Brain Tumor

The doctor says, “The tumor is just like the brain here, that’s the problem.”

I draw this diagnosis from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose ongoing literary project opposes “monumental aesthetics” with ordinary-language sensibilities, reports on “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery” in Albania. At New Republic, Alex Shepard assesses the essay as “peak Knausgaard.” And because I’ve been indexing Knausgaard’s metaphors, I will set down a short consideration here.

In reading I responded to the dualisms organizing the magazine piece. They reflect the mind-body problem (brain and tumor, “that’s the problem”). Among other contrasts: life and death, subject and object, doctor and patient, Soviet and post-Soviet. Knausgaard would resolve the tensions by mediating them.

For thirteen pages Knausgaard instructs the reader in the greatness1 of Henry Marsh, the neurosurgeon profiled. Marsh will not let his profession and its institutions render his patients small, faceless. The doctor is commended, in the closing pages of the essay, for meeting with the family of an infant he had operated on. He admits to the parents a fatal mistake and cries with them.

The basic formal dichotomy of the author and his subject stands out among the effected contrasts. We are invited to take one as the type of the other and close a gap.

The surgeon cuts into the brain, cutting out part of the brain that is not part of the brain. That is the handiwork. Compare the extraction of anecdote from experience. Compare the excision of metaphors from prose. The difficulty of knowing where to cut.

Mistakes are made. The knife’s edge locates a person’s body that is yet abstract and only part of a system. Figures are left behind, marked in the text. Writes Knausgaard, memorably, in My Struggle, “I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face … I wiped away the blood with a towel. Kept cutting.”

In the Albanian operating room, Knausgaard looks through a microscope at the brain’s landscape and startles at the distance between figure and ground: “I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy.”

Knausgaard’s dichotomies are given political tone in reflections on what’s wrong with our world and what is “the truth” (his word, favored at the end). Knausgaard expresses opposition to any “veneration of the collective” even as he registers his attraction to the totalities imagined in the communist era. The self-images of Soviet Albania are “full of joy and hope … Everything was clear, pure, simple and forceful” (52). Knausgaard’s caricatures of collectivity are, too, a problem. Solidarity must unite competing perspectives and make common cause.

It is as if, in representing familiar pain, the artist cannot join with the grieving family and remain an artist. Living at a distance, he comes to suffer acutely from nostalgia, a kind of “social disease.”2 Writing exacerbates the condition. In the second volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard contrasts the empathy that annihilates him in social situations with the lonely self-fulfillment of writing: “The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”

I find little self-solace in the alienation of writing. In the strong identifications reading affords, perhaps, there is what Knausgaard calls “lonely self-fulfillment,” but what satisfaction I take in writing results from looking over a sentence I have written and feeling that it must have been composed by another, an author.


1. “His greatness was that he didn’t hide the smallness but instead used his insight into it to fight against everything that concealed it, the institutionalization of hospitals, the dehumanization of patients, all the rituals established by the medical profession to create distance and to turn the body into something abstract, general, a part of a system.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery,” New York Times Magazine (December 30, 2015). Link to

2. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984), 23.

Go-Cart and Hobby-Horse

“Physical education.” Has not the expression the savor of oxymoron? What is it the body learns? Stand the oxymoron on its head: the mind is a muscle and thought, its exertion.

The critic John Dennis writes, “The faculties of the Soul, like the parts of the Body, receive nourishment from use, and derive skill as well as they do force and vigour from exercise” (Preface, The Comical Gallant). George Berkeley observes, “thought is to the mind what motion is to the body; both are equally improved by exercise and impaired by disuse” (Works Vol. VIII, L13, p. 40). We read in Henry Fielding’s Amelia: “the Practice of any Virtue is a kind of mental Exercise, and serves to maintain the Health and Vigour of the Soul” (335).

Hume excuses the difficulty of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by admitting that while his researches “may appear painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies, which being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe exercise” (11). Mary Wollstonecraft informs us that even should one fail in his or her researches, still “the mind gains strength by the exercise” (106).

It is on examples that we train the judgment. Or so it may seem to the empiricist. The citations that open this short essay are so many examples; the metaphors taxonomised in the database are so many more.

Such particulars or examples are themselves pictured by Immanuel Kant in a well-known turn of phrase as “the go-cart (Gängelwagen) of the judgment” (CPR 187 A 134, B 173-4).

Gängelwagen is a curious metaphor. (There is always another curious metaphor, one more example, to be enumerated.) A child of the eighteenth century is placed in the go-cart, a frame on wheels, and first learns to walk without suffering the indignity of stumbling or falling. My reader will find an image of a go-cart here.

But the Gängelwagen metaphor of the first Critique also appears in the opening paragraph of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, in the paragraph in which the sinister structure of self-incurred minority or tutelage is characterized.1 Here the unenlightened, those in tutelage, are harnessed to go-carts, their guardians having impressed upon them the dangers of walking.

A go-cart is part of the machinery in a culture of fear. I conjure for you modern-day treadmills or stationary bicycles housed in expensive fitness centers, outside of which we park our cars.

Kant’s daily walks in Königsberg are famous, but it is Locke and Rousseau who are founding fathers of phys-ed. It will not do to pass by without citing Locke’s use of the formula a sound mind in a sound body or Rousseau’s pairing of exercise and enlightenment. We will remember that Locke, prone to illness himself, recommends open air and exercise, plain diet, loose clothing, exposure of the head and feet to the cold and wet. A child should learn to swim, to dance, to ride, fence and wrestle. “Due Care being had to keep the Body in Strength and Vigour, so that it may be able to obey and execute the Orders of the Mind” (Some Thoughts, §31). Rousseau, in deep dialogue with Locke, rehearses a similar list of activities but expands this last sentiment: “The body should be strong enough to obey the mind; a good servant must be strong … The weaker the body, the more imperious its demands; the stronger it is, the better it obeys. All sensual passions find their home in effeminate bodies” (Bk I, p. 24).

In works like Francis Fuller’s popular 1705 treatise Medicina gymnastica exercise is preferred over emetics and bleedings in the cure several distempers and nervous complaints. Fuller, like Locke and Rousseau, is keen to promote riding, an activity I can’t but read as an emblem of the mind astride its own passions, exercising mastery of the self.

Recall the horsemanship required of the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus or better yet the hobby-horses ridden by those children who have graduated from the confines of the go-cart. Indeed, Sterne’s hobby-horse delightfully complicates the pedagogue’s dialectic of mastery and servitude: we had best remember that Rousseau’s Émile is never not in the thrall of his tutor.

Disease and exercise, go-cart and hobby-horse, tutelage and physical education—I quote a passage from Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit at greater length:

There is no-one of ever so little Understanding in what belongs to a human Constitution, who knows not that without Action, Motion, and Employment, the Body languishes, and is oppress’d; its Nourishment turns to Disease; the Spirits, unimploy’d abroad, help to consume the Parts within; and Nature, as it were, preys upon her-self. In the same manner, the sensible and living Part, the Soul or Mind, wanting its proper and natural Exercise, is burden’d and diseas’d. Its Thoughts and Passions being unnaturally with-held from their due Objects, turn against itself, and create the highest Impatience and Ill-humour (213).

In ethico-teleological systems like Shaftesbury’s, the terms, “fitness” and “illness” carry great import and seem to take on senses both literal and figurative. Fitness comes in physical, moral, and ontological varieties. Mind and body are connected in analogy.

The passage from Shaftesbury precedes a warning that with “the enormous growth of luxury in capital cities” numbers of men suffer in a kind of “lazy opulence and wanton plenty” (214). These men lack labor and exercise and are prone to neglect their duty in “settled idleness, supineness, and inactivity” if they do not find other application in letters, sciences, arts, husbandry, or public affairs (214).

The corrupt, immature, effeminate, diseased and vice-ridden fop is no athlete, no soldier, no politician.2 To take a liquid line from Mark Akenside, he is “Lull’d by luxurious pleasure’s languid strain” (Pleasures of Imagination I, l. 32). He (note the gender and social position of the pronoun)—he is distinctly unqualified to exercise virtue in the government or defense his homeland.

This foppish figure is a locus of much eighteenth-century anxiety and makes his appearance in everything from Colley Cibber’s stage satires to Adam Smith’s ambivalent discussion of the division of labor.

Manly exercise is to have martial efficacy. The Duke of Wellington is quoted—spuriously, it seems—as claiming that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Indoors at Eton aristocratic children practiced severe exercises of a different variety, working at their Latin and Greek when not disporting on the margent green. Mens sana in corpore sano.

Mental exertions are meant to offset the increasing refinements available in the metropole. The moral sense is inwardly active and the fitness of “inward constitutions” is tested in gymnastic and imaginative responses to sublime poetry and sentimental novels that exercise the faculties. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith describes those spectators of a “dancer on the slack rope” who “naturally twist and balance their own bodies as they see him do” (I.i.i.3).

The belief that minority is thrown off in wartime is one that abides. But from my vantage tutelage and self-imposed minority fully characterize the population at war. The president rides a hobby-horse at a grave and sober pace across the deck of an aircraft carrier. Tristram Shandy‘s Toby and Trim, veterans of the siege of Namur, play on a bowling-green, building elaborate fortifications against psychic trauma.

Just what sort of phys-ed will exercise a body politic?


1 See “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: CUP, 1996. pp. 17-22. The guardians of minors carefully prevent the “placid creatures from daring to take a single step without the walking cart in which they have confined them” (8:35, p. 17).

2 “Corruption” is a keyword. J.G.A. Pocock explores the term and its place alongside changing conceptions of “virtue” and “commerce.” See his Virtue, Commerce and History. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

The Nose of the Mind

James Boswell reports in his Life of Dr. Johnson that during the course of a “curious discussion” Johnson once compared sagacity to the “the nose of the mind.” The metaphor is part of a paired distinction. If the intuition is the “eye of the mind” then sagacity is the nose—“the one being immediate in its effect, the other requiring a circuitous process” (1171).

Boswell reports that a Young Gentleman takes the opportunity to quibble with The Doctor: no man ever thinks of the nose of the mind. Young gentleman that he is, he persists too long in his argument and puts himself forward with too much presumption. The figurative sense is strange to us, Boswell urges in Johnson’s defense, but no more forced than Hamlet’s “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.”1

The exchange is profoundly Shandean, and I would more were related about the mind’s nose over against the mind’s eye. Boswell’s abstract is much too compressed, and although the argument is characterized as a tedious one, we never learn the gist of it. The summary is finished before it begins, dispatched with Johnson’s loud tone: “What is it you are contending for if you be contending?”

But who indeed ever thinks of the nose of the mind?

Thomas Love Peacock comes close, exclaiming, “Oh nose of wax! true symbol of the mind / Which fate and fortune mould in all mankind” (ll. 1-2).2 The only other mind’s nose in literature that I’m acquainted with may be found in Delphine de Girardin’s writings. She asserts that “Instinct is the nose of the mind.” Girardin’s “instinct” and Johnson’s “sagacity” are wide of each other—Or perhaps they are two nostrils separated by the mind’s septum.3

I might also cite the following lines from Billingsley’s The Infancy of the World (1658) to perverse effect:

Man’s nose is like a sink by which the braine
Doth purge it self of phlegm, the nose doth drain
All slimy Excrements

The byproduct of thought is snot. [Enter Young Gentleman.] Grotesquerie abounds when we mix and muddle our metaphors.

Several body parts are enlisted in eighteenth-century pictures the mind; few support sustained analysis. The eye is, of course, both the exception and the most important of the mental organs.

Eyes and noses are complemented with other sense organs. Matthew Green writes of the “minds ear” in The Grotto. John Keats in his sonnet “To Fanny” describes the “palate of [his] mind / losing its gust” (ll. 13-14). The face, a locus of our sense apparatus, plays a special role in the metaphorics of mind, and Catherine Jemmat uses the metaphor the “pimple of the mind.”

St. Peter encourages his reader to “gird up the loins of your mind” (KJV 1 Peter 1:13), and William Godwin deploys Peter’s metaphor in his Thoughts on Man (Essay II). Mind and body participate in dualisms, material and immaterial, ancient and newfangledly Cartesian, literal and figurative. I contend that one dualism structures the other and that both rely on false distinctions.

Johnson’s juxtaposition of nose and eye queers the Shakespearean metaphor. A metaphor that no longer seems, in Boswell’s phrase, “forced” can become so with a lightest touch. Cross your mind’s eyes.

It may be that the mind’s eye is not something we usually picture because it is itself the mental organ that we suppose does the picturing. The mind’s eye may not be equipped to spy itself out. In his Amelia Henry Fielding makes the point that we often retreat into the mind, “where there is no Looking-Glass, and consequently where we can flatter ourselves with discovering almost whatever Beauties we please” (III.7.3).

Why is this eye of the mind so typically monocular? Should we picture a cyclopean mind, its one eye blinking away all the motes that trouble it? In much eighteenth-century poetic diction, reason is the faculty of the mind equipped with plural “eyes.” But this binocularity may be as much owing to assonance as to reason’s depth of vision.

The outfitting of the mind with sensory organs begs further questions: What is the mind’s mind that surveys the internal sensations delivered to it by the mind’s eye, ear, and palate? Is there a mind’s mind’s eye? And how would we ever halt this regress? A theory of consciousness that includes an account of the mind’s eye had best recognize those distinctions between literal and figurative that are poisoned and those metaphors that fail us.

These are questions provoked by trying to picture the mind’s nose and feeling the metaphor to be no more “forced” than Shakespeare’s “mind’s eye.” The way to sagacity is certainly circuitous. Following one’s nose won’t do.


1 Hamlet I.i and I.ii are the loci classici of the mind’s eye, but the metaphor is not original to Shakespeare. Alwin Thaler has done the archaeological work demonstrating that the expression has a prehistory that reaches back through Spenser, Sidney, Chaucer, St. Paul, and Plato; see Thaler’s “In My Mind’s Eye, Horatio,” Shakespeare Quarterly, VII:4 (Aut, 1956): 351-4. However, in the eighteenth-century, as in Boswell above, when the mind’s eye is invoked, the attribution is typically Shakespearean. See, for example, Sarah Fielding’s David Simple (II.iv.4), The Cry (II, Prologue), and Countess of Dellwyn (I.ii.1). I find this narrowness of attribution in the case of the mind’s eye akin to the attachment of the Tabula Rasa metaphor to Locke’s name. Neither Shakespeare nor Locke are the originators of the metaphors they’ve become associated with and yet literary history has conspired to link their names to those metaphors.

2 A “nose of wax” is “a thing easily turned or moulded; a person easily influenced, or of a weak character,” see the OED (“nose, n.” sense 9).

3 The “mind’s nose” has recently made a comeback in contemporary medical literature. See Stephen Kosslyn’s “Understanding the Mind’s Eye…and Nose,” Nature Neuroscience, 6:11 (Nov. 2003): 1124-5. See also Djordjevic, J.; Zatorre, R.J.; Petrides, M.; Jones-Gotman M.; “The Mind’s Nose: Effects of Odor and Visual imagery on Odor Detection,” Psychol Sci., 15:3 (Mar. 2004): 143-8.

Crowds and Reverie

In an age of faculty psychology minds are busy, populated places. When I consult the metaphors of mind used by eighteenth-century writers to image the self’s interior, I find repeated and significant personifications of the mind’s contents.

In particular, that new fixture of empiricist philosophy, the idea, is readily personified. Sensations are so many ministers who appear before the sovereign soul, passions are so many unruly citizens, and each faculty may step into some civic or social role. Within are strangers, stage actors, servants, crowds, savage tribes, judges and lawyers, generals, lowly foot soldiers, ghost-memories, and close-knit families. Undoubtedly, further personifications escape my census-taking.

Introspection and meditation—activities that are meant to be lonely, personal, and private—discover the populated structure of the mind.

Consider the mind of Robinson Crusoe. Isolated for more than twenty-four years on his desert island, Crusoe is unable to sleep one night. He describes his insomnia retrospectively: “It is as impossible as needless to set down the innumerable Crowd of Thoughts that whirl’d through that great Thorowfair of the Brain, the Memory, in this Night’s Time” (200). Crusoe’s mind in isolation is figured as a busy place—a crowded thoroughfare. Lonely Crusoe (that literary, that mythical paradigm of the solitary individual) owns a populated mind.

In the novel’s episodic narrative, Crusoe’s reverie follows his exploration of a Spanish shipwreck, and his exclamation, “O that it had been but one or two; nay but one soul saved out of this ship!” (193). Should we read the “Crowd of Thoughts” as hypnagogic wish-fulfilment? No. I interpret the figuration as an indication of the phenomenology of reverie: loss of self in the hustle and hurry of one’s own thoughts. Crusoe’s sleeplessness provokes a specific serious reflection. He acknowledges that there may be hundreds of cannibals frequenting his island at any time, all lurking just out of sight.

The loss of self in a crowd of thoughts is featured in Montaigne, David Hume, Edward Young, and James Beattie. Each writer identifies the same phenomenology but adjusts the image and puts it to a different use.

There is, finally, the historical background that I am obliged to reference. In an age of faculty psychology minds are populated, busy places, yes. And London—even more so than Amsterdam or Paris—is a busy, populated place. According to the seventeenth-century statistician Gregory King, two-thirds of all English townsfolk were living in London by 1680. The population of England doubled in the eighteenth century.1 In the novel Evelina the eponymous ingénue arrives in London and walks the Mall in St James Park. She is astounded by the crowds and writes that she has never seen “so many people assembled together before … all the world seemed there” (29).

Eighteenth-century metaphors of mind would seem to register the Malthusian crush. It proves impossible to be alone with one’s thoughts. Ideas throng and crowd the mind like so many pleasure-seekers in St James Park. They prowl just at the edge of consciousness. The hortus conclusus is overrun with prostitutes and cutpurses—perhaps even cannibals.


1 Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994), p. 131.