Richard E Cytowic, MD: I’ve done some interesting research on synaesthesia. Will you publish my book about it?
MIT Press: Hmm, that depends. Do you promise to stuff it with painfully clunky expositional dialogue?
Richard E Cytowic, MD: Only if I’m allowed to fill the second half of the book with a series of rambling essays in which I make, quite frankly, a colossal show of myself?
MIT Press: It’s a deal!
Of course, I’ve no evidence that this is exactly how the negotiations went between the author and publisher of The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E Cytowic, MD (MIT Press, 2003). But it’s the only version of events that makes sense.
It’s difficult to write a bad book about a subject as interesting as synaesthesia (a neurological condition in which the senses are interlinked or jumbled – so that, as in this book, for example, a person can experience taste as a tactile sensation (the man who tasted shapes remarks: “There aren’t enough points on the chicken”)). Cytowic does his best. To be fair, Cytowic’s research was groundbreaking. To continue being fair, Cytowic’s book is so steeped in its author’s self-worth that I could barely bring myself to finish reading it.
The expositional dialogue is, I suppose, a necessary evil in these sorts of books (even the great Oliver Sacks isn’t immune, often having a patient say something like: “So you’re saying, doc, that this crazy brain of mine is kinda like a ballpark where the floodlights are all wired up wrong?”). But Cytowic’s dialogue goes on and on, the author repetitive and hectoring, the stooges and sycophants that people his pages obligingly compliant (mostly they ‘agree’ or ‘nod’ or say ‘this is an excellent strategy, Rick’ – or nod and say ‘good strategy’ – or, as in one memorable incident: ‘My questioner sat motionless.’).
(Very often, someone will ‘grin’. What is it with this verb ‘grin’? What’s certain is that anyone using it in earnest should be deprived immediately and indefinitely of the liberty to write. I think the problem is that it’s a word that’s being made to do too much – to carry too great a freight of carefree playfulness, or cheesy complicity, or devil-may-care irreverence – or some damn thing, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s the definitive airport-thriller word, and should be forbidden by publishers).
It’s hard not to be reminded of Martin Amis’s review of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography:
The book’s most persistent theme is Asimov’s inexhaustible, all-conquering self-love. Every anecdote is subtly, or openly, gauged to bolster his charm. His reported jokes begin with the phrase ‘I said at once’, and end with the phrase ‘Everyone laughed’. (Amis, ‘Visiting Mrs Nabokov’ (Jonathan Cape, 1993))
Cytowic fancies himself as a Creative. What’s more, he doesn’t always play by the rules, won’t go along with the ‘establishment’ (‘It would have been easier to accept things the way they were. But it was not my nature’). On the jacket of the book, he’s pictured posing thumb-on-chin in a pair of zany bi-coloured spectacles. He is, essentially, David Brent with an MD (‘This isn’t in the rule book!’ ‘Get a new rule book.’).
He starts The Man Who Tasted Shapes with an arresting prophecy:
At the end of our journey you will have a new view of the mind and what it means to be human – a view that challenges the foundations of traditional thought and enterprise, a radical view that turns inside out and upside down conventional ideas about reason, emotion, and who we are.
Well, I’ve now come to the end of our journey (after 255 pages of Cytowic threshing his way through one straw man after another). The prophecy has sadly not come to pass. By the time I got to Cytowic’s ‘essay’ on Science and Spirituality I had a better understanding of synaesthesia, but only because, while my eyes were receiving sense data from the page, my brain was experiencing an eye-watering whiff of dogshit.
There’s some interesting stuff in here, it’s true. I’ll blog on some of it some time – if I can bear to revisit the company of Richard E Cytowic, MD.