Apples and Oranges, by Paul Cézanne (Photo: Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Paris)

Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer sat for several years on my bookshelf (the one that is, unfortunately, gravitationally challenged and is sagging precariously) waiting for its chance to get cracked open. That finally happened during those luxurious, divinely isolated hours you get when you fly cross country. Using his experience of working in a neuroscience lab as a lens, Lehrer explores the neurological insights to be learned from a number of artists including Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Auguste Escoffier, Paul Cézanne, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolf and of course Marcel Proust.

Every chapter was fascinating, but I was particularly compelled by his comments about Cézanne. Here’s a sampling:

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This is Cézanne’s genius: he forces us to see, in the same static canvas, the beginning and the end of our sight. What starts as an abstract mosaic of color becomes a realistic description. The painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind. We have entered into the work of art: its strangeness is our own.

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The symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, a natural skeptic of science, reviewed a photographic exhibition in 1859 by proclaiming the limits of the new medium. Its accuracy, he said, is deceptive, nothing more than phony simulacra of what was really out there. The photographer was even—and Baudelaire only used this insult in matters of grave import—a “materialist”. In Baudelaire’s romantic view, the true duty of photography was “to be the servant of the sciences and arts, but the very humble servant, like printing or shortland, which have neither created nor supplemented literature…If it [photography] is allowed to encroach upon the domain of the imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us.” Baudelaire wanted the modern artist to describe everything that the photograph ignored: “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.”

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Cézanne often spent hours contemplating a brushstroke. Out in the open air, he would stare at his subject until it melted under his gaze, until the forms of the worlds had decayed into a formless mess. By making hbis vision disintegrate, Cézanne was trying to return to the start of sight, to become nothing but “a sensitive recording plate.” The slowness of this method forced Cézanne to focus on simple things, like a few red apples set on a trapezoid of table, or a single mountain seen from afar. But he knew that the subject itself was irrelevant. Stare hard enough, his paintings implore, and the laws of the known universe will emerge from just about anything. “With an apple,” Cézanne once said, “I will astonish Paris.”

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Cézanne discovered that visual forms—the apple in a still life or the mountain in a landscape—are mental inventions that we unconsciously impose onto our sensations. “I tried to copy nature,” Cézanne confessed, “but I couldn’t. I searched, turned, looked at it from every direction, but in vain.” No matter how hard he tried, Cézanne couldn’t escape the sly interpretations of his brain. In his abstract paintings, Cézanne wanted to reveal this psychological process, to make us aware of the particular way the mind creates reality. His art shows us what we cannot see, which is how we see.

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Meyer Schapiro noted, in a Cézanne painting, “it is as if there is no independent, closed, pre-existing object, given to the painter’s eye for representation, but only a multiplicity of successively probed sensations.”

Since publishing Proust in 2007, Lehrer has just released his second book, How We Decide. Once again he approaches the quotidian with a scientist’s eye. In an interview he claims that the idea to write this book came partly from his indecision in the cold cereal aisle at the grocery store. The plethora of Cheerios choices stumped him repeatedly. So researching how the brain makes decision seemed like a good idea, for him and for the rest of us.

I like the way Lehrer thinks, as witnessed in this passage:

I was about halfway through writing the book when I got some great advice from a scientist. I was telling him about my Cheerios dilemma when he abruptly interrupted me: “The secret to happiness,” he said,”is not wasting time on irrelevant decisions.” Of course, this sage advice didn’t help me figure out what kind of cereal I actually wanted to eat for breakfast. So I did the only logical thing: I bought my three favorite Cheerios varieties and combined them all in my cereal bowl. Problem solved.

In spite of the fact that most of the photographs of Lehrer suggest he is all of about 17, I’d say he’s got some serious sage potential.

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