The Cellular World


I always enjoyed the story of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, after delivering a four-hour lecture to his class in Cambridge on the intricacies of some logical problem, would then go to a movie in town (his favorite genre was the American Western) and sit in the front row, letting the images inundate his overheated brain. Intuitively, it makes sense, the need to turn off the intellect and immerse oneself in fantasy for a while. Now it turns out that it makes scientific sense as well. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, psychologist Alison Gopnik notes that magnetic imaging studies show that the occipital cortex, which is very active in the infant brain, lights up in adults while they are watching a movie, while the prefrontal lobe shuts down. In short, there is a reversion (if that is the right word) to pre-critical thinking, which adults often experience as a relief from the “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex. This latter part of the brain is undeveloped in infants, and doesn’t fully form in most individuals until they are in their twenties. The implication is that imagination precedes rational analysis; to do art, be creative, or imagine hypothetical worlds, one has to play, to tap into that preverbal substrate of the mind.

In his review of Gopnik’s work (New York Review of Books, 11 March 2010), Michael Greenberg talks about how elusive and shadowy the infant’s consciousness really is. Tolstoy wrote that it was but a slight step from a five-year-old boy to a man of fifty, but a huge distance between a newborn and a five-year-old. Greenberg says of the first five years of life:

“Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or reliable context. With their sensorial, almost cellular evocations, these memories seem to reside more in the body than the mind; yet they are central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.”

Proust immediately comes to mind, of course: the scene with the madeleine in Du côté de chez Swann, where the taste of the cookie suddenly opens the door to a flood of childhood memories, long forgotten but still latent in the body. “Cellular evocations…central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.” If the phrase “human identity” has a meaning, surely this is it. And yet that fundamental cellular identity gets papered over, as it were; as we grow older, we become someone else. But it is not clear that the archaic self ever goes away completely.

In his autobiography, the psychologist Carl Jung tells the story of a man who comes to him for therapy, apparently at the insistence of his wife. The man is dull as a stick: a Swiss high school principal of about sixty years of age, who did everything “right” all his life, and never experienced a moment of ecstasy or imagination. Jung suggests that he keep a record of his dreams, which he does, showing up at the second session with something potentially disturbing. He dreamt that he entered a darkened room, and found a three-year-old infant covered with feces, and crying. What, he asked Dr. Jung, could it mean? Jung decided not to tell him the obvious: that the baby was himself, that it had had the life crushed out of it at an early age, and was now crying out to be heard. Exposing the “shadow” to the light of day, Jung told himself, would precipitate a psychosis in this poor guy; he wouldn’t be able to handle the psychic confrontation. So Jung gave him some sort of neutral explanation, saw the man a few more times, finally pronounced him “cured,” and let him go.

One wonders if the good doctor did the right thing. Is a living death preferable to a psychotic awakening? On the other hand—and I have a feeling Jung would agree with me on this—aren’t we all that man, to some degree? Perhaps not as wigged out, but it may be a question of degree, nothing more. Abandonment of that cellular identity is the abandonment of life itself; the abandonment of the part of ourselves that is in touch with the “miraculous,” as some have called it.

A couple of poems come to mind. One is by Antonio Machado (my translation):

The wind, one clear day, called to my heart
with the sweet smell of jasmine.

“In exchange for this aroma,
I want the scent of all your roses.”
“I have no roses; the flowers
in my garden are gone; they are all dead.”

“Then I’ll take the tears from your fountains,
The yellow leaves and the withered petals.”
And the wind left…My heart bled…
“My soul, what have you done with your poor little garden?”

Who, upon reading this, can’t feel a sense of guilt, a sense of something having been betrayed, and now faintly stirring, knocking on the door of consciousness, asking to be heard, at long last?

The same theme comes up in “Faith Healing,” by the British poet Philip Larkin, which describes a “workshop” being held somewhere in England by a visiting American guru. Undoubtedly, he is something of a charlatan; but even (or especially) charlatans know how to press the right buttons. The women in the workshop line up to be held by him for twenty seconds, to hear him ask, “Now, dear child, What’s wrong,” before he moves on to the next person. Most just come and go, but some start twitching, crying,

…as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone…

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.

Larkin goes on to compare this moment to the thawing of a frozen landscape, a weeping that spreads slowly through the body—just from the fact of being asked the question, of having someone recognize that there is even a question to be asked. As with Machado, it’s hard not to identify with the emotion that is being pulled out of a deep cellular memory. What is the “poor little garden,” if not the “sense of life lived according to love” sleeping within us, the cellular memory that never really goes away?

There is, of course, in virtually every society, a kind of conspiracy to keep that memory out of conscious awareness. We need to ask why that would be the case; but meanwhile, it’s clear that if it emerges at all, it is by “accident” (the madeleine that triggers a kinesthetic memory, e.g.), or in a therapist’s office, or in a dream (or a poem). If the cellular world is repressed within the individual, it is also repressed within society. Hence, to study human psychology is really to study abnormal psychology, and to study sociology is really to study a kind of institutionalized insanity; or weirdness, at the very least. But it is hardly an accident that the two go hand in hand. Observing the phenomenon in the United States, the psychiatrist Thomas Lewis remarks that “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.” “Happiness,” he concludes, “is within range only for adroit people who give the slip to America’s values.”

A grim assessment, but I doubt there is any way of denying it. Nor is it limited to the United States, of course; if Freud was right, there is no civilization without deep discontent. It just takes a different form in different cultures. And in any case, it is hard to imagine what a society based entirely on cellular memory would be like—although figures such as Rousseau and Nietzsche did their best to sketch it out. True, the results are less than impressive, but one would like to think that more can be done in this direction beyond individual initiative. It is very rare for a society to literally stop, for a moment, and collectively discuss what an authentic way of life might consist of. Indeed, I can barely imagine such a thing, except that it actually happened in France in May/June of 1968, and for those who were privileged enough to have been at the two-month “teach-in” held at the Sorbonne during that time, it was like breathing oxygen. What is man? What is the good life? What are we doing here? And: Why aren’t we asking ourselves these questions all the time?

“Come my friends,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson; “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

What a thought.

Morris Berman BioMorris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social  critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 2003-6 he was Visiting Professor in Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Dr. Berman relocated to Mexico in 2006, and during 2008-9 was Visiting Professor in Humanities at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City.  He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness: The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000) and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a ‘Notable Book’ by the New York Times.  A volume of his poetry, Counting Blessings, as well as a collection of essays, A Question of Values, will be appearing later this year.




  • I have always admired de Kooning as a man who was in touch with the child within and who found new ways, even into old age, to keep his vision fresh. He has always been a model for me on how to grow old as an artist. And yet, reading his biography, it is clear that maintaining contact with the child within does not make for consistently smooth sailing in the world. In a letter to his sister, written when he was 63, de Kooning wrote:

    “I stayed in this world of childish wonder. I think a lot of creative people never grow up. I am certain that a real man wouldn’t paint any pictures! Or wonder about the universe. Or believe in dreams. Or think that trees sometimes look at him.”