Michelle Vacchio

  • Marco Roth is an idiot.

    At the very least, he’s severely mistaken.

    It’s impossible (for me) to read things like:

    “Is the interest in neurological anomaly not symptomatic of an anxiety about the role of nov […]

    • I felt a similar twinge of discomfort while reading this, unsure if Roth found non-neurotypical characters to be undeserving of any significant role, much less protagonist, in fiction. In his discussion of them, he dances around any notion that there is value in those people’s perceptions and experiences. He has a callous manner of referring to them, as though their inclusion is a nuisance.

      However, I wasn’t willing to believe that his problem was simply the inclusion of these types of characters. The crux of his issue seems to be the dilution and sterilization of the human experience. Roth has a spiritual reverence for the power of words — he sees them as an expression of the transcendental experiences in life, when we are at the height of subjective experience. The stuff poetry’s made of.

      His main lament is that authors of neuronovels use their character’s mental issue as scientific reasoning for lyrical and evocative expression:

      An addict of facts, Joe provides an alibi for McEwan’s moments of lyricism—“The silence appeared so rich as to have a visual quality, a sparkle or hard gloss, and a
      thickness too, like fresh paint”—and can also comment, in the next sentence, “This synesthesia must have been due to my disorientation.”

      He also takes issue with these novels serving as metaphors for human condition, since their predication on neuroscience and boiling behavior down to purely material explanation creates a paradox.

      Even as it relies on something like a readerly meaning impulse—we want to be able to generalize or approximate or metaphorize the rare neurological condition into some kind of experience compatible with our own—it also baffles and frustrates the same impulse. Any possibility of the necessary interpretive leap is disavowed by the pathological premise of the novel itself. By turning so aggressively inward, to an almost cellular level, this kind of novel bypasses the self, let alone society, or history, to arrive at neurology: privacy without individuality. And the deep logic of the story is likewise not one of irony or fate or comeuppance, but simple contingency; the etiology of a neurological condition is biological, not moral. And mere biological contingency has a way of repelling meaning.

      According to Roth, the depiction of a non-neurotypical character’s subjective experience that is informed by the latest research in neuroscience is necessarily devoid of humanity, a dry tale of biological determinism in which the character’s every move is governed by a primordial survival impulse.

      I looked up more of what Roth had to say on the matter, and found this rebuttal from Jonah Lehrer, which includes a counter from Roth himself. http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/10/29/the-neuronovel/#comment-2042260

      At the end of Roth’s comment, he quotes a passage by D.H. Lawrence that describes a woman caught in a whirlwind of love/lust. It’s a lush and poetic passage that has lines like: “Then again, when he raised his head and found her mouth, his lips filled her with a hot flush like wine, a sweet, flaming flush of her whole body, most exquisite, as if she were nothing but a soft rosy flame of fire against him for a moment or two.”

      To Roth, the neuronovel would explain that language with a clinical term like “synesthesia.” According to Roth, that robs us of what “used to be the property of all of us, e.g. that transcendental feeling that Lawrence’s woman in love experiences, and fashion it into something that must be given a medically certifiable excuse for showing up in a novel.” (That quote is from the link, not the reading.)

      I appreciate Roth’s point of view and his artistic sensibilities. But while there are many bits and pieces of what he says that resonate with me, I find his thesis, on the whole, problematic.

      Roth thinks there is an epidemic of neuronovels that reduce the enigmatic sublimity of the human experience to a neurological determinism. These novels have lost the “self” — they render the individual and impersonal puppet of science. Roth’s evidence for this is the novelists’ need to justify lyrical expression with clinical explanation, as well as the necessarily scientific explanation for any aspect of the character’s experience.

      To Roth, the fact that the Capgras sufferer only mistakes his wife for an imposter due to a neurological condition renders any larger metaphor null and void. Why? Because “mere biological contingency has a way of repelling meaning.”

      The experience of reading a novel where the character’s neurological condition is an explicit and fundamental element of the story puts character’s distinctness at the forefront of Roth’s mind, and for some reason completely renders them a flesh machine governed only by scientific facts. The narrative is, due to what I expect is careful research on the part of the author, constructed in a way that emphasizes its difference from neurotypical consciousness. Perhaps authors haven’t quite figured out a way to write from someone like this without making it feel wooden or robotic, but Roth does not seem to even acknowledge this possibility. He writes as though writing from the perspective of anyone that’s not neurotypical is a grave affront to the collective artistic soul of humanity. The man is a little dramatic.

      In his comment on Jonah Lehreh’s rebuttal, he says: “The contemporary fiction writer cannot write lyrically except in the character of a person with a disorder. You don’t find this a problem?”

      Is this a thing? If it is, if it is actually true that current fiction writers adhere to dry, strictly materialist renderings of the world, and must resort to writing from the perspective of autistic schizophrenics just to spice up their prose, then I’m more inclined to agree with him. And I’m sure it’s a real thing with certain authors. But he doesn’t acknowledge that the lyricism of the disordered person is not necessarily antithetical to the wonder of human experience just because we know its correlative brain functions. In doing so, he’s guilty of the same reductivism that he is criticizing these authors for.

    • also, pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps Roth is of the general opinion that materialism is a reductive ethos that robs us what it means to be human: the unpredictability of human behavior. The idea that our behavior is purely the result of cellular interactions seems to be anathema to Roth. The rise of the neuronovel and the need for neuroscientific research in order to accurately depict the behavior of a character is probably symptomatic of this larger problem to Roth.

      Again, I’m sympathetic to Roth’s sensibilities. I’m all about the numinous nature of life and the poetry in motion of interpersonal dynamics and human relationships. But instead of attacking the neuronovel as a concept, instead of being wholly negative and critical, why not examine the genre’s potential for exploring what it means to be human in a novel and unique way? Why act like non-neurotypical people are the ultimate party poopers of literary expression?

  • It’s very interesting that Atwood made those connections between Echo Maker and Wizard of Oz. It’s not something I noticed. Was it intentional, I wonder? Certainly, the humming of the music makes a strong case for its intentionality, but I wonder if it was (pardon the term) unconscious on Powers’ part. I think it’s safe to assume it was…[Read more]

  • I’m about to go off on a tangent, but I’m really fascinated by the fact that you found yourself thinking in a fashion similar to the writing, Darby. Something I’ve noticed about myself is that after I read certain authors, my writing style will change to mimic that author’s style. I distinctly remember reading “A Farewell to Arms” and being struck…[Read more]

  • According to Wikipedia, the term “unreliable narrator” was first coined in 1961 by the literary critic Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one example of an un […]

    • Oh, wow. That was a lot. I completely understand where you are coming from with your if-then theories. Over the weekend I watched James Whale’s 1931 Universal version of Frankenstein and I similarly pondered the choices made on behalf of the director and writers. What I didn’t recognize until your post was that Walton was all together absent from this glorified fanfic. The notes that you cite on page 151 are completely removed. In fact, Victor isn’t even the scientist we are supposed to care about; Henry Frankenstein is best friends with somebody named Victor Moritz. It was trying, especially after reading the novel so recently. I suppose that these are just interpretive decisions that then enter the book and movie into the Adaptation debate, but then my question is: are we to read the work itself as an exercise in adaptation? You are right it has been filtered through the quite honestly questionable Victor and the notes of Walton, whose letters are written for his sister, through the author. Point of view (and reliability) come to center focus, but what can be found in those moments of narrative confusion?

    • I love the questions you posed, Michelle, and they definitely made me reconsider several aspects of my readings of the book. I particularly want to focus on the third paragraph you wrote. You said that we are given little reason to question the authority of the narrative but here is where I disagree. If anything, I believe that that is a moment in which we should question the narrative’s authority. The story had been “augmented,” edited, and various interpretations of what actually took place was inserted. And, of course, you have to wonder what people were conscious of when something happened for them to be aware of it and therefore include it in their notes. It’s just something to think about and after being in this course, it’s an angle I try to focus on.

  • One the failings of autobiography is that we only get one side of the story. I felt that the Beauchard’s were very supportive of Jean-Christophe. They visited so many different “gurus” and tried so many different ways of combating his epilepsy that in the end, he just came off as ungrateful and self-pitying. His family tried so hard to help him,…[Read more]

  • I will admit that I am not particularly drawn in by graphic novels/comics/etc. (as I mentioned in class, sometimes I find myself zooming through the text without looking at the art), but there is something about graphic autobiographies/memoirs that I find compelling. I felt the same way when I read Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” While sometimes I…[Read more]

  • One thing that struck me about The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey is how it shows that we always want what we cannot or do not have. Albert desires to be a man of the hours; he wants to have knowledge of his […]

    • Your post raises an interesting point. Time, the perception of time, and then the lack of the capacity to regard time, is a thread that runs throughout Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away. I also wondered about its significance as I was reading.

      For years Albert could not tether himself to time. Slowly, he starts rebuilding the “fragile thread” of past and present when he arrives at the asylum (160); eventually, he begins recalling various hidden memories from his forgotten past. In the act of remembering, Albert, with the help of the Doctor, is creating the story of himself.

      The story is, in a way, supposed to ground Albert, to help him see that he is here. It is this aspect of the novel that speaks to the need for memories (for the story of I) to firmly bind us to time.

      “Here, Albert, a story just for you,” thinks the Doctor at the novel’s close (231).

    • While I was reading The Man Who Walked Away, I was struck not only by the relationship between Albert’s fugue states and time, but also how time informed Casey’s language choices. The repetition of certain phrases-“Listen,” “Shh, Albert, shh,” Ring (Shadow ring), “And? So?”- and a host of praise adjectives keep rhythm and time. In some instances they seem compulsory in others prompting, like the second hand on a clock. To borrow Izabela’s idea above, the story is indeed a tether for Albert. It acts as the tactile, keeper of time. It is no longer simply a feeling, but an object (quantifiable and tangible) outside Albert himself. The novel becomes the imagined missing piece of his consciousness. At the end when the Doctor offers it up as “a story just for you,” Casey’s novel becomes the antidote for timelessness.

    • I like the last question you posed, Michelle, regarding a connection between time and consciousness. It is something I haven’t thought of before and as I was thinking about your question (with a math class in front of me during a prep), I realized that I had become so absorbed in thought and lost track of time. Unlike Albert, I did not lose my awareness of my consciousness, my thoughts, or the class and enviornment around me. I did, however, lose track of time. Albert would lose his sense of time and his consciousness, not remembering how long he had been travelling or of conversations he had had such as his conversation with a woman who reminds him that he had asked her to wake him. She says, “Last night you told me […] You said wake me. You said I need to get the train in the direction of Lectoure. It is not my fault you are angry” (Casey 60). Albert loses both sense of time and awareness of consciousness.

  • I found Starr somewhat difficult to understand, and so I did not make the connection between Starr and Hustvedt that you describe here. In fact, until I read this post I was not completely convinced by (what I understood in) Starr. I think this is perhaps because there was a lot of talk about poetry in the excerpt and I’ve always found poetry…[Read more]

  • In addition to this ambiguity, the fact that Hustvedt has not found the source of her shaking by the end of the book also serves to remind us how little we truly know about the brain and mind. Hustvedt writes about the many possible causes of her shaking, but that so many possibilities exist, and that an answer cannot be found, goes to show how…[Read more]

  • In my opinion, Alva Noë is infinitely more readable than Antonio Damasio. This isn’t a slight on Damasio, however. Noë is no scientist, and so his writing is far more accessible to the literature student. There is […]

    • I definitely agree with you that Noe is more readable than Damasio (at least, for first time Damasio readers). I love the connection you made between Noe and Damasio as similar to that of Helen and Ralph. I found Noe’s discussion to be more based on the enviornment and how it impacts the mind than Damasio who believes that consciousness is embedded within our brains (which then gets affected by the enviornment). I think, however, that I fall more on Damasio’s side than Noe’s, and Damasio having the research to strengthen his arguments solidifies my choice of being on “team” Damasio.

    • Maybe what Noë is trying to convey is that seeing is part of an animal’s, a human’s repertoire. Or that it is a product of experience, or both. Seeing is a way of interacting with the environment; it is the act of perceiving and adjusting of the external world. It is an action, and it requires action too. Damasio champions the importance of “interaction” as well. In chapter three he writes that for the brain to create maps, it requires interaction: map-making “often occurs in a setting of action of begin with” (68).

      I think it’s interesting that Noë defines consciousness as “experience” (8). He writes that this definition of it includes thoughts, feelings, and a world that shows up. So maybe, in light of his definition, consciousness comes from and is experience.

  • I won’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed Damasio’s writing (I mean, it was pleasant and it certainly could have been impenetrable, which it wasn’t, but it’s definitely not a book that I would have looked at if it hadn’t been assigned), but I like the connection you’ve made here. I almost want to go back and reread the parts that gave me the most…[Read more]

  • Damasio’s storytelling is one of few things, if not the only thing, that kept me focused on the text. Even the mentions of known storytellers–Fitzgerald here, Twain there–pulled me back into the text when I found my mind wandering. I guess it’s not too surprising that I prefer stories and even just quotes by famous writers to science-speak; I am…[Read more]

  • In “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” Zunshine writes, “[W]e can show that it is by paying attention to the elite, to the exceptional, to the cognitively challenging, such […]

    • I am extremely fond of this growing movement to train ourselves. I tried Luminosity for a while, and although it did help with memory, and finding patterns, as you mentioned it does nothing for social or emotional maturity or intelligence. In that regard, literature will always be light years ahead, in my opinion, than these obvious kinds of games designed to promote mental acumen. My conviction in this assumption comes from reading literary novels, classics, or works that are popularly considered “hard” or “difficult to read.” But do you think theres a need for popular literature? For it certainly plays a big role in shaping our ToM. But to what effect? Popularly entertainment is way more valuable than learning. Maybe that’s a by product of our consumerist culture? The more daunting the text is said to be the more it piques my didactic curiosity, but most people don’t share in this process. I find that amercing myself in these kinds of heavy substantively loaded works, I see the world differently, and genuinely feel like I’ve walked away with something that can never be taken from me but infinitely shareable.

      • This comment is loaded with meaning and wisdom. It’s no coincidence that our popular culture and generation lack in the socio/emotional intelligence due to a symbiotic relationship between the two. When consumership becomes less interested in the challenging, the popular culture in essence, “dumbs down.” Challenging oneself is the best way to see a change in the world. It really does start with us.

    • There’s a neat video that speaks to the idea of reading as a pathway to imparting empathy and understanding—on a neurochemical level. I’ve provided the link below. Basically, Dr. Paul Zak conducted a study to see how a short but powerful story affects brain chemistry. The story they showed is a visual portrayal of a father’s conflicting emotions about his young son, Ben, having brain cancer. Ben is happy, but he doesn’t understand that he will soon die because of his condition, something his father has to come to terms with. The control video is a portrayal of Ben walking with his dad in the zoo (there is no mention of an illness).

      The story mainly elicited distress and empathy. Blood samples revealed that cortisol and oxytocin were released; cortisol is related to distress; oxytocin is related to “care, connection, and empathy.” They found that these two chemicals combined caused viewers to become more willing to donate money to a charity, thereby modifying the viewers’ behavior and even being able to predict who would donate with 80% accuracy. They also ran brain imaging tests; activity was occurring in the part of the brain responsible for ToM and the oxytocin areas.

      The story of Ben heavily appeals to our emotions, but I find it valuable in portraying the response a narrative can elicit from the reader in relation to social interaction. As Dr. Zak says, “Stories change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain’s chemistry.”

  • Interestingly, I failed to consider that Ralph was himself a character as I was reading the novel. That is to say, I didn’t consider that Lodge arranged Ralph’s consciousness in a certain way to move the plot along. Ralph is experimenting, but so is Lodge. On the reader’s level, everything in the novel is prearranged. There’s a second level of…[Read more]

  • I think being scared into fidelity was character growth for Ralph, but I don’t think it was his illness that changed him. I wouldn’t even say he was scared, actually. Until he read Helen’s journal, he never had the ability to know what someone else was thinking. Reading Helen’s journal gave him that ability, and intruding into Helen’s thoughts…[Read more]

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