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Inaugural Year Lecture Series Public Lecture: Deborah Jenson

January 28, 2016
05:00 PM - 07:00 PM
Hawkins-Carlson Room, Rush Rhees Library

Deborah Jenson (Professor of Romance Studies and Global Health, Director, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University), will speak on “Flaubert’s Brain: Reading (and Writing) Epilepsy." The lecture will take place from 5-6:15 p.m., followed immediately by a reception in the Welles-Brown Room, Rush Rhees Library from 6:15-7 p.m.

Flaubert's Brain: Reading (and Writing) Epilepsy

What does the science of the brain have to teach readers of literature? How have novelists depicted the biology of mental states? Does an understanding of creative writing as a complex mapping of the mind aid literary interpretation? Can humanists and scientists collaborate to generate new knowledge about the relationship of art to nature?

Jenson will explore these questions by considering the example of the famous French writer Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary (1857), who had epilepsy. Flaubert conveyed the cognitive, emotional, and bodily experience of his individual characters in their social contexts with extraordinary realism. At the same time, he struggled to represent his own epileptic lapses of consciousness, convulsions, and heightened or uncontrolled emotional experiences through the same characters. Although Flaubert was determined to squeeze out every drop of what he called his “brain juice” onto paper, he was also certain that “something fairly tragic must previously have taken place in my brain box”—a neurological misadventure that was somehow symptomatic of modernity itself.

It is possible that Flaubert experienced a variation on the disorder known as “reading epilepsy,” in which the activation of multiple regions and structures in the central nervous system, including information integration cortices, can prompt a reflexive over-excitation of the nervous system. Yet Flaubert also claimed that he had learned to anticipate and moderate his spells precisely by channeling and disciplining on the page the “hemorrhage” of the “imagistic faculty of the brain.” It was via the imagination, he explained to a long-term correspondent, that “I have approached the education of my nerves.”

Drawing on an alternative definition of “mind reading” from the one in common usage, Jenson will illustrate what interpreters of literature have to gain—and what they might have to lose—by delving into the emerging scholarly field of “neurohumanities.” She will also position Flaubert’s fiction as an early case of the “neuro-novel,” connecting it to such recent works as Richard Power’s The Echomaker, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. Her lecture will be an opportunity to think about the new ways in which scientists and humanists can enrich each other’s work.

Category: Lectures and Seminars