Touching Brains

by Jason Tougaw

I’ve noticed a recurrent phenomenon in contemporary literature: scenes in which brains (or other body parts) are  touched or explored for signs of immaterial elements of self: mind, consciousness, affect, emotion, imagination, desire–what the philosophers calls “qualia”–the subjective, ineffable qualities that characterize our perceptual responses to the world around us. This happens in a variety of texts and genres, including (but by no means limited to) what some are calling “neuronovels” and what I’ve been calling “brain memoirs.”

From David B's graphic autobiography Epileptic (Pantheon 2005).

From David B’s graphic autobiography Epileptic (Pantheon 2005).


In this scene from David B’s Epileptic, David fantasizes that he might exchange brains–and therefore identities–with his epileptic brother Jean-Christophe, who lives with severe generalized epilepsy and whose grand mal seizures are a terrifying routine in their family’s life. He draws the fantasy using some stock imagery from science fiction depictions of the mad scientist’s lab: those tanks whose tubes seem to plumb and connect the brother’s brains. But the tubes are interconnected with a serpent, which plays the role of Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy throughout the book, slithering through the family. Its shape is no accident. The serpent, like the disease, twists and turns its way through the psyches of everybody involved. Jean-Christophe’s brain manifests its symptoms in the family as a whole. Notice also the brain matter entwined with the tubes and and the serpent. It’s that stuff that looks like spaghetti. The image of the two brothers’ brains touching is ironic in a devastating way, because it stands in for the connections they can’t maintain in life. David’s fantasy is a surrogate for empathy he can’t muster for his brother in life.

My second example is from a so-called neuronovel, Ian McEwan’s Saturday. In literary studies we use the term interiority as a shorthand for the representation of a character’s mental experience. We don’t tend to recognize the fact that we are using a metaphor when we do so. If an experience is immaterial, there is nothing to get inside; there is no physical location for the mind. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the novel to which McEwan pays homage to with Saturday, is promiscuous in its representation of its various characters’ “interiors.” In Saturday, the narrator is third-person limited, offering access to the thoughts and feelings of its protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne.

The novel features numerous brain surgery scenes, during which Henry expertly cuts open people’s skulls and cuts into their brain matter in the hope of changing, or saving, their lives. The scene I’ll quote from is five pages of extremely detailed description of a surgery Henry performs on a character named Baxter. Henry’s colleagues don’t know it, but Henry caused Baxter’s brain injury, by pushing him down the stairs, after Baxter breaks into his house, terrorizes his family, and threatens to rape his daughter. (Yes, this is fiction; and  yes, it almost feels Dickensian in its reliance of plot-driving happenstance.) Henry keeps another secret from his colleagues. In addition to his injury, a blood clot on the surface of the brain, he suffers from fairly advanced Huntington’s Disease. Notice how Henry’s skill as a surgeon is reflected through McEwan’s skill as a prose stylist, one who might be forgiven for showing off a little:

“Now, using the same dissector, he lifts the whole free flap away from the skull, a large piece of bone like a segment of coconut, and lays it in the bowl with the other bits. The clot is in full view, red of such darkness it is almost black, and of the consistency of set jam. Or, as Perowne sometimes thinks, like a placenta. But round the edges of the close, blood is flowing freely now that the pressure of the bone flap has been relieved. It pours off the back of Baxter’s head, over the surgical drapes and onto the floor.

  ‘Elevate the head of the table. Give me as much as you can,’ Henry calls to Jay. If the bleed is higher than the heart, the blood will flow less copiously. The table rises, and Henry and Rodney step back in quickly through the blood at their feet and, working together, use a sucker and an Adson elevator to remove the clot. . . . But they can’t close up yet. Perowne takes a scalpel and makes a small incision in the dura, parts it a little and peers inside. The surface of Baxter’s brain is indeed covered with a clot, much smaller than the first. He extends the incision and Rodney tucks back the dura with stay sutures.”

In place of Clarissa Dalloway’s flights into other characters’ psyches, Perowne penetrates other characters’ skulls. As with Epileptic, readers are asked to indulge the fantasy that we’ll learn something about the mind by touching the brain. What’s he looking for when he peers into Baxter’s skull. As you might imagine, it’s more than a blood clot:

For all the recent advances, it’s still not known how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn’t doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, though it might not be in his lifetime. . . . But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?”

You hear this kind of thing a lot from neuroscientists, who tend to sound like Enlightenment naturalists when it comes to predicting epistemological revolutions just beyond reach. You could call these predictions rhetorical sleights of hand, whereby what we might know in the future stands in for what we don’t know now, but you might also call them fantasy. What we might know, in this case, is how the relationship between matter (our brains, our bodies, the physical world around us) and the immaterial or ineffable experience of consciousness–what some philosophers call phenomenology, what the literary critics call interiority.

And that brings me to William A. Cohen and what he calls “material interiority.” In an essay on Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, Cohen coins this term to describe Victorian moments that work a lot like the “touching brains” scenes I’m seeing in contemporary literature.

“By portraying in palpable terms the human body’s enclosure of intangible subjectivity, she exploits the paradox of an immaterial soul, heart, or mind inhabiting the flesh. Pervaded by metaphors of entombment and boundary violation, the novel’s language exaggerates and estranges the conditions of embodiment. In using the term “material interiority,” I mean to designate this literary depiction of ethereal inner qualities in a language of tangible objects, a practice that collapses dualistic conceptions of mind and body (or body and soul) by making subjective inwardness and bodily innards stand for each other.”

Any English major will recognize the term interiority. English professors (and some writers) use it as shorthand for the representation of a character’s consciousness. But the term has been so ubiquitous for so long that we’ve forgotten it’s a metaphor. Immaterial phenomena like consciousness or emotion or memory are not things and they are certainly not places. They are placeless. There is nothing to be inside. No interior. The metaphor, deep down in its roots, contains the seeds of what Cohen calls “material interiority,” because it suggests that our bodies are like houses for our psyches. There’s undeniably a relationship between a person’s body and psyche, but there’s no evidence that the psyche is housed inside that body. Does your consciousness feel like it’s inside you? Mine doesn’t.

Cohen’s essay makes it clear that looking for the psyche by opening up characters’s bodies is a literary tradition dating at least to the early Victorian era. I want to argue that fantasy is intrinsic to the literary representation of what Cohen calls “material interiority”—the fantasy that by touching or violating or exposing or cutting open the brain we’ll find answers about the mind.

It doesn’t require a sophisticated reader to recognize the irony of these scenes. Touching brains to find minds is a fantastical and illogical enterprise, which is why these scenes are popular in parodies of science fiction. It’s the province of literature to deal in counterfactual representation, often as a means of exploring ideas and questions that elude the sciences or the social sciences. Finally, I want to argue that these moments of material interiority are thematic analogues to a formal principle: aesthetic experience involves the inexplicable traffic between the material and the immaterial in ways that feel automatic and often go unnoticed and seem to conflate the physical and what Cohen calls the “ethereal.” Words on a page, images on a screen, or sound vibrating from a speaker act upon the bodies of readers, spectators, and listeners and in the process trigger a spectrum of immaterial experiences—affective responses, acts of inspiration or imagination, emotions, desire, memory—whose physiological correlates, felt and unfelt, trigger still more immaterial experiences. And so on. And so on.  In this sense, a form of “material interiority” is fundamental to aesthetic experience.

Now, I have a favor to ask. I’d love it if readers would let me know about examples of scenes in literature, film, or other art forms where brains or other body parts are probed, touched, examined, held, or cut open with the motive of finding immaterial stuff like the psyche or consciousness. A few examples come to mind: Thomas Harris’s Hannibal (and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of it, famous for the scene in which Anthony Hopkins sautees the living Ray Liotta’s brain and feeds it to Jodie Foster); Lauren Slater’s Lying; Howard Dully’s My Lobotomy; Thomas Pynchon’s V (involving a nose job, rather than brain surgery); Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Primate; any number of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta mysteries; Dennis Cooper’s novels, especially Frisk and Closer; some of Fred Tomaselli‘s collage paintings. I want to write a longer essay about all this, working out the nuances and examining more variations, so if you have some to share, I’d love to know about them.

Finally: special thanks to Jason Nielsen, Judd Staley, and Paul Hebert for their work organizing the recent Minding the Body conference at the CUNY Graduate Center. Preparing for a panel they organized motivated me to start formulating some of my vague ideas about what it means when characters touch brains in contemporary literature. I’ve only just begun, so I’d love any and all feedback. For more on the conference take a look at panelist Samir Chopra’s blog article, “The Mind Is Not a Place or an Object.”

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