From the TLS of Sept. 22, two thoughtful pieces on Donne: Katherine Duncan-Jones's review of John Stubbs's new biography, "Donne: The reformed soul," and A. S. Byatt's commentary, "Observe the neurones -- between, above and below John Donne."
I found Byatt's allusion to Jean-Pierre Changeux's neuroscientific theorizing, as detailed in his "L'Homme neuronal," utterly useless in explaining the seductive effects of Donne's poetry -- and, indeed, completely extraneous to the very nice exegesis that Byatt offers of a number of Donne's love poems.
To consider merely one particularly nice moment, take this extended quote from Elaine Scarry's "Dreaming by the Book," where Scarry discusses Donne's "To His Mistress Going to Bed":
Half in the imperative and half in the voice of petition, John Donne addresses his mistress for permission to let him move his hands across her undressed body – “License my roving hands and let them go” – but it is also the imaginer who is being solicited to make the picture of Donne’s hand move across the picture of the woman’s body, a sense of movement achieved by a sequence of five stills, five locations on the woman’s body – Before, behind, between, above, below . . . .
Here is Byatt's comment on Scarry:
Scarry has noticed what is important about this very sensuous image – it is, like Donne’s uses of her other imaginative marker, bright ignition, stopped off. He starts an imaginative process, and leaves the reader to carry it through, or to respond to the marker. I do not see the succession of adverbs as “stills” at all, partly because I do not expect Donne to make a picture, and partly because they are like Donne’s other erotic lists – “lips, hand and eyes”, “thy lip, eye and brow” – parts of speech evoking a sensuous graph. I think – though this cannot be proved, and for that reason is merely a hypothetical folly – that Donne’s adverbs of a flow of movement, like his enumeration of parts of an imagined face, are an appeal to mirror neurones. And the mirror neurones that respond to “Before, behind, between, above, below” are not picture-making neurones, but locations on the body of both writer and reader. They are the more powerful because they are purely brief firings in the mind of its deep habit of imagining motion in the body, and linking these images to other emotions, to form concepts and map them with grammar.
This is very well done, but it also serves well to illustrate the weakness of Byatt's approach. Her reading of the way in which Donne's couplet works is, I believe, very strong, but her evocation of motor neurons adds absolutely nothing to that reading. It might be that motor neurons are the phenomena that will explain how it is that readers create "sensuous graphs" in response to what they read, but the explanation of how the couplet works doesn't require a knowledge of that underlying explanation, no more than an explanation of how to boil eggs requires a knowledge of mean molecular kinetic energy or the chemical composition of water.
It would be boorish to end on that note, however. For Byatt is spot-on in her reading of Scarry on Donne. She is absolutely right to suggest that Scarry's treatment of Donne's adverbs both as "still" representations and as pictorial ones is not the most natural way to understand the effect of that remarkable couplet. She is also correct to suggest that the adverbs are most naturally read as a "sensuous graph" of motion and emotion. And if Byatt's otherwise inexplicable dalliance with modish neuroscience is the price the reader must pay for the very nice closing sentence of her essay, then the price is -- in the eyes of this reader, at least -- worth it.