For many decades the neurologist Oliver Sacks has been a major wanderer between two worlds, writing two types of books: "wholly different, but wholly complementary, one more purely medical or classical, the other more existential and personal - an empathic entering into patients' experiences and worlds" (O. Sacks "Awakenings", Foreword to the 1990 edition, excerpts). I wish to let him describe the basic ideas that I want to build my evaluation of "Alexander's Feast" on. The following quotes are from his review "In the River of Consciousness" (New York Review of Books, Volume 51, Number 1 · January 15, 2004, in acamedia cache).
"In the chapter on "the stream of thought" of his Principles of Psychology [the philosopher] William James stressed that to its possessor, consciousness seems to be always continuous, "without breach, crack, or division," never "chopped up, into bits". The content of consciousness might be changing continually, but we move smoothly from one thought to another, one percept to another, without interruption or breaks. For James, thought flowed; hence his introduction of the term "stream of consciousness". But, he wondered, 'is consciousness really discontinuous... and does it only seem continuous to itself by an illusion analogous to that of the zoetrope?'"
"Zoetropes contain a drum or disc on which a series of drawings -of animals moving, ball games, acrobats in motion, plants growing- was painted or pasted. The drawings could be viewed one at a time through axial slits in the drum, but when the drum was set into motion, the separate drawings flicked by in rapid succession, and at a critical speed, this suddenly gave way to the perception of a single, steady moving picture. When one slowed the drum again, the illusion vanished. Though zoetropes were usually seen as toys, providing a magical illusion of motion, they were originally designed (often by scientists or philosophers) with a sense that they could serve a very serious purpose: to illuminate the mechanisms both of vision and -by identifying the eye as a part of the brain- of perception and ultimately of consciousness."
"A movie, with its taut stream of thematically connected images, its visual narrative integrated by the viewpoint and values of its director, is not at all a bad metaphor for the stream of consciousness itself. And the technical and conceptual devices of cinema - zooming, fading, dissolving, omission, allusion, association and juxtaposition of all sorts - rather closely mimic (and perhaps are designed to mimic) the streamings and veerings of consciousness."
"Some of my post-encephalitic patients, when they were "awakened", and especially overexcited, by taking the drug L-DOPA, described cinematic vision; some described extraordinary "standstills", sometimes hours long, in which not only visual flow was arrested, but the stream of movement, of action, of thought itself.
Such standstills showed that consciousness could be brought to a halt, stopped dead, for substantial periods, while automatic, nonconscious functions -maintenance of posture or breathing, for example- continued as before."
This way these standstills are not consciously noticed, as the affected individual we have absolutely no knowledge of them. Music can set us free, or the physical perception of someone touching our hand.
Neurological disorders might give us insight into mechanisms of our minds and take us to more biologically based interpretations of our behavior. Such interpretations can perhaps serve as the basis for the traditional psychological one. By telling us more about the rather inescapable confinement into which our minds can lead us (see for example Parkinsonian Space and Time), they offer new ways of avoiding the standstills.
Here is an example: We know that even in times of great danger, such as during the height of the Cold War with its increasing risk of global annihilation of our civilizations, we seemed to have been arrested in similar depression-like standstills, unable to take action. The rationalization of our standstills -as calculated resignation in the face of too big a task- is the traditional socio-psychological description. Another description would be the bio-neurological one in terms of such standstills, a breach in the flow of consciousness, a confinement to an island within this flow: There were other people who did not succumb to this hopelessness/standstill, who from prior experience recognized the island as being part of the stream and who could leave it at will. We call these islands "culture" or "landscape (or map) of the mind" and the questions are: How much do they determine my behavior? If they have been formed in my past, how much liberty do I have in my present?
Oliver Sacks summarizes the new path laid out for us by Gerald Edelman:
"A crucial innovation in the neurosciences has been "population-thinking", thinking in terms that take account of the brain's huge population of neurons, and the power of experience to differentially alter the strengths of connections between them, and to promote the formation of functional groups or constellations of neurons throughout the brain - groups whose interactions serve to categorize experience into maps representing our own, very individual reality.Here, Edelman tells me something about the role the arts are playing in our lives. My body needs exercise, and so does my mind when life does not provide enough of it. It may well be that the arts are able to provide that exercise (and experience), to open my culture, to connect islands that have formed in my stream of consciousness.
- Instead of seeing the brain as rigid, fixed in mode, like a computer with a fixed program, there is now a much more biological and powerful notion of "experiential selection", of experience literally shaping the connectivity and function of the brain [i.e. changing the computer's program] (within genetic, anatomical, and physiological limits, of course).
- Such a selection of neuronal groups, and its effect on shaping the brain over the lifetime of an individual, is seen as analogous to the role of natural selection in the evolution of species; hence Gerald M. Edelman, who was a pioneer in such thinking in the 1970s, speaks of "neural Darwinism" [in Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection] (TNGS, read inside book, Gerald Edelman: "From Brain Dynamics to Consciousness: A Prelude to the Future of Brain-Based Devices", Lecture 1 of 12 of IBM Research's Almaden Institute Conference on Cognitive Computing, June 2006 (in acamedia chache: Flash Video (167 MB), QuickTime Movie (610 MB), 16. August 2009).
- William James himself always insisted that consciousness was not a "thing" but a "process". The neural basis of these processes, for Edelman, is one of dynamic interaction [between our "present" and "past" and between various parts of our "past"]. He speaks here of "re-entrant" (i.e., reciprocal) interactions, and sees consciousness as arising from the enormous number of such interactions within our memory system."
In "Alexander's Feast" Arthur Solmssen immerses us in an active, autonomous and responsible part of the American civil culture of 1947 and 1961 by speaking its language and formulating the plot in it. On a second level of the story this culture actually presents itself, makes itself understood: The novel is about the Salzburg Seminar, an institute where -since the end of World War II- Americans have been meeting with Europeans in programs, e.g. seminars and symposia, dedicated to special subjects, to bridge the intellectual gap that has developed between both sides of the Atlantic. Solmssen names some characteristic American issues, formulated already in 1834 by Alexis de Tocqueville:
1961 - A Point of View
 The annual meeting of the stockholders of the Boatwright Corporation
 What are you going to do about Boatwright and what are you going to do about yourself?
 Have we learned anything this evening, Doctor?
 Producing results?
 Alexander's Feast
 How'd you like to go over to Salzburg for a month with me?
1947 - An Island
 You're not going to Berlin. You're staying here.
 All right, we're the Military Government.
 The Americans are teaching us to be democratic instead of fascistic.
 Well, this is Fasching.
 Letters after Ash Wednesday
 Say Boris is at Schloss Fyrmian.
 THE AMERICAN ACADEMY IN EUROPE - Prospectus for the First Session
 Learn to think of people as individuals.
 Parlez-moi d'amour, redites-moi des choses tendres.
 Not one thing left to show that you've ever been on earth? - "Sources of Soviet Conduct"
 A Countess, a Prussian Officer and a Ländler
 Now this part of your life is over and I'm sending you home.
 A father who's too busy to watch his son die. - The Spring of 1961
 I cannot sell Schloss Fyrmian to the Academy.
1961 - A Change of Air
 The first thing I saw was the Festung Hohensalzburg far in the distance, silhouetted against the shadowy curtain of the high mountains.
 Next day at the Academy we got to work - Graham, you know what Fleischer did?
 Im weißen Rößl am Wolfgangsee
 Brockaw writing a thesis on Austrian baroque architecture? - Boatwright Corporation and Boris Fleischer, plaintiffs
 You know there a Mr. Devereaux? Mr. Armistead Devereaux?
 I think always of Peter Devereaux.
 It sounds like an act of desperation, and it won't hold up in court.
 In those Oklahoma Hills WHERE AH WAS BOW-AHHHN!
 ... that we should meet again like this . . . I think perhaps there is a reason.
 "Is there here an American by name of Brockaw?"
 This is Boris Fleischer!
 "Does Hans work for Gehlen?" Paola shook her head. "More the other way around."
 Won't you please come home? Everybody needs you, I most of all.
 With this Waffenstillstand you have time now.
 You're going to regret this for the rest of your life!
 We Europeans would not do it. None of us. - People think you need medical attention.
 Will they trust you?
 Some things about the U.S.A. are perhaps rather important, and to us impressive.
 You're going to need a good lawyer.