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Artists Or Autists?
by Brian Fawcett

The new neurological criticism may soon eclipse Prof Frye's notions of literature as middle?class splendour in the Wilderness. It may even dislodge the self?referential linguistic relativism of deconstructionism

IN AN INTERESTING Globe and Mail review of a new Ezra Pound biography, David Gurr recently suggested that Pound, Pablo Picasso, and, if memory serves me, James Joyce were suffering from neurological abnormalities, and that this, in part, was the source of both their creativity and their lousy behaviour. Although he doesn't quite say it directly, the implication is hard to avoid ?? Pound, Picasso, and Joyce weren't really artists at all, but rather autists. No, Gurr does not have a lisp, and he isn't trying to communicate in tongues with New York. He means that the creative power behind many artists derives from neural abnormalities or anomalies that shut them out of conventional social reality and inside agnosial systems of perception.

What was interesting about his review was not that his suggestion is ridiculously reductive, or even that the gospel according to the University of Toronto English department was implicitly violated in a Globe and Mail review. What was interesting ?? even remarkable ?? was that Gurr has given the Globe and Mail a leg up on the ascendant school of Lit/crit. In Canada, this school may soon eclipse Prof. Frye's notions of literature as middle?class splendour in the Wilderness, and may even dislodge the self?referential linguistic relativism of deconstructionism (a.k.a. the dance of Charles DeGaulle's nephews) that are dominant in many of our other universities.

Don't mistake what I'm saying. I'm entirely serious when I say I believe David Gurr is on to something with an uncommon grain of good sense to it, not to mention excellent market potential. 'Me combination should be irresistible.

As an environment for critical exploitation, neurology is almost perfect. The human brain is the black box of the medical profession, and in this century has spawned a truly amazing array of symptom?centred technologies aimed at manipulating "normative" properties or reducing asymmetrical phenomena. With the demonstrable failure of the therapy?oriented disciplines that dominated the first three?quarters of this century ?? psychology and psychoanalysis ?? neurology has emerged in the last 10 years as a chosen frontier. It is also, arguably, among the last ones we have available to exploit.

The present state of neurology is fascinating. First of all, it operates a very peculiar database. What we know about the architecture of the human brain is roughly equivalent to what we knew about Africa around 1700 ?? we have a map of the coastline, and we have some information about what happens when brief, armed forays are made into the interior ?? strange things are found, local populations (of cells or natives) either die in vast numbers or are transformed into enslaved automatons.

Where the human brain is concerned, there are obvious reasons for the lack of exploration, of course. It's the control unit for the human body, and the documented interventions made thus far have been tentative, clumsy, and frequently fatal. Our conception of normative functioning process in the brain is rudimentary, and by and large the treatment of neurological dysfunction is grounded on dubious cultural norms or paradigmatic social modelling so general that it yields a vast and fuzzy pathological boundary ?? and nothing else.

The result is that the diagnosis of pathology has created the working database, and it is almost totally theoretical and symptomatic, equivalent in its reliability to deducing the workings of an internal combustion engine from the observation of occasional spots of oil leaking from it or from experimental attempts to fuel it with different substances ?? gasoline, Pepsi, cow's milk, etc. The established practice of attempting to tune the brain back into "normality" by crude surgical intervention aimed at disabling the offending parts or by administering convulsive drugs and massive electric shocks indicates that both the diagnostic and treatment apparatuses are about as sophisticated as Neanderthal pebble tools.

Oliver Sacks, who is neurology's most entertaining practitioner and apparently among its most respected, is probably the source of this new cross?discipline application. He's written several readable books on the subject of neurological disorders. 'Me best of them, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, became a best?seller. His analysis of the various forms of neurological dysfunction is seductive ?? probably intentionally. Scrupulously acknowledging the field's poverty of data, and pointing to the inherent difficulties of acquiring it, Sacks divided his best?seller into four neat categories ?? losses, excesses, transports, and a miscellaneous category that picks up 11 productive" anomalies like idiot savants and autistic visual artists. Sacks illustrates each category with a series of anecdotal case histories. Some are chilling, some sad, and others are embarrassingly funny. Almost all are thought?provoking, and therein lies the problem.

This is, after all, the age of the entrepreneur, and entrepreneurism has created links within our intellectual life as handily as anywhere else. Neurology, because it has a black box at its core, is perfect material for the intellectual entrepreneur. All one has to do is to attach one's intellectual contraption to the promising lead?ins that trail everywhere from the neurological black box, and Shazam!!! a new explanation for reality can be generated without much fear that a real expert will refute it.

I ran into David Gurr shortly after his Globe and Mail review of the Pound biography came out, and I slyly asked him if he'd been reading Oliver Sacks. He realized instantly that I was teasing him, and replied gruffly that he'd read more than just Sacks. Despite Gurr's weakness for wearing seersucker leisure suits, he's clearly a man of honour, so I accept his word on that ?? along with his assurances that what is implied in his review "is considerably more complicated than it might appear."

It's true that a number of competent artists have been investigating neurology for some time. Christopher Dewdney, who is Canada's most innovative poet, has been exploring neurology as a metaphorical model and parallel to larger biospheres for several years. What is now going to happen, unfortunately, is unlikely to operate by Dewdney's high standards. Neurology as a metaphor for other systems is fine. Treating neurological abnormalities as the governing energy behind human creativity is dangerously reductive.

Gurr seems to have placed his bet on artists as autists. That certainly coincides with the current view of artists as self?concerned and irresponsible jerks locked inside our universes of artifice, subversion, kinky sex and God knows what other abnormal and anti?social activities. Personally, I'm putting my money on Tourette's Syndrome, a dysfunction that runs the range of cognitive hyperactivity from creative alertness to ticked?out drooling. 'Me best artists I know all demonstrate the induced tics of data overload ?? leading of course to a self?referential universe of artifice, subversion, and more ...

Even for the skeptical intellectual entrepreneur, other neural abnormalities will clear up a host of minor mysteries. No doubt all the terrible poetry being written could be explained as a symptom of tonal and cognitive agnosia. Or is it some new form of aphasia? Margaret Atwood's heretofore mysterious two?tone speech dysfunction will be explained as neural dysphonia. And Irving Layton is suddenly explainable ?? and slightly more attractive as a marginal Tourette's. The downside is that neurological criticism will probably re?energize CanLit Studies, and the old warhorses will now serve as easy material for academic reprocessing until at least the millennium. Damn. I thought they were about to drift off into encephalitic? amnesis....


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