Inside the TLS: John Donne edition

The September 22, 2006 edition of the TLS has been sitting around the house for a while. Donne is on the cover. He is a writer whose poems I don’t know well, a great writer about whom I’m not all that curious. I feel a little sheepish about this. And, feeling this way, it’s long interested (and artificially confirmed) me that Woolf’s essay on John Donne—a lead essay for the TLS as it happens—seems so dutiful.

In any case, I’m glad I hung on to the issue. A. S. Byatt’s essay on Donne, “Observe the Neurones,” is a revelation: smart and crazy. I’ve gotten obsessed by it in the couple weeks since I read it. Byatt opens by “trying to work out why [Donne] is so exciting” and she finds the answer in neurology. (I am embarrassed to confessed how slowed I was by not realizing “neurones” is simply the British spelling of “neurons.”)

Thought really is physical, Byatt reminds us, and each thought lights up a neural pathway. Building on this, Byatt seizes on another’s hypothesis---that perhaps “we delight in puns because the neuron connections become very excited by the double input.” That is, a pun lights up two paths at once, giving our brain an extra jolt of electricity. In short, there may be a physical pleasure to some kinds of thinking.

For the rest of the essay, Byatt develops this neurological hypothesis with regards to Donne and another “exciting” poet, Wallace Stevens, using neurology and the work of Harvard literary critic Elaine Scarry. (Scarry’s most famous for The Body in Pain but Byatt is working with Dreaming by the Book.) If puns bring pleasure, might metaphysical poetry, too, be “exciting” for similar physiological reasons? I think that’s a good guess.

In graduate school, we each had moments of great enthusiasm for our own projects. It comes to seem, at a certain moment, that you are writing the argument, the key ot all mythologies. Of this, my friend would say, “Oh, she’s at the phase where everything is everything.”

That phrase became a kind of limit and warning to me: anytime I felt on fire with the sense that everything fit, that “everything is everything,” I would pause, check my pulse, and back down.

Byatt describes a Donne poem, “The Cross,” that suffers from the enthusiasm of the everything is everything moment: having compared his own body to a cross (and thus, to Christ on the cross), he moves to what she calls “a mad bravura demonstration of the brain’s power to detect—or confer—abstract forms.” As she notes, after listing the many crosses in Donne’s poem, “this is nonsense at any level of logic except the brain’s pleasure in noticing, or making, analogies.” Ultimately it seems that the pleasure of reading Donn is like that of the pun: Donne ignites a spark. Reading this gives me a way to enter his poems again.