Revising a Famous Life – The Noise of Time

thinking-clipart-4c9LRXncEAfter someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws.  In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends  – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.

In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame.  Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.

When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story.  For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”  Barnes had opened a new window for me.   As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real.  But this is fiction, after all.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction.  Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own.   The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.

But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read.  There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel.  We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed.  If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.

Have you read it?

Review of the book: The Noise of Time





What you see is not what you get.

David Eagleman addresses the differences between seeing and perception in Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain.  David Copperfield isn’t the only magician that can fool you into seeing something that’s not there – so can your brain.  Eagleman uses a conversational tone to explain the science behind how the brain registers and interprets vision.

Are you fascinated with perception puzzles?  Is it a vase or two faces?  Eagleman offers this popular figure-ground example, along with other exercises to test your awareness – some you’ve tried, others new – all fun.  Although Eagleman carefully includes the scientific principles behind the unconscious brain’s control, he’s careful to not overdue the pedagogy.  Just when you think you are getting more information than you need, he throws in another task for you to test a theory, almost making the book interactive.

“When you are losing {at tennis}, simply ask your opponent how she serves the ball so well.  Once she contemplates the mechanics of her serve and tries to explain it , she’s sunk.”

Eagleman suggests that we may each be operating in our private Truman shows – the reality we know only skims the surface of all that is possible. Using examples like choices in mates, the world economy, even bank accounts, Eagleman easily converts the science of the brain to common place experiential data that explains the battle in our heads. What inner negotiations are going on when you decide whether or not to eat that piece of chocolate cake? Why do you feel happier if you sit up straight instead of slouching?

In chapter 6, “Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question,” Eagleman’s  soap box approach to changing the criminal justice takes the subject off track – giving the author his say on the social implications of the subconscious mind.  Rehabilitation through rewiring – short of lobotomy – sounds humane; unfortunately, Eagleman has no sound suggestions for implementation.  In the end, without a means to study the brains of criminals before sentencing, he reverts to sending them to prison anyway, while he dreams of further study to create ” a neurally compatible social policy.”  If you skip this chapter, you will only miss Eagleman’s yielding to his own brain’s impulses.

In the first five chapters, Incognito is a primer – a simple “the brain for dummies”:

  • the conscious mind is “not the one driving the boat”
  • useful routines are burned into the brain’s circuitry (subconscious) and become the control default – we are slaves to our brains
  • human action is the result of an unconscious debate among competing factions in our brains – like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s’ a “team of rivals.”

He ends with a promise that a better understanding of neurobiology may lead to a better life, citing Montaigne’s introspective search for “What do I know?”  But Eagleman also acknowledges that the study of the brain is so complex, involving so much we do not know that…

“If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.”

For now, most of us are just happy to believe in the “magic” of the brain’s operation.