Interview with Noga Arikha

The writer and academic talks about her philosophical fascination with the mind and body, and why she wrote about her mother’s dementia

September 15, 2022
Noga Arikha
Source: Noga Arikha/Joshua Van Praag

Noga Arikha is a visiting fellow at the European University Institute. A writer and intellectual historian, her latest book, The Ceiling Outside: The Science and Experience of the Disrupted Mind, is an exploration of brain, self, dementia and medicine. She is currently working on an intellectual biography of the anthropologist Franz Boas.

Where and when were you born and how has this shaped who you are?
I was born in Paris to parents who came from other places, and grew up speaking English at home. I went to a French school and growing up as a Parisian certainly shaped my cultural references and lifestyle. Ultimately, I feel most at home among those who don’t fit into any one particular slot.

What sparked your interest in the mind-body relationship?
The sense that reason could not be separate from all that we feel. I had been fascinated by science and medicine from a young age – so was my painter father, who influenced me in that sense too. And I was convinced that I had to look to the body, to evidence from science and medicine, to get past some of the old conceptual obstacles.

What was it like growing up with artists as parents?
I knew from a young age that our family was unusual. My parents lived by, from and for their artistic and intellectual passions. I realise how rare this is, and that it was an incredible privilege. My sister and I sensed it, although I believe we also took the freedom for granted. Ours were loving parents, but it was a rarefied, cosmopolitan, high-intensity household. Art, music, ideas, books, world events and history mattered more than anything else. So it was strangely limited as well, and not that fun when we were children.

What is your relationship with your own body like?
I sometimes look at our human body, mine included, as a strange, imperfect animal. I actually need to move much more than is practical for someone who is supposed to spend most of her time sitting down with a book, at the computer or in conferences – an oddly disembodied occupation, really. Now that I live in Florence I can easily go on hikes in the gorgeous hills. I practise yoga every day – a crucial discipline for me. I see it as a marvellous way of cultivating the sense of the body from within and a quiet, centred inner space.

What has been your most memorable moment at university?
Teaching the entirety of Plato’s Republic to first-year undergraduates at Bard College. I’d only ever read selected bits before then, like most people, and I realised what a brilliant (albeit infuriating) work of literature it is, first and foremost.

You’re a writer and an academic. Do those roles sit together nicely?
At this point they do. It took me years to find my voice as a writer in order then to perform translations from academic language to the non-academic realm. It hasn’t been easy. But it is an important task, I think, especially as social media are creating everywhere an intellectual impatience that needs countering. Thankfully, collaborations between science, social science and the arts, within and beyond academia, are proliferating.

Why did you decide to include personal experiences of your mother’s dementia in your latest book?
I hesitated at first, but then realised it was inevitable. Given what I was writing about – patients who had various neuropsychiatric issues, including impending dementia – and what was happening before my eyes to my beloved mother, it would have been dishonest not to divulge it, and to continue writing in the third person. It turns out she holds the book together.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
When I went to NYC after my BA to work as an assistant editor for Bob Silvers at The New York Review of Books. He was demanding and brilliant and I learned huge amounts. Yet sitting under those piles of books also led me to want to forge my own intellectual path, rather than edit the work of others, so I decided to return to studies and to London: I joined the Warburg Institute, where I did my MA and PhD.

What do you do for fun?
Spend time with friends. Go for long walks and hikes in beautiful, wild places. Watch movies and series. Listen to music. Go to the theatre. And be with my children – they are increasingly fun.

What brings you comfort?
Chocolate. Poetry. Music. Coffee. Friends. Yoga. The Aegean sea. Olive trees. Thinking well enough to have real insights. Learning something new. Cooking. Studying modern Greek. Good stories – heard, seen, read. And my children.

What is your greatest fear?
What most of us are fearing: passing the tipping point beyond which climate change will accelerate, and the empowerment of fascisms the world over.

What are you looking forward to most right now?
Being a fellow at the European University Institute in Fiesole from September, for a project on language and political feelings. Going to the US in October, for the first time since before Covid, mainly to discuss themes from The Ceiling Outside. And finishing the book on Boas.

Do you live by any personal motto or philosophy?
Try to laugh about it. If you can’t, try to change it, and vice versa. One of the last things my mother said to me, pure light piercing through the fog of dementia: “Go ahead – go about living!”


1990-1993 bachelor’s degree in German and philosophy, King’s College London
PhD in history, Warburg Institute
2002-2003 fellow, Italian Academy for Advanced Studies, Columbia University 
2003-2007 visiting assistant professor in the humanities, Bard College
2007 Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours
2011- research associate, Institut Jean Nicod, École Normale Supérieure
2011 Napoleon and the Rebel: A Story of Brotherhood, Passion and Power
2012-2015 chair of the department of liberal studies, Paris College of Art
2020- associate fellow, Warburg Institute
2022 The Ceiling Outside: The Science and Experience of the Disrupted Mind
2022- visiting fellow, European University Institute 


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