|The cover of 'Smith...'|
'Meridian' is just one of the poems Don Paterson discusses in the excellent Smith: A Reader's Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy and his summary of it in terms of paradox and border-dwelling struck a chord with me as I nervously prepare for my PhD viva at the end of this week, my one real chance to discuss the arguments I've put forward in my thesis on connection-making in poetry and neuroscience.
Paterson treats 'Meridian' as an example of 'Donaghy's Paradox', a parable of 'division, dividers, and the divided mind', itself divided neatly down the middle. It's a poem which expresses some of the complex ideas about brain asymmetry outlined in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, but does so in form you can carry round with you, tucked away somewhere in your own teeming skull. The first stanza sets up an opposition between certainty and an awareness of paradox, between ideas of knowing and not knowing: oppositions familiar to any reader of McGilchrist.
|Which side, if any, should we be on?|
Photo by Geee Kay
An article by Arthur Krystal published last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education implies that neuroscience is having a pervasive influence on the humanities at the moment because we now value particular kinds of scientific certainty over big philosophical theories. Krystal argues that the death of theories like Marxism and psychoanalysis in the humanities combined with the questions about language and thought processes raised by postmodernism has paved the way for a neuroscience invasion: 'we have shifted our focus from the meaning of ideas to the means by which they're produced.' Big philosophical questions have taken a backseat to questions about the biases embedded in neural circuitry. The 'neurohumanities' are taking the place of literary theory.
I'd like to think that it doesn't have to be a case of replacement and imposition. In my thesis I've tried to argue that poetry has as much to say to neuroscience as neuroscience has to say to poetry. I've suggested that poets and neuroscientists are often interested in (and, indeed, flummoxed by) the same key questions about consciousness and what it means to be human. I'd like to hope that - in some small way - I've written a text that invites people to inhabit two places at once. As Donaghy implies, the borderline may be the only sensible place to end up, even if it is contested and uncertain territory.