In a neuronovel, human behavior is explained in terms of the brain, neurochemistry and synapses firing. There is usually a disorder seen reductionistically and the narrative is characterized by biological determinism. For instance in Ian McEwan’s Sunday, the main character has Huntington’s disease; his life and behavior are explained in terms of the flaws in his DNA. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, the main character’s life is determined by his hermaphroditic condition caused by 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. (More about neuronovels here.)
It is 2011 and neurons are in vogue. It may seem plausible, interesting and cool to examine a protagonist completely at the mercy of his hardware, when there is an exotic disease to act as a barrier, distancing you from him and shielding you against identifying with him. There is, however, yet another step the deterministic neuronovels haven’t taken – would they ever dare to explain everything in terms of neurons, however popular they are? Can you describe the whole human experience solely in terms of neurochemistry – reducing everything we are into biology?
I have attempted to get closer to this by trying to neuronovelize a novel. I’ve (pretentiously) chosen Sartre’s ‘The Nausea’. The main character, Roquentin, can arguably be diagnosed with a myriad of psychiatric disorders – at least OCD and Major Depressive Disorder with occasional psychotic symptoms. Even though these too are disorders, they’re far more common than Huntington’s, allowing identification with the protagonist. Now, if we assume the widely accepted neurochemical model behind depression and OCD, suggesting serotonine imbalance as well as impaired hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland -axis, we can see that much of Roquentin’s narrative throughout the whole novel is heavily influenced by his synapses gone astray.
Through Roquentin, Sartre conveys some of his widespread thoughts of freedom and the nature of existence. Are these thoughts to be understood as symptoms of a disorder, rather than a portrayal of the human condition? Are the meditations on total freedom nothing more than expressions of obsessive-compulsive disorder treatable with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (e.g.Prozac)? Also, the novel came out 1947 when the western world had a lot to be depressed about. Why would the novel be considered as anything else than a voice of collective ‘reactive depression’?
I think the neuronovel experiment can only exist if it’s about somebody you can’t identify with. It’s ok if Baxter’s life was all about Huntington, but there is something creepy about a character closer to be able to be identified with being just a soup of chemicals. Hurts the pride?
Looking at it from another angle, if you examine the Nausea in terms of biological determinisim, what would the evolutionary implications be? Why would natural selection have brought forth anyone who thinks like Roquentin? Is he ‘flawed’ or diseased, expressing a malfunction or an undesired by-product of our massive neocortices? Or is the chemical ‘imbalance’ in his brain in fact somehow good for preserving the species? The depression is what brings Roquentin into contact with existence (in the scene with the chestnut tree); is there some evolutionary advantage in understanding this?
Or, why else would so many people in the western world be depressed, if it wasn’t that our genes produce this chemical imbalance as a result of the environment we live in?
Of course one can argue that natural selection is out of the window now that modern medicine saves us from so many external pathogens. Then again, it is also possible to ask if depression, is in fact ‘nature’s’ way of countering how we tamper with natural selection? If we spend so much time curing all diseases, nature will have found depression – and it’s complication suicide – to act as the instrument of natural selection?
A final word for a cool determinist to ponder; if I’m just a soup of neurotransmittors, why would I choose to write this text. I don’t believe I have a disease. Why are my genes making me do what I’m doing right now? There cannot possibly be any evolutionary advantages to writing this text right here and now.