Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness

Prashanth A K admires the exuberance of this ambitious study, but not its central thesis

April 23, 2009

The splendour of the human brain is its ability to synthesise abstract concepts from particular experiences of, say, a book, a lover, an author. However, any given individual experience may not measure up to the synthesised concept. That's the misery.

Disappointment is the failure of particular experiences to meet idealised concepts. Creativity is the brain's response to bridge the gap between the actual and the ideal.

With these straightforward schemata, Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London, sets out to analyse art, music, literature and love. It is not a trivial task to fit such a sweeping scope into a manageable 200-odd pages, but Zeki achieves it - and in an eminently readable, clear and lucid style.

His speculations about brain function are as interesting as any, but they may not pass muster with the cognoscenti. In a preview, Chris Frith, a professor in UCL's Wellcome department of cognitive neurology, says Zeki "can annoy scientists with as much skill as he can annoy artists". But scientists may not respond with annoyance so much as indifference.

The speculations are neither concrete nor detailed enough for refutation. The offered suppositions about artistic processes are unlikely to be accepted as evidence or support. A fair amount of visual neuroscience and psychophysical perceptual ambiguity is presented clearly, but Zeki's attempts to link it with ambiguity in art and such will leave eyebrows arched and shoulders shrugged.

I am not certain that artists will be annoyed either, but those with a reasonable acquaintance of art history will be dismissive, mainly of Zeki's account of non finito.

Nominally, the non finito is an artwork left "not finished", but is mostly used to refer to works that are deliberately unfinished for expressive effect (some of Auguste Rodin's oeuvre, perhaps).

However, discerning the reasons why an artwork is left unfinished (per endemic, varied criteria) is not straightforward, and only a few extremes are clear.

A compulsive or obsessive artist, chronically dissatisfied, may overwork a piece until abandoning it. Or an artist may be impatient and execute a work hastily (some of Tintoretto's oeuvre, perhaps) or create a preparatory sketch that may be deemed a work of art (albeit "unfinished") under subsequent criteria.

An artist may also literally abandon the work before completion for various external reasons - too many commissions, boredom, enjoying the good life ... Indeed, it was only somewhere by the time of Donatello that the idea of internal reasons for abandoning works of art became accepted - but that was also when the artist's status was elevated from that of craftsman to respected creative individual. The artists who could indulge in unfinished works or unabashedly leave traces of the process were at the height of their fame.

To complicate matters, certain aesthetic systems formally incorporate what seems non finito - Henry Home, Lord Kames, for example, regarded the aesthetic of Chinese gardens as encompassing the idea of non finito.

Concepts such as bravura and sprezzatura, with their multiple and complex connotations, also touch on the idea of "not finishing" a work.

Thus, the issue of non finito, or indeed what qualifies as non finito work, is far from unequivocally described. Rembrandt's brushwork is "unfinished" by Jan Van Eyck's standards and Paul Cezanne's by the academy's, but it would be an extreme position to label Rembrandt or even Cezanne's works as non finito, unless the concept is used so broadly as to render it meaningless.

Zeki's attempts to club diverse aesthetics under a broad interpretation of non finito and his use of the splendour-misery scheme of brain processes to explain it are not particularly persuasive. Neither is the splendour-misery account of love (the "concept of love in the brain" involves unity achievable only by death) or his attempts to support it with multicultural sources.

Ultimately, however, the book succeeds despite its central thesis - it is an exuberant read. Zeki magnificently cruises through Dante, Rumi, Freud, Arabic and Indian love lore, Wagner, Mann, Kant, Zola, Balzac and so on. The book's wake throws up lustrous nuggets.

He is obviously erudite, but ranging as broadly as this, over enormous bodies of knowledge, often comes at a cost. Some of the nuggets have the lustre of iron pyrites.

The Balinese goddess of love is not Rath, but Rati. More egregiously, a "Hindi" Tantric tradition is mentioned in at least three places, making it harder to accept it as a possible typo. The cautious reader, however, can easily check these things in this age of instant information access.

As the world's first professor of neuroaesthetics, Zeki is one of the best situated to elucidate the splendours of the brain's mechanisms for aesthetics. As a result, he bears great expectations.

Unfortunately, the current example fails to match up to expectations, leading to, not exactly misery, but mild disappointment. However, the brain (and its functions) is probably the most complex entity science has investigated. Although neuroscientific knowledge grows exponentially, attempts to link it to something as elusive as art, let alone explain that connection, is premature at this stage, but brave.

Zeki's efforts are to be applauded. Even if one disagrees with his thesis, well-formulated responses or improvements will go a long way to bettering our understanding of so human a feature.

Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness

By Semir Zeki


256pp, £50.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9781405185585 and 5578

Published 14 November 2008

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