It’s considered rather bad form to write a review before you’ve finished reading the actual book. I’m only half-way through The Kingdom of Infinite Space but my mind is far too blown to wait another month before jumping in. Anyway, this is a column, so there’s a bit more wiggle-room. And let’s face it, most fun things in life tend to happen in the wiggle room.
This particular room is especially wiggly. It is ovoid, weighs about 5kgs, and you’ll find it nicely balanced on top of your neck. Inside is a convoluted cauliflower made of spongiform tissue, zapping and sparking with a gazillion electrical impulses from before the moment we are born until – it isn’t. Most books about the head are to a greater or lesser degree about the brain. The brainiest scientists on the planets are involved in slicing the cauliflower into finer and finer slivers, via MRI scans and 3D digital nano mapping of synapses and dendrites, to stick a GPS marker in the precise location of every motor function and cognitive blip that makes us who we are. As though the ‘where’ can adequately answer the question ‘why’.
Raymond Tallis turns this approach on its head. In this extraordinary book, he invite us to put the brain to one side, even though to some, a book about the head which says so little about the brain might seem like Hamlet “in which the prince only has a walk-on part.”
Start by looking at yourself in the mirror. It’s a mind-bending experience to hold look out from and into your own eyes. “It is your gaze and it is intersleeved with itself, in a chaste, ocular autocopulation… As I gaze into the head that is gazing at me, into the thoughtful face of the man who is thinking these thoughts, which include the thought that the face is thoughtful and that it is the face of the man who is thinking the thoughts, vertigo beckons.”
Stepping back from the abyss of vertiginous philosophizing, Tallis takes us on a rollercoaster ride through the other stuff that the head does, to explore – in often gleeful detail – what he calls “the muddle of embodiment”. “I want to celebrate the mystery of the fact that we are embodied, rather than fall in with the venerable tradition of being rather sniffy about it.”
He takes the stance of a lollipop lady at a busy intersection. And there’s a lot of traffic at this cranial intersection: stuff going in (tastes, smells, sights and sounds), and stuff going out (spit and speech) – and everything buoyed along on the continual breeze of breath.
This is a book about saliva and yawning, about the sweat of the brow and the contours of the face. It’s about how eyes work and the involutions of the inner ear. It’s about blushing and ear wax and whether you pronounce the letter ‘H’ with a little aspirate, “a pufflet of emitted air, an oral micro-zephyr” at the beginning or not. It’s about big philosophical questions – personal identity, self-consciousness and agency – and little, personal tics. It’s also about the senses – our ears and eyes and noses in particular, and that shy, often overlooked wallflower in the corner, proprioception, that peculiar sense we have of our own bodies. It’s about the difference between a nod and a wink, and about why we smile at some things and laugh at others. It’s about nose rings and wrinkles and zits and that “outermost otherness of our body” our hair. It’s about vomiting, spitting and smoking, and falling in love.
Thought-provoking and rib-tickling in about equal measure, Tallis’s book is also stuffed full of who knew? moments. For example, that the tears that you cry because you’re sad contain more manganese than those that spring to your eyes because you just stubbed your toe. Or that, unlike other muscles in the body, those in your face are connected to one another and not tethered to bone.
Just a few untethered muscle twitches can semaphore a Shakespearean breadth of emotion. A smile may be “wry, ironical, mocking, self-mocking, malicious, triumphant, gloating, satisfied, self-satisfied, sour, sickly, sardonic, restrained, patient, forbearing, indulgent and generous… spontaneous, or calculated or calculatedly spontaneous,” or any number of complex combinations and refinements of the above, up to and including that most fleeting of things, the “ghost of a smile.”
Tallis’s book is peppered with sentences that start, “Uniquely among animals, humans…”, or “Only humans are…” or “Humans alone are capable of…”. It’s a hymn, in a way, to human-ness and all the things that set us apart from our fellow creatures. Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, says Hazlitt. Twain says, “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” Jonathan Gotschall calls us ‘the storytelling animal’. For Desmond Morris, it is our hairlessness that sets us Naked Apes apart. Whether it’s our opposable thumbs, or our emotional tears, our use of language or our bipedalism, these poor, bare, forked animals which are you and me, are a fascinating bunch. Get your head around that.
First published in The Hindu Business Line, BLInk supplement, 5.3.17