The Problems with Jonah Lehrer’s “Proust Was a Neuroscientist”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide being removed from sale because some of its contents were plagiarized. This occurred just after Lehrer had made his first public appearance in several months, giving a speech apologizing for his previous journalistic misdeeds, including self-plagiarism and fabricated quotes.

In his story on How We Decide being pulled off the market, journalist Michael Moynihan – who uncovered the fabricated quotes which led to Lehrer’s book Imagine also being removed from sale – reports that How We Decide‘s publishers also reviewed 2007’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the first of Lehrer’s three books. The review “did not uncover any problems and…[the book] ‘will remain in print’ “.

After examining some parts of Proust Was a Neuroscientist more closely, I think that the book does have “problems”. The problems aren’t plagiarism, and the problems likely do not justify removing the book from sale. But there is a troublesome pattern of misquoting and selective quoting, in addition to a number of debatable statements, and mistakes that are just plain lazy.

Before I detail the problems I found in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (henceforth Proust), let me explain my reasons for making this post. I`ve debated whether these problems are worth pointing out, since I have written before about Lehrer’s inaccurate sourcing and referencing in other works, and some of what I’ll describe here is fairly detailed. So this post could be interpreted as an unnecessary further attack on someone whose work has already been pretty thoroughly discredited.

However, Lehrer himself said in his speech of apology: “if I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others. I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong”. Since Proust is now his only book still in print, I believe it’s worthwhile to discuss what’s wrong with it, in the hopes that such a discussion might contribute to keeping Lehrer’s “promise that I will not fail like this again”.

My undergraduate degree is in English and I’ve also taken courses in art history. So in looking at Proust more closely, I focused on the four chapters dealing with artists and writers that I feel I have some familiarity with: “Paul Cézanne: The Process of Sight”; “Igor Stravinsky: The Source of Music”; “Gertrude Stein: The Structure of Language”; and “Virginia Woolf: The Emergent Self”.

Here are some examples of the selective and/or inaccurate quoting that I found:

  • Lehrer quotes Virginia Woolf on page 96 as “grandly” declaring “that on or about December 1910 human nature changed”, and gives the source of the quote as the essay “Character in Fiction”.  The correct source is the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” – and the correct wording of the end of the quote (on p. 4 of the essay) is “human character changed”. The word “nature” fits more neatly with Lehrer’s theme of how Cézanne’s art challenged traditional forms of artistic representation– but “nature” is not the word that Woolf used.
  • On p. 103, Lehrer states: “’Monet is only an eye’, Cézanne once said, with more than a little condescension.” The complete quote is “Monet is only an eye – but what an eye”. The omission of the second part of the quote is significant, because that second part is anything but condescending – and it completely contradicts Lehrer’s characterization of Cézanne’s remark.
  • Poet Rainer Maria Rilke is quoted on page 119 as saying: “Cézanne made the fruit so real that it ceased to be edible altogether, that’s how thinglike and real they became”. The actual quote – in the source identified in Proust’s reference list – is “In Cézanne, they cease to be edible altogether, that’s how thinglike and real they become”. The start of Rilke’s quote has apparently been altered to more closely support Lehrer’s preceding sentence: “Cézanne showed art how to transcend the myth of realism”.
  • On page 146, Lehrer quotes the entire first paragraph of Gertrude Stein’s book Tender Buttons, titled “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS”,  with the ending “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling”. But the paragraph actually ends with an additional line: “The difference is spreading” – and this is an important line. It may refer to (depending on the interpretation) the “spreading” of Modernism as a different way to look at the world, or the idea that the carafe is defined only by its difference or distance from the other items the paragraph describes. It is not clear why the last line of the paragraph was omitted, as the rest of the paragraph is subsequently discussed fairly thoroughly.
  • On page 152, Stein is described as stopping her work at night “in the moments ‘before the dawn was clear’, for light made things too real, too painfully distinct in their ‘thingness’”. The complete quote in its original context is: “She [Stein] said she always tried to stop before the dawn was too clear and the birds were too lively because it is a disagreeable sensation to go to bed then”. This reason is completely different from the reason that Lehrer describes.
  • On page 197, a quote from philosopher Karl Popper begins: “It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge”. The actual quote begins: “What we should do, I suggest, is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge”. “Suggest” has very different implications than “imperative”, but “imperative” makes the quote more strongly reinforce Lehrer’s idea of a multidisciplinary “fourth culture”.

And here are some examples of debatable statements and lazy mistakes:

  • “The discovery of photosensitive chemicals” is dated to the 19th century (on page 99). According to online sources, philosopher Albertus Magnus was working with photosensitive chemicals in the 13th century.
  • “With that startling revelation [that ‘the mind makes the world’], Cézanne invented modernist art” (p. 113). Well, no, he didn’t. He certainly made a large contribution to its development, but when any single artist or artwork is identified as inventing modernist art, it’s usually Pablo Picasso and his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – a painting that has been called “the break that divides past and future”.
  • A footnote on p. 123 states that Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald “used to make their dinner guests choose between listening to a scratchy recording of [Stravinsky’s] The Rite [of Spring] or looking at photographs of mutilated soldiers”. The source of this story is not referenced, and I could not find any source online that verified it. The same is true of the quote from Leo Stein on page 148: “Anyone can buy art in Paris”.
  • A footnote on p. 155 includes a quote from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: “we ‘give to airy nothing/A local habituation and a name’”. The correct wording (from Theseus’ speech near the start of Act V, Scene I) is “a local habitation” – a neuroscientist should know the difference between “habituation” and “habitation” – and the context of the quote is a description of “the poet’s pen”, not a generalized “we”.
  • The speaker of a quote on p. 133 – “all art aspires to the condition of music” – is not named in the text. In the reference list the source is cited as a book by “William Pater”. The author’s correct first name is “Walter”.

(These are examples of what I found; the complete list is available on request.)

This many problems in only one-half of the book suggests that Proust is yet another example of Lehrer acting in the way that Seth Mnookin described: “[It] illustrates a writer with a remarkable arrogance: The arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater, or a little easier for himself.” And while some of Lehrer’s defenders have attributed the mistakes in his work to the increasingly demanding pace and productivity of Lehrer’s high-profile career, it would seem that there were problems with his writing right from the start.

Most writers ensure that material inside quotation marks is directly quoted and accurately quoted, not only out of respect to the original source, but also to maintain their own credibility. I find it troubling that the misquotes above are not only incorrect, but also that some wording seems to have been strategically altered. How can the reader be expected to believe Lehrer’s big points – and, believe me, Proust has plenty of confident pronouncements and sweeping assertions  – if the material underlying those points is not correct, or worse, has been willfully misrepresented?

In his apology speech, Lehrer claimed: “I have learned a difficult truth about myself. I have learned about parts of me that I tried for too long not to see. But entangled with that truth is the possibility of improvement….[m]ore humble. More careful. Less tempted by shortcuts and my own excuses.” Reliable, accurate and honest writing needs to be a major part of that improvement.

RELATED POST: Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Did This Happen?

5 comments

  1. Thank you for confirming my suspicions about Proust without my having to read yet another of Lehrer’s self-serving fictions. There are a couple of other writers who deserve a close reading, Malcolm Gladwell and Paul Tough connect to Lehrer and produce the same sort of dubious pseudo-nonfiction. How Children Succeed is a rather transparent shill for education reform; and The Tipping Point supposedly shows how anyone can capitalize on market trends but is really more a celebration of corporate power. Their writing is a form of disinformation; some part of it may result from laziness, but I want to know who is actually paying them.

  2. I used to call “Proust was a Neuroscientist” one of my favorite books. I suppose I can no longer say that and I have to admit that I was duped. I am disappointed because I really like the idea of linking the brain and the fine arts together in the way the author did (or in this case failed to accurately do). Thank you for writing this.

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