Jonathan Lehrer examines the avante garde work of eight artists -- one poet (Walt Whitman), four novelists (George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf), one painter (Paul Cezanne), one composer (Igor Stravinsky), and one chef (Auguste Escoffier) -- and shows how it anticipated scientific principles that would later be discovered. The eight essays are absorbing, and Lehrer writes about science in a way that is accessible and enlightening for those more familiar with the humanities. His literary interpretations of works like Middlemarch, In Search of Lost Time, and To the Lighthouse do not stray from traditional readings and offer anything new as far as literary criticism goes, but that's not really in the scope of this book.
The weakest chapter is that on George Eliot, in which he seeks to show that Eliot's rejection of the determinist philosophy of her time is borne out not only in her writing but in the science of DNA. However, in seeking to show that we have biological freedom, Lehrer overlooks that we, like the characters in Eliot's novels, have free will but are born into unalterable circumstance and are affected by forces outside our control -- such as the choices of others and nature (as the characters of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss could tell us).
The balance of the book is very strong, however, and I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Whitman, Stravinsky and Woolf. The inseparability of body and mind, the neuroscience of music, and the construction of consciousness are all elegantly explored and explained.
The final chapter is a "coda" in which Lehrer expresses a wish for a "fourth culture" that will "freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience." He is very persuasive, and a desire to better understand how science can enlighten art and art can enlighten science is what led me to his book in the first place. I do find, though, that Lehrer can be too positive about the limits of science; he writes, "It is naive to think that science can solve everything by itself, or that everything can be solved." Too often I've seen in centuries-old writing the opinion that we would never discover something that today we have, such as what stars are made of and how they burn. I agree that there are limits to our knowledge now, and that art helps us delve through those limitations, but I do not think it follows that we will not someday understand and know what we don't today. I think it is better to say that art helps us to discover what we do not yet understand and know, and once those problems are solved, it will discover more. Art is the guide for our increasing knowledge, leading us to new paths of inquiry.
I do not agree with Lehrer on everything, but I value this book for that very reason. Where I disagree with him leads me to think things out for myself, and the fascinating work he does linking art and science inspires me to read more, to learn more.