"The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sunday, January 10, 2010

21. Ultimate Causes

From Advice for a Young Investigator (tr. Swanson).  The book is a revised publication of Cajal's speech upon induction into the Academia de Ciencias Exastas, Físicas y Naturales on December 5, 1897:

"Another commonplace worth repeating is that science cannot hope to solve Ultimate Causes.  In other words, science can never understand the foundation hidden below the appearance of phenomena in the universe.  As Claude Bernard has pointed out, researchers cannot transcend the determinism of phenomena; instead, their mission is limited to demonstrating the how, never the why, of observed changes.  This is a modest goal in the eyes of philosophy, yet an imposing challenge in actual practice.  Knowing the conditions under which a phenomenon occurs allows us to reproduce or eliminate it at will, therefore allowing us to control and use it for the benefit of humanity.  Foresight and action are the advantages we obtain from a deterministic view of phenomena."

It is continually fascinating to me to read about Cajal's humility.  He believes that the drilling human intellect will never penetrate some final, first layer of causes.  I think it is fair to call this unknowable knowledge "divine," in Cajal's vocabulary and association.  His satisfaction with his cosmic situation is, in my opinion, a facet of his unique genius.  I have excerpted from his explanation of his religious beliefs here, beginning at "Let us console . . ."

To understand a religious man you must understand his religion.  Cajal was not traditionally devout, but was undeniably formed in some part by Catholic education.  (I find this in his section of his Don Quixote essay where he argues that pain is the "Whip of Emotions").  He believes in something higher; something that may be material, but will never materialize.  Her name (and it is certainly feminine for a Quixote such as Cajal) could be Nature (or Truth).  She is a scientific God, in that she behaves deterministically.  To know her is to make a discovery, at which point a "veil is lifted from before (the) eyes," to quote Cajal's autobiography Recollections of My Life.  The scientist is "minister of progress, priest of the truth, and a confidant of the Creator" (Advice).

I must identify Cajal's God in order to understand his life, I said it at the beginning.  And it's coming into focus.

Monday, January 4, 2010

20. Knowing, Creating & the Ideal

I found a couple of passages in Charlas de café (1921) that I decided to translate.  The first is a perfect articulation and ordering of mental capacities:

"Creating and knowing. — It is good to know the name and properties of all the flowers, but it is even better to create a new flower."

On his famous "questionnaire," Proust gave (in my opinion) his most brilliant answer to the following question: "What is your favorite flower?"  Hers, wrote Proust.  In that spirit, I chose an image of the favorite flower of a female friend.  Calla Lilies.  I love the liquid words as much as the flowing image.  But what's the difference anyway, if we are to create the new?  Cajal created a a beautiful little garden in the brain.  His caution against encyclopedic knowledge echoes that of the Taoists and Goethe, to use two not un-related examples.  He never appreciated the rote memorization he was forced to practice as a youth in school.  His excelled visually; he would gaze at a slide until his memory had finished its coding, and then he would go outside for a walk.  When he returned, he was able to perfectly draw the intricacies of nerve cells.  I believe the word for this is "eidetic memory."  Cajal was motivated by discovery, by progress.  It is important to find a balance between introspection and expression.

But what is progress?  Does it really exist?  Can we ever gain a full understanding of the universe and our place in it?  Cajal treats this potentially defeatist doubt in the second passage with his trademark grace and humility:

"Ideal of science. — Because we live in full mystery, struggling against unknown forces, we try as much as possible to clarify it.  We are not disheartened by the poverty of our effort before the great and innumerable problems of life.  Our arduous labor concluded, we will be forgotten, like the seed in the furrow; but something will console us, the consideration that our descendants will owe us part of their joy and that, thanks to our initiatives, the world, that is, that miniscule part of Nature, object of our strivings, will turn out to be a little more agreeable and intelligible."

Cajal's relationship to his ideals interests me.  He is fiercely romantic, a Quixote deep in his heart, and yet he cultivated a psychological harmony that allowed him to maximize his talents in this world.  His professional life was so fulfilling that one might say it approaches the ideal for an investigator.  But in essence, Cajal seems to be saying that the ideal is much more prosaic.  It is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but ultimately progress is continued, Nature remains.  By lowering himself, he achieved heights.  He contributed, like other giants in the history of human thought, to the grand narrative of progress.  His paternal instinct is apparent in the quote, so it is indeed fitting to call him the "father of (modern) neuroscience."

I'll translate some more passages of this length later this week.  After a few months of writing this blog, I'm still not sure who actually reads it.  I don't expect or require an audience.  But if you are out there, reader, I would love to hear what you think.  I'm deeply involved with Cajal, so everything I learn about him is interesting to me.  I would love to hear what stimulates you, reader.  Because learning is only half the battle; I have to convince people in the humanities that Cajal is an important figure.  Of course I think it's an easy sell, but that means nothing.

Happy 2010.

Friday, December 25, 2009

19. The Beautiful Brain

I contributed a short essay to a new website about the relationship between art and science, The Beautiful Brain.  It's called "Interdisciplinary Relations: On Consilience" and addresses the new theory of literature called "Literary Darwinism."  I evaluate the currently debated question of whether art is an adaptive trait or an evolutionary by-product.  I may write more pieces for the site in the future.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

18. Quotes & Quotes

Lately I've been using Spanish Google because I can often track down word definitions that are hiding somewhere on the Web.  In this alternate, Iberian universe I found a great resource: a website commemorating Cajal's 150th birthday.  It even has an English translation!

Anyway, this site cited two other sites that got me excited.  They are quotation databases.  And who doesn't love a good quotation?  Many of these are from books that I have, but it's taking me a long time to work through them.  I thought I'd share:

"Remove yourself gradually, without violent breaks, from the friend for whom you represent a means instead of an end."

"You don't have enemies?  Is it that you never told the truth or never loved justice?"

"It is not worse to commit an error, but to try to justify it, instead of taking advantage of it as providential notice of our lightness or ignorance."

"Of all the possible reactions before injury, the most skilled and economical is silence."

"We scorn or hate ourselves because we do not understand because we do not take on the task of studying ourselves."

"The art of living a lot is to resign yourself to living little by little."

"Sympathy is very frequently a sentimental prejudice based on the idea that the face is the mirror of the soul.  Unfortunately, the face is almost always a mask."

"Ideas do not last long.  One must do something with them."

"Glory, in truth, is nothing other than a postponed obscurity."

"The weak succumb not for being weak, but for ignoring that they are it."

"Only the madman incapable of choosing his dreams and the sick man whom pain prevents from sleeping.

Here's to insomia . . .

Thursday, December 3, 2009

17. Ochenta años and La mujer

I'm polishing my translation of "El quijote," which I think is a really interesting essay.  Cajal was undoubtedly a lover of literature, and he had an important relationship with reading.  Cajal has a few important concepts in the essay.  One is tipo de humano or "type of human."  The closest critical term that we have might be Jung's archetype.  But I decided not to use that word in translation because it would be anachronistic and it's spoiled with connotations.  I simply use "type" and think of it as a more poetic "Type-A/Type-B."  Don Quixote's type is idealist.  Cajal was himself quite quixotic and it shows in his passionate language.  Sancho Panza is Don Quixote's emotional counterweight.  In a different book, Cajal agrees with Charles Richet that "the idealism of Don Quixote is combined with the good sense of Sancho in men of genius."

Cajal acknowledges that Don Quixote is insane, disturbed.  What is the diagnosis?  Some sort of obligada abnormalidad mental "compulsory mental abnormality."  But Cajal's tone is not medical.  He successfully weaves a narrative that includes biographical information about Cervantes.

In the section titled "Cervantes, Incorrigible Quixote" Cajal credits other critics, "Cervantists," for their revelation of Cervantes' own story.  Cervantes was well-off and had high aspirations.  Then, as a soldier, he was imprisoned in Seville, where Cajal believes the genius of Cervantes was sculpted.  The last section of the essay is called "The Whip of Emotions," where Cajal argues that pain is an "awakener of souls and instigator of energies."  His last image is a strangely beautiful one:

"Comparable to swarms of marine noctilucas, whose phorsphorescence excites itself upon impact of the propeller of a ship, the lazy brain cells only ignite their low light with the whip of painful emotions.  Perhaps the privileged brain of Cervantes needed, likewise, to arrive at the tone and boiling of sublime inspiration, of the sharp sword of pain and the spectacular grieving of misery."

It is interesting to note that Cajal was educated in a school system whose motto could be described with the idiom "La letra con sangre entra."  (in other words, corporal punishment).  Cajal himself was literally imprisoned, locked in the basement in school, and so there is parallelism to Cervantes.

These are very powerful words and it's a wonderful essay and I'm still doing my best to do it justice.

I received two more Cajal books this week: El mundo vista a los 80 años" and "La mujer."  More on that later.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

16. La psicología de los artistas & the Art of Translation

The other day I received a small package from Spain. It was the third edition of a work titled La psicología de los artistas, by Santiago Ramón y Cajal. It includes a number of pieces, including an account of Cajal's childhood as told by his brother [and fellow neuroscientist] Pedro, letters written by Cajal himself, and a literary essay concerning Cervantes's Don Quixote. To my knowledge, the content has never been translated into English. Therefore I am endeavoring to do so, starting with that essay titled "El quijote y el quijotismo," written in 1905 in commemoration of the publication of "the immortal book" [to use Cajal's words].

So far I have translated [roughly] roughly all of the first half: "El quijote." It is a fascinating piece from a refreshingly extra-disciplinary perspective written in the romantic style that captured Cajal's heart at a young age. Here is the first paragraph:

"Universally admired is the eminent moral figure of the noble la Manchan don Alonso Quijano el Bueno; converted to knight-errantry by suggestion of silly chivalresque books, he represents, as it has been said a thousand times, the most perfect symbol of honor and altruism. Ever Anglo-Saxon in nature, so given to imagining energetic and original characters, he invented a most exquisite persona of indomitable individualism and sublime self-denial."

Cajal considers "el Quijote," literally "the Do-Gooder," an archetype. In fact, one of the sections of the essay's second part is called "Representative Men. Men of the Species." A key word in the above paragraph is "suggestion" [sugestión], which is a most powerful notion. Cajal was fascinated by the popular pseudo-science of hypnotism—he even conducted his own investigative experiments on the topic—because of its apparent influence on the mind. Suggestion, then, is a weapon of falsity. Golgi and other proponents of the reticular theory were given to such convincing aspects of un-reality as ego and convention. Moreover, I love the phrase "sublime self-denial." Although it refers to Quixote's insane ignorance, it also has serious spiritual implications.

Now, what is most interesting about this essay in my opinion is that it is implicitly personal. Cervantes's classic was one of the treasures the teenage Cajal found in his neighbor's stash of romantic materials. But, then, Cajal objected to the author's treatment of his hero. Cajal was himself quite quixotic, and that quality would never truly leave him. In his autobiography, he refers at least twice to the famous character. By the time he wrote Advice for a Young Investigator, Cajal agreed that a combination of the temperaments of don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Indeed, Cajal calls one of the essay's sections "Salute to Sancho Panza," "prodigious incarnation of the tranquility and goodness of the soul." Though naturally an idealist, like his sympathetic literary hero, Cajal understood the necessary balance of healthy character. One must control "el Quijote."

This critical essay, which relies on a biographical and psychological reading, is an extremely insightful one in my opinion. So far, I think it is definitely worthwhile given the genius of its author. We'll see what happens when I finish translating and polishing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 13, 2009

15. Vision & the Brain

There has been a considerable gap between posts. I finished Recollections of My Life a while ago, but have been unable to write about the final part. As the author advanced his narrative to the time of his writing, old age, I was moved by his grace and humility:

"I have aimed that my life should be, so far as possible, in accordance with the counsel of the philosopher, a living poem of intense action and of secret heroism on behalf of scientific culture. Poor is my work, but it has been as intense and original as my slender talents permitted"[595].

Thereupon, I was motivated yet again to try to one day illuminate this man's life and work. Cajal's narrative is weak and at times boring; he would admit as much. But he is not a literary man. Perhaps a different treatment of the material would yield a different result. Scientifically, there is a staining method called the Ehrlich method. In Chicago, a man jokingly said "How wonderful, we have been graced by the illustrious Dr. Ehrlich!" A funny coincidence.

I will be reading Cajal's final two non-scientific books: Charlas de café [Café Conversations] and El mundo visto a los 80 años [The World Seen from 80-Years-Old]. They must be ordered from Spain and I am broke, but traveling for a freelance job next week. Patience is a virtue.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been using a great resource that my father found for me. In a set of DVDs called "Understanding the Brain," from the series "The Great Courses," Vanderbilt University professor and neuroscientist Dr. Jeanette Norden teaches neuroscience. I am a third of the way through the course and feel that I have already learned a great deal about the anatomy and physiology of the brain. The last two "lectures" have dealt with the vision system. I was struck by this axiom:

"Vision is a construct of the brain."

As it turns out, the eye provides very little information to the brain. Although it has about 100 million photoreceptors, only one million neurons transmit to a place called the lateral geniculate nucleus [LGN], which projects to the visual cortex at Brodmann's area 17. [Blah blah, but writing helps me cement the knowledge]. There, and at other higher-order places, the brain begins to form a percept that we experience as "sight." What's more, I was amazed to learn that we technically have a constant blind spot, a gap in the macula [neural sheet at the back of the eye] where the optic nerve exits. The brain merely fills in that blank. Therefore, vision is an entirely personal and subjective experience.

I have said that one of my main questions about Cajal concerns his vision. How did he look at tissue from the brain and see neurons, whereas the rest of the field saw a reticulum? Well, the neuron was always there. He merely [merely, ha!] had developed a brain that could construct the proper percept. How did he develop that brain? I have ideas, but I will save those. Remember, though, that "man can be the sculptor of his own brain." And:

"A persevering and deliberate effort is capable of moulding and organizing everything, from the muscle to the brain, making up the deficiencies of nature and even overcoming the mischances of character--the most difficult thing in life"[4].

Finally, Dr. Norden discussed our perception of color. She said that there are no blue cones in the fovea, our main visual part [we are "foveate" animals, with high visual acuity] at the center of the macula. When we look directly at something "blue," it is our brain that creates the color. Blue, therefore, is a state of mind. But of course, Picasso and the jazz men understood this . . .

Thanks! And special thanks to DW [and AH] for helping to guide me through an eclipse. Literally, it can be quite formative, as Cajal explains of 1860. Metaphorically/creatively, the same.