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Reviewing Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:18

Labyrinths V: Farewell via Broks, Paul (2018) The Darker the Night, the Brighter the stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey. London, Allen Lane (Penguin)

Let’s start near the end of this rewarding book:

The universal fascination with the image of the labyrinth suggests some psychological significance, that perhaps it holds some fundamental psychological significance, that perhaps it holds the power to captivate and transform the mind some way. …Nicolas Humphrey speculates that the recurrence of spiral imagery in pre-historic art signifies … the arrival of souls on the scene. Human beings were not only sentient (like other animals are) but aware they were aware. They had come to understand the interiority, the inviolable privacy, of mental life. (291f.)

Broks seems to me a fine writer operating sequentially, but sometimes simultaneously in near lyric prose, in different domains of writing:

1.      the clear explication of neuropsychology and its links to the philosophy of identity (via Derek Parfit) and theories of consciousness,

2.      The role of neurobiology and ‘brain-mush’ in the question of ‘what matters’,

3.      expositor and blender of myths from various spatial-temporal locations to everyday experience including dreams and waking experiences where the normative gets questioned by the queer happening,

4.      narrator of case-histories and his own reflective ‘spiritual’ autobiography.

At its heart though is the ‘labyrinth’ holding in its core a mythical animal, who later transfigures into a ‘fat drunk’ who rhythmically intersperses the narrative with urgent, even sentient, questions of life, death, determination and choice. This is not a book for anyone with their mind made up, even though it is as atheist in its presumptions as Dawkins. Its grasp of uncertainty aligns not with the spiritual but scientific ones as propounded by Einstein attempting to summarise ’quantum theory’, which his thinking had made possible, reminding him:

… a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoic, concocted of incoherent elements of thought. (Einstein cited 279)

What Einstein call paranoia, we should call psychosis: but only with the proviso that psychosis itself is understood as on a continuum of internal processes of cognition. This is how Broks blends day-dreams, fantasising, night-dreams and speculative thought and feeling with the everyday. Labyrinths challenge our assurance and comfort with a patterned world because they themselves are patterned but patterned in order to be unknowable – and sometimes, should we encounter a very rough Minotaur (as Picasso’s models nearly always did, for instance) potentially destructive or disabling (225).

When Broks looks at his own intellectual contribution it is to mourn the demise of a world for whose murder he fells at least, in part, responsible (185). One of the finest sections for me is his blending of narratives, including modern as well as older myths about the ‘rape of the moon’. There was new information here for me from the story of Armstrong, Aldrin and Mitchell, as well as fascinating transposition of these with ancient Persian views of the moon as mirror (195) and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (198). But for the sake of this blog series, I think you could do worse to get a flavour of this wonderful book than read the full-telling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, from genetic prequels to endless and multiple sequels, one of which is the foundation of Athenian thought on the basis of such labyrinthine temporal and spatial narrative meandering. At the end of which stands Butler’s question of questions in the genesis of a psychology and philosophy of identity, sameness, difference and uncertainty, the Paradox of the Ship of Theseus (221-229). It goes to show that all stories of multiple potential to meaning may come at least one which queries where the3 story has any coherence at all. After all, Theseus, Minos, Arachne and all may belong to stories in which that which variously transports as no identity with itself, having changed in the process – even if by the replacement of only one plank (or even one nail holding a plank to the mainframe).

Of course, for some there must be nothing new here and some tricks, such as the use of Shepard’s ‘Table-top Illusion’ to introduce gently the theme of discrepancy between a simple reality that we wish for and the illusions/psychosis on which normative perceptions depend (59). However, the discussion of Freud, for instance, is so incredibly fair, and places him and others in a continuum in which histories change the subjects of which they speak as they speak of them. If Freud was nonsense to a history told from the vantage-point of the cognitive revolution, it is far from that following the revaluation of the role of body and affect in later psychology. A beginning psychologist could learn a lot here about the caveats needed in reading the ‘history of psychology’ – the main one being that there can only be ‘histories’ of psychology, who speak  the police in different voices.

As for art, there are the wonderful (and labyrinthine) illustrations here of Garry Kennard. But, at the bottom, this book suggests, if it does not say, that imagining that we can study an art (say visual art) in isolation for other arts, and science, but not least neuro-science, is a fantasy we and the most conservative education system in the world (that in the UK) need to break. I loved this book and want to read it again – and perhaps again.

Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings .

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey (this one).


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