thought everybody else heard what I heard, but that they could translate it and I couldn’t. At Yale, I felt in many ways, academically anyway, I probably didn’t belong there… I did live in a way in my own world of poetry. Lyricals are really an unconscious poetry. It was the life probably that I did love. Even though the problem of misunderstanding was there, I loved my universe and I still do… As soon as somebody tried to approach my private world of lyricals, I really didn’t want to let them in… I think probably because of insecurity, because of fear. Because of my knowledge of myself as perhaps an incomplete human being. Perhaps as someone who was at home with his own internal poetry. It was simply a world that I wanted to keep to myself. I was different from other people, and I was going to live that way and stay that way — except in the law, because I had somehow to earn my bread.

Relief came when hearing aids were virtually forced on him at age 35. The reward was hearing the rest of his music; the flutes, violins and piccolos; the wind in his willows, so to speak, with all due credit to the author Kenneth Grahame.

When I finally got the hearing aids and I realized that the external world was making a lot more sound than I’d heard, it brought me to tears. The first time I wore my glasses with hearing aids in them… suddenly out in that field I felt as if I was not alone and I heard the sound of crickets coming from every direction. It was a beautiful, beautiful sound I hadn’t heard since I was a child, a further awakening to me as to who I was and the world I was really living in. ‘There it is again,’ as Rat says to Mole in The Wind in the Willows. ‘O, Mole, the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet!’ That thin clear call has really become the heart of my life. That’s what Mendelson was talking about, the definite message of music that carries you with it. The most beautiful part of my life, clearly, is music… The heart of my life. Maybe it always was.

Gerald Shea in conversation with Chris Lydon in Marblehead, Massachusetts, July 2013.

Podcast • April 21, 2011

Arnold Weinstein: The Dimensionality of Reading

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3) [Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine] Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

[Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine]

Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Benito Cereno is the story of a Spanish captain and his cargo of enslaved Africans who rebel and depose him.  In  Weinstein’s telling, it is a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.

It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.

I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.

I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.

Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.

Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.

He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”

Podcast • March 31, 2011

André Aciman: “The rest is just prose…”

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day ...

Art takes the ordinary, the absolutely ordinary day-to-day humdrum stuff, the stuff we ignore, and it magnifies it and keeps magnifying it until it becomes big enough for you to see finally what your day was like… My father taught me that the most important things in life are the small ones, and it’s important to observe them with fussiness, and that’s what I devote my life to… This is why I love French literature. You don’t need an Atlantic Ocean, you don’t need Moby Dick, you don’t need whales. You need a small room — basically two individuals sitting in one room with the impossibility of going for sex. That’s not part of the formula; it will come, but not right now, says the script. … Proust is a master of this, of putting individuals together. Or remove one individual and you have one individual by himself, thinking about experience and trying to be as honest as he can with himself and therefore with the reader about the things that crossed his mind and how he dealt with them, and how he thinks experience works … The rest is just, as I like to say, “just prose”. And we have a lot of masters of “just prose” living today.

André Aciman with Chris Lydon in NYC, March 24, 2011.


André Aciman is best known as a devoté of Marcel Proust. He’s not well-enough known, I’d say, for a new novel, Eight White Nights, a beautifully blocked romance that begins and ends in the snow, like James Joyce’s masterpiece story, “The Dead,” and owes still more perhaps to Dostoevsky’s heart-crushing tale of another anonymous lover’s woe, “White Nights.” Eight White Nights is the interior record of an “asymptotic” affair — between lovers who, like the line on the graph, get ever closer to committed intimacy but never reach it. It could remind you also of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” though it turns out that André Aciman scorns Henry James for “gutlessness” — that bogus old charge, in my view. But no matter. André Aciman sets himself where he belongs, in the classical tradition of imaginative writers about our inward and invisible lives.

He has generously, candidly admitted us into the workshop of his meticulous craft — the place where he dresses and undresses, teases and assaults his characters, and gives them better lines than people give him. His own unguarded lines in conversation run to the cantankerous and caustic. Who else out there honors the master tradition. “No one!” What gets a writer over the threshhold? “Style,” he says. “Content is over-rated.” When people ask how he could set a novel — to wit: Eight White Nights — in New York with nary a mention of 9.11, his answer is “the here-and-now, portrayed as the here-and-now, is insignificant.”

Born himself into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria in 1951, Aciman is original, cosmopolitan and extravagant about the writers who have inspired or taught him: among them E. M. Forster, W. G. Sebald, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Marguerite Yourcenar and on a pinnacle strangely higher even than Proust: Thucydides. And still, fair warning, our conversation keeps returning to Proust. It was his father, a writer manqué, who told him to read Proust for “the long sentence that keeps you waiting… It took me years to realize what that meant, to understand the abeyance that is being built in, that courts the reader into holding his breath and waiting and waiting and staying under water and not feeling that you’re going to drown. That takes time.”

Podcast • May 25, 2010

Damion Searls: A Thoreau Journal for Writers & Moderns

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Damion Searls (48 min, 23 mb mp3) Damion Searls has found and freed the lean, shapely and modern American classic inside the very definition of a “baggy monster.” ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Damion Searls (48 min, 23 mb mp3)

Damion Searls has found and freed the lean, shapely and modern American classic inside the very definition of a “baggy monster.” Henry David Thoreau’s 25-year Journal ran to more than 7000 manuscript pages and 2-million words, roughly double the heft of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Searls’ flash insight was that Thoreau had not been keeping a diary or a notebook of gems for reuse. No, the Journal (singular) was a single project of observation, introspection and above all, composition. Writing faithfully, often 15 pages a day, the Journal was Thoreau’s steadiest employment. As his Week on the Concord and the Merrimack with his brother John was the chronicle of 7 days and Walden was supposed to be the account of a year, the Journal was the undertaking and may indeed be the masterpiece of a lifetime.

In conversation, Searls ventures that one way to see Thoreau right is to acknowledge Marcel Proust and Rainer Maria Rilke as his artistic successors — and to see Thoreau’s Cabin at Walden Pond (circa 1847) in Concord, Massachusetts and Proust’s cork-lined studio in Paris (circa 1910) as a matched pair of iconic writing rooms:

Proust himself was a disciple of Emerson’s; his first book is dotted with Emerson epigraphs all over the place. And it’s kind of staggering to think about, but at one time he had planned to translate Walden into French. Wouldn’t that have been something? When he read excerpts of Walden in another translation, he praised them in a letter to his friend by saying, “It is as though one were reading them inside oneself, so much do they rise from the depths of our intimate experience.” And that’s such a great Proustian bit of praise. That’s what Proust is always looking for. I think of Proust’s cork-lined room and Thoreau’s cabin in Walden as the two iconic places where a writer burrowed into himself in solitude and got to a place that spoke incredibly intimately to his readers. That’s the kind of Emerson project of becoming self-reliant, and that’s when you become universal. And Thoreau and Proust—which is a strange combination, but I think it’s really right, I mean Remembrance of Things Past is one of the only books almost as long as Thoreau’s journal—but they’re the ones who really did it.

And then Rilke is such an aesthete, but it’s kind of remarkable how many of these Thoreau journals end up sounding like Rilke poems in prose, or vice versa. So I think that in terms of the generational stuff it took a while. Thoreau was seen as this kind of crusty Yankee, and then he was seen as this civil disobedience hero and this environmental prophet, all of which are true. There’s a book called Senses of Walden by the great philosopher Stanley Cavell in the early 70s that started to really read Thoreau’s writing as this very dense literary, connective, pun-filled, textured thing of greatness that it is. And so I think it’s only been recently in the 70s and 80s and 90s that people have paid as much attention to Thoreau’s prose as I think it deserves.

Damion Searls with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 21, 2010.

This Journal is Thoreau entire: the Concord chauvinist who was also a cranky neighbor. At 5′ 7″ and 127 pounds, Thoreau was a compact featherweight, firm of build, grave of aspect with icy blue “terrible” eyes, Emerson said, that bristled with integrity and something like rebellion. A Tea Party edge, in today’s politics. Thoreau had “this maggot of Freedom and Humanity in his brain,” Emerson decided. He was “rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition.” Thoreau repaid a debt to Emerson (14 years his elder) in the Journal‘s first words: “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked, ‘Do you keep a journal?’ — So I make my first entry to-day.”  Later the tensions with Emerson are etched in Thoreau’s mild acid: “Emerson is too grand for me,” says the “commoner” before “nobility.” Their mutual friend Bronson Alcott had come to hang out with Thoreau a day after visiting with Emerson. Thoreau noted: “… he had got his wine, and now he had come after his venison. Such was the compliment he paid me.”

We are talking about Thoreau’s incomparable eye on lichen, on the wild-blossoming “blue-eyed grass,” and the color of everything — the man who became the fish and frogs that he, still and cool, kept watching: “I fancy I am amphibious and swim in all the brooks and pools in the neighborhood, with the perch and the bream…” Also the Abolitionist, who breaks out in the Journal as a radical Christian in the slavery fight with a “government that pretends to be Christian and crucifies a million Christs every day!” Thoreau, friend and backer of the incendiary John Brown, can make Rand Paul and the Tea Baggers of our day sound wimpy: “I do not vote at the polls,” Thoreau writes in the Journal. “I wish to record my vote here.” Of the Fugitive Slave Act, which brought the bloodhounds to Boston, Thoreau bellows in the Journal: “Why the United States Government never performed an act of justice in its life!”

And still Damion Searls‘ fascination in editing and abridging the Journal is Thoreau the Writer — the high-flying poet whose imagination saw that “The bluebird carries the sky on his back;” the man who, anticipating David Shields, wanted to keep breaking form in imitation of nature: “In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us… It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us.” We are speaking of Thoreau’s case for calluses on writers: “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style.” And of a professional with a code: “The best you can write will be the best you are.”

Damion Searls is an exemplar of what Thoreau called “the rising generation.” He may be the busiest thirty-something in the writing game with four projects coming to flower this year: Thoreau’s Journal; a translation and selection of Rilke: The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams; a book called On Reading by Proust; and his own story collection of contemporary fictions, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, in shapes borrowed from masters like Nabokov and Hawthorne. In conversation Searls suggests we think of Thoreau, Rilke and Proust as a trio. Add young Searls, and it’s a quartet.

Podcast • April 9, 2010

David Shields: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach
David Shields practices what he preaches. Aphorisms in the Nietzsche manner are the coin of the literary realm that surfaces in his manifesto, Reality Hunger. In conversation, aphorisms seem to come as naturally to David Shields as fugues came to J. S. Bach:

So much of the gesture of my book is about rescuing nonfiction as art.

Why can Finnegans Wake be a tissue of citations and quotations without reference? Why can so many poems — whether it’s “Paradise Lost” or “The Wasteland” — be tissues of citation? James Joyce famously said, “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.” The 1812 Overture has buried within it the French national anthem. Writers, composers and visual artists from the beginning of time have endlessly appropriated each other’s work. It’s only now in our extraordinarily literal-minded and litigious society that we absurdly have the lawyers telling the artists what they can’t create.

Two of my bêtes noirs are Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen. I use them because they’re relatively easy and large targets. You know, they’re both highly praised and commercially successful writers whose work bores me beyond tears. They’re antiquarians to me. They’re entertaining the troops as the ship goes down. They’re just utterly devoted to a 1910 version of the novel, pre-James Joyce essentially. To me it’s pure nostalgia that people find such works of interest. It’s essentially an escape from the thrillingly vertiginous nature of contemporary existence to retire and retreat into the cocoon of the well-made novel.

It seems to me obvious that in 20 years or less there will not be publishers. It’s hard to believe there will be these brick-and-mortar buildings, and someone will take a book, publish it, send it to a warehouse New Jersey and then to Denver on the off chance that a Denver bookstore wants three copies and when no one wants it, will mail those books back to New Jersey. It’s just a completely irrelevant model.

Somehow the remix is what we want. There’s a wonderful line in my book by Adam Gopnik where he talks about something that is really a beautiful statement of the kind of art that we’re talking about. And Gopnik says, “It may be that nowadays in order to move us, abstract pictures need, if not humor, then at least some admission of their own absurdity, expressed in genuine awkwardness or in an authentic disorder.” Gee, those are marching orders for me.

After writing Moby-Dick Melville wrote to Hawthorne and said, “I wrote a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” That should be the goal of every writer.

Nietzsche said, “I want to write in ten sentences what everyone says in a book, or rather, what everyone else doesn’t say in a whole book.”

There’s something about the very nature of compression and concision that forces a kind of raw candor. So I would say Nietzsche, Pascal, Rochefoucauld, Sterne, and Melville are giants to me. And you could see them as in a way — and this’ll sound absurd — but they’re kind of bloggers, you know? They’re writing down stuff.

We’re here on the planet. Let’s try to figure out a little about our existence. I’m going to tell you how I solve being alive right now. So listen up.

I have no consoling religions, no consoling god. We are existentially alone on the planet. We can’t know what each other is thinking and feeling. I want art that builds a bridge across that abyss.

Walter Benjamin says all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. That is tattooed to my forehead.

What I love about [my students] is their impatience, their Attention Deficit Disorder, their hunger, their weariness with formula, their desire to have voice just command them, and how little the Dickensian model holds for 2010.

We’ll all be dead in 50 years, perhaps less. Here’s our chance to communicate with each other. Bring the pain.

David Shields in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, March 17, 2010.

David Shields is a name-dropper, too, who incites name-dropping in others. In an hour’s conversation, we referred to these, among others, in alphabetical order:

Theodore Adorno


St. Augustine

Nicholson Baker

Walter Benjamin

Anne Carson

DJ Dangermouse

Larry David

Don Delillo

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anatole France

Jonathan Franzen

Amy Fusselman

William Gibson

Jesse Helms


Dennis Johnson

Michiko Kakutani

Wayne Koestenbaum

Jaron Lanier

Maya Lin

Robert Mapplethorpe

David Markson

Ian McEwan

Herman Melville

Michel de Montaigne

Vladimir Nabokov


George Orwell

Orhan Pamuk

Blaise Pascal

Marcel Proust

François de La Rochefoucauld

Chris Rock

Philip Roth

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Vincent Scully

William Shakespeare

Tristram Shandy

Sarah Silverman

Zadie Smith

Laurence Sterne

Alexander Theroux

Leo Tolstoy

John Updike

David Foster Wallace

Podcast • December 3, 2009

Whose Words These Are (17): Henri Cole

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got his Southern speech and, in what sounds like sadness and irony, “a knack for solitude.” Poetry was the place where as a young gay man he worked through yearning and anger to astringency and order. French, Armenian and English were the languages of his home growing up in Virginia in the sixties and seventies. “And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken,” he has written, “heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.” On publication of The Visible Man in 2005, Harold Bloom pronounced Henri Cole “a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane is beautifully extended … Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true aesthetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man.”

I was an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I was reading the novels that we all read — Woolf, James, Conrad. These are novelists who, you might say they’re novelists of the interior – and that kind of transcript of the interior life in the novel somehow got me interested in how some version of that is achieved in a concentrated way in poetry. I grew up in a military and Catholic household, so I was used to rigid structure and passion you might say, the passion of the mass and the structure of conforming military uniforms. My brothers were jocks and I didn’t really have a way to be myself, I guess I was probably looking for a way to be a man or masculine in some different way, and somehow poetry entered my life and it gave me a way to have a conversation. It made me sociable, I wasn’t very sociable — I was a pretty shy undergraduate so it made me sociable…

In Boston, now his home base, Henri Cole is reading to us mostly from his latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). Listen to his “Dune” and consider Colm Toibin’s observation that “The self in his work is explored as a diver might explore the ocean bed, it is ready to be surprised, frightened, puzzled, while the world above the water is noted with something close to calm and half-remembered acceptance. Cole’s poems at times display an amazing eloquence and command of form, but they are usually also impelled by sorrow, by dark knowledge, by pleasure, by the body and its discontents, and by history and what it has left us. It is not surprising that he has invoked the language of prayer as being an early influence.”

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: Who is your favorite all-time fictional character?

A: I remember reading a French novel called The Wanderer when I was a young man, by Alain Fournier. I don’t remember the character’s name, but let’s just call him the Wanderer.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a poem?

A: Two qualities: there has to be a commitment to emotional truth, and there has to be a little concerto of consonants and vowels.

Q: What is your idea of a perfect poem?

A: Almost every poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s. James Merrill has a poem called “The Broken Home” that I love. In the Merrill poems, the thing I like so much is the combination of a high register of speech with total colloquial moments – I like that the poem has a range that can go from very high to very demotic in a few short lines.

Q: Who do you write for?

A: I don’t think too much about it. I am more committed to the truth and sound thing. If you think about too many people in your head, that’s like having a bunch of guns pointed at you, and that will censor you I think. When I write a poem, I hope to be in conversation with Merrill, who hopes to be in conversation with Cavafy or Whitman, and it goes back and back to Horace. But I guess I am also aware of the need to push all of that out of my head and just write the poem that I want to write.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other media? Who is doing the work of Henri Cole’s spirit in a different way?

A: I am probably most nurtured by visual art. I love Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Alice Neel. I’ve collaborated with two great visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. Visual artists tend to be freer than writers are. Writers seem to have more boundaries – maybe it’s because making art is more physical, but they just seem freer. Also in relation to public events, speaking to the moment in history.

Q: What is the talent that you would most love to have, that you don’t yet?

A: I would love to be able to fly. I would love to be able to sing and fly like a bird. That would be fantastic.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Alone, in a way that is not painful for anybody that loves me.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Empathy.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I like Henry James’s motto. “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

Henri Cole with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.

Podcast • February 24, 2009

Jonah Lehrer: Brain Science for the Rest of Us

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jonah Lehrer. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3) Jonah Lehrer The joy of reading Jonah Lehrer is that he’s scientist enough to navigate oceans of brain-science lab reports. He ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jonah Lehrer. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

The joy of reading Jonah Lehrer is that he’s scientist enough to navigate oceans of brain-science lab reports. He knows the neural pathways where Blink meets Nudge. But he’s literature bug and humanist enough to remember that the proper study of man, as Alexander Pope had it, is you and me, the whole of Us.

Lehrer’s first triumph, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, made the case for art in an age of science. On the mystery of consciousness, he wrote: “It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

His new book How We Decide, which reads like a sequel, is a set of cautionary tales about the limits of the rational brain, that peculiarly human pre-frontal cortex, and by implication the limits of rational science. It is not reason — certainly not reason alone — that tells quarterback Tom Brady which receiver should get the pass, or that tells the pilot of a disabled plane how to land it. It’s not even reason that brings the best of our human gifts into balance. Lehrer quotes G. K. Chesterton: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Jonah Lehrer identifies himself with the modern doctor who tells you not to choose the MRI for your lower back pain but to study patience, or perhaps Yoga, instead. Not only have MRIs not solved the problem of back pain. “In fact, the new technology has probably made the problem worse. The machine simply sees too much. Doctors are overwhelmed with information and struggle to distinguish the significant from the irrelevant… This is the danger of too much information: it can actually interfere with understanding.”

Most of us read too little or too much about the booming brain sciences. If you’re going to sit down and talk with just one enthusiast who’s wise beyond his years, I’d make it Jonah Lehrer:

The body that knows better than the brain

One of the great themes of modern neuroscience is that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; that the brain knows much more than we know; that we’re always taking in all this information which allows us to swing at fastballs and find the open man in three and a half seconds before we’re sacked, and choose which cereal to buy in the supermarket. All of our decisions are shaped by these emotional signals, which is why when we get cut off from these emotional signals people become pathologically indecisive. That said, one of the other great themes of decision-making sciences in the last couple of decades – going back to Kahnemann and Tversky and lots of recent work in neuro-economics – is that as wise as the emotional brain is, as profoundy intuitive as it can be, the fact that it knows more than we know, it can also be incredibly dumb, incredibly idiotic; and it’s all about the situation. You can put the same brain mechanism which can be so wise on the football field and all of a sudden you have it pick stocks, or figure out which mortgage to get, and it could make the worst decision possible. So one of the things I tried to do in this book was construct a model of decision-making that wasn’t all about: We should always blink and trust our gut – or always be rational like homo economicus. But to say: the way you make decisions should depend on the kind of decision you’re making. That you have to begin with the situation, diagnose the situation, be pragmatic about it. And then work backwards from that and try to tailor your thought process, which we’re capable of doing, to the situation at hand.

Jonah Lehrer with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 23, 2009

There are surprising connections here to the Adam Smith you never knew, to 2/28 mortgages, to the war in Afghanistan, to William and Henry James, the folly of credit cards and the novelists Ian McEwen and Richard Powers. Listen to all of it, please, and leave a comment here.