kinds of minds

Different heads – experimental evidence

What have I been saying these last 10 years?  Here is evidence at last: someone has finally begun to do the right research:

Neuroscience reveals brain differences between Republicans and Democrats

With the U.S. presidential election just days away, new research from the University of South Carolina provides fresh evidence that choosing a candidate may depend more on our biological make-up than a careful analysis of issues.

That’s because the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and may be naturally inclined to hold varying, if not opposing, perceptions and values. The USC study, which analyzed of 24 USC students, builds on existing research in the emerging field of political neuroscience.

“The differences are significant and real,” said lead researcher Roger D. Newman-Norlund, an assistant professor of exercise science in the Arnold School of Public Health and the director of USC’s new Brain Simulation Laboratory.


But please, do not take this as an excuse to talk about politic: this is an art and culture blog and unless Obama starts singing opera and Romney takes to carving Carrara marble, we don’t give a hoot about the race. What we want to know is when will someone finally scan the brains of the classical-arts adherents and compare them to the scans of the brains of modern-art adherents and show us conclusively what we have known instinctively these 200 years: that the two are incompatible?

That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all

I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.

As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.


The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.

If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.

In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.

And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic.  (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).

Leonardo Sciascia: the myserious case of repeating oneself

Why did Sciascia repeat himself? 

Motivated by his wonderful Stendhal and Sicily, I was going to read all his books in any order — meaning, the order in which they arrived.  But the second book to arrive — The Knight and Death turned out to be…  the first book (Equal Danger) retold.  This repetition puzzles me.  If it were different, or better, one could understand it.  It is neither — and yet, Sciascia persevered in writing it through agony of terminal disease. 


The story is familiar enough — and by now hackneyed by numerous Hollywood remakes — the evil capitalist power-elite fabricate the existence of a radical terrorist left-wing group in order to a) cover up its own crimes (for which the invented leftist group is being blamed) and b) defame the left, its politicians and its causes.  Brilliant, evil, scary, probably sometimes true, even if, as a plot of a novel, a little old hat.

That Sciascia told the story once is mildly interesting — perhaps in his time, this plot idea was novel?  At this point a reader setting out to familiarize himself with Sciascia’s work is forgiven to think that his next political novel might plumb another aspect of the nefarious deep of the anni del piombo.  But that Sciascia chose to re-tell the same plot, the same situation, pretty much unchanged, begins to looks like… a pattern.

A pattern, perhaps an obsession:  Sciascia’s point, it now appears, is not so much the general claim that the system is evil, but the specific claim that a terrorist leftist group might be its invention.  The insistence on the scheme suggests he meant a specific situation.  Perhaps a specific terrorist leftist group?  Could he mean…  The Red Brigades?

We now know that the Red Brigades were trained and supplied by the KGB.  Why is not difficult to see:  Italian state was weak, her politics unstable, her communist party was strong, her unions radical; a little terrorism just might have sparked a security crisis — and that just might create the opportunity for a takeover followed by Italy’s secession from NATO etc. etc. … a major breakthrough for the USSR.

We also know that Soviets thought (correctly, as it happens) that as a propaganda weapon the Red Brigades were possibly an embarrassment.  Publicly, they denied involvement.  In Eastern Europe, where radical politics was not encouraged, the press was told to refer to the red brigades as “fascists”.  Sciascia’s novels… appear to play from the same script. 

Why would he do that? 

Sciascia either

1) knew (or guessed) that the Red Brigades were fed by the same hand which fed the Italian communist party and generously supported radical Italian intellectuals (he had to:  did he not read in the classics that “a revolution is a violent act by which one class overthrows another”?); in which case he is guilty of intentional obfuscation of truth for the benefit of — what? In the name of international loyalty of the left?  To protect/ satisfy personal relationships?  To assure for himself publication in the East?  Whichever was the case, it must strike one as confused;

or else

2) he genuinely didn’t know and only tried to protect the Left’s good name by suggesting that the dark blot on the image of the communist movement in the west — the Red Brigades — might only be a figment of  imagination and therefore let us not jump to conclusions.  But why would he do that?  Why muddy the waters?  Didn’t he want to know the truth?  Perhaps he preferred for some facts not to come to light?  Perhaps he didn’t want to be faced with an uncomfortable truth?

The mystery of what went on in Sciascia’s mind will remain forever unsolved.  Whichever is the case, Sciascia’s motives appear compromised and the status assigned him by some — that of a moral lighthouse in a murky age — dubious.

What remains are his works and judging by the two I read this week, they are mostly unremarkable.  His portraits of the evil agents of capitalism (the capitalists themselves, the security aparatchiks) are pale, flat, one-dimensional, strangely unconvincing. And not surprisingly — as a career leftist intellectual without any significant access to power he was probably describing a world of which he knew nothing  (i.e. he was violating the principal dictum of every writer’s course:  “write what you know”).  Those who actually had met the powers that be in real life — writers like Le Carre, say — are much better at drawing them in all their terrifying ugliness

Barbara Tuchman, reflecting on the fate of her literary output at the end of her very long career, observed that her political writings died quickly and disappeared forever; and that what lasted were her essays on topics irrelevant to the moment, easily read as treating of universal problems of human nature:  her tale of Black Death; her tale of the stupidity and hubris which led to the outbreak of World War One.  In this category, Sciascia’s essay on Standhal in Sicily can hope to live for a few more centuries — certainly as long as people continue to read Stendhal. 

The future of his fiction, however, looks uncertain.