Books

The Original Renaissance Man and His Brain

Leonardo Da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" exemplifies the original "Renaissance Man's" measuring of the scientific and artistic (via Wikipedia)
Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” exemplifies the original “Renaissance Man’s” measuring of the scientific and artistic (via Wikipedia)

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” —Leonardo da Vinci

LOS ANGELES — As he raced against cancer to finish his fourth and final book, Leonardo’s Brain, author/inventor/surgeon Leonard Shlain was motivated by the possibility that his manuscript-in-progress might help answer a very vital question: How can mankind achieve a more creative and peaceful future?

Shlain, who viewed Leonardo as having owned the “most creative brain in history,” was following his personal hunch that analyzing the biology and functioning of Da Vinci’s brain from a neuroscientific perspective could lead to invaluable revelations about human potential.

Leo_cover-320Guided by his conviction that many mysteries of the human condition are the result of humankind’s unique split-brain duality, Shlain managed to “download” the last chapters of his seven-year project between transfusions and visits with family and friends. Despite his advancing illness, he was determined to connect “aspects of Leonardo’s life and brain that have not yet been considered by previous scholars from psychology, art history, and science.” Shlain, who had once brought a human brain in a bucket of formaldehyde to a show and tell session at his children’s school, passed away of brain cancer on May 11, 2009, eight days after completing his manuscript. His last word, repeated several times, was “Wow!”

Leonardo’s Brain, published posthumously through the efforts of the author’s three children — Kimberly Brooks, Tiffany Shlain, and Jordan Shlain — is the magnum opus of prodigiously curious man with a larger-than-life intellect. The youngest child of a Russian immigrant, Shlain graduated from high school at age 15 and went on to complete college in three years and medical school in three more. Because his fast-track education had left very little time for extra-curricular activities, it wasn’t until he was a working surgeon that Shlain began to feed his deep interest in art. As he told an interviewer in 1991:

I had early acceptance to medical school and quickly went into residency. I arrived at the middle of my life feeling I had holes in my experience. I also found it strange that I couldn’t explain why works of art were great, even when I knew they were.

Shlain’s daughter Kimberly recalls that her father visited every museum he could, kept art history books piled by his bedside and made exquisite sculptures of fishing wire and nails. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, he built a stained glass geodesic dome with a hot tub in the middle of his backyard. As a surgeon, Shlain became known as a pioneer of laparoscopic surgery and patented several surgical instruments. His interest in art and creativity was a factor in his inventiveness, as was his interest in integrating knowledge across different fields.

Leonard Shlain (photo by Tim Street-Porter)
Leonard Shlain (photo by Tim Street-Porter)

With the publication of his first book in 1991 — Art and Physics — Shlain aired out some of his personal ideas about the intersection of art and science, two subjects that he had explored mainly as a prodigious reader, drawing parallels between the development of realistic paintings and the scientific revolution. Praised as “bold and persuasive” by the San Francisco Chronicle, it was soon followed by The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, which argued that the development of literacy had “reinforced the brain’s linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.”

A third book, Sex, Time & Power: How Women’s Sexuality shaped Human Evolution offered yet another pro-feminist emphasis. Arguing that natural selection had aligned women’s menstrual cycles with the periodicity of the moon, Shlain theorized that women were seen as being imbued with the dual powers of sex and time, a situation that had aroused male jealousy and an attempt to “reclaim” these powers. The end result, in Shlain’s view, was the historically dominant and flawed institution of patriarchy.

Although its protagonist is male, Leonardo’s Brain extends Shlain’s anti-patriarchal bias, presenting Leonardo as an exemplar of psychic hermaphroditism. As Shlain explains in great depth and detail, Da Vinci wasn’t a member of the “right–hand/left-brain dominant group that has made up 90 percent of the world’s population across time and culture. He was a left-handed ambidextrous male who wrote backwards and someone many biographers have characterized as a “gay male that did not indulge his sexual passions.” From this sketch, and many other observations, Shlain found himself interested in creating a speculative portrait of Da Vinci’s brain and his unique wiring diagram or “neurocircuitry.”

Leonardo’s Brain opens with two interwoven strands of exposition: one deals with the life and works of Da Vinci while the other the evolution of the human brain. The book’s final section then goes on to both explore the role of brain anatomy on creativity and to offer some notions about the evolutionary future of human neuro-anatomy. In total, it offers an ambitious conflation of biography, art history, and neuroscience layered with scientific and sociological conjecture. Because it brings together so many specialties, Leonardo’s Brain would be a great starting point for a series of panel discussions.

Reading it from my personal “art-specialist” point of view I was intrigued by many of Shlain’s refreshingly original assertions. For example, in his book’s fifth chapter — “Leonardo/Renaissance Art” — Shlain credit’s Leonardo with an “uncanny prescience” that “foretold the advent of modern art.” To support this Shlain points out that Leonardo’s 1473 drawing of the Val d’Arno is unique in that contains only a few tiny man-made dwellings and celebrates that majesty of nature in an era when his imagery would have been regarded as pagan. I found this chapter informative and had no qualms with Shlain’s contention that Leonardo was avant-garde even though the term hadn’t been invented yet. The idea that genius is always ahead of its time is one that I am comfortable with.

Slain sees similarities between Leonardo's "St. John the Baptist" and works by Manet, like "Fifer" (images via Wikipedia)
Shlain sees similarities between Leonardo’s “St. John the Baptist” (1513–16) and works by Manet, like “Fifer” (1866) (images via Wikipedia)

In the chapter that follows — “Renaissance Art/Modern Art — Shlain opens with the statement that “The first artist in the modern world to resurrect Leonardo’s innovations was Édouard Manet.” That seems like a stretch, but as the chapter unfolds, Shlain makes a number of interesting comparisons and offers the observation that Leonardo’s “Saint John the Baptist” (1513–16) a solitary figure devoid of any background, exists in an uncertain relationship to space, making it similar to Manet’s “Fifer” (1866) and “Dead Torreador” (1864). I had more trouble with later part of the chapter in which Shlain ascribes some of the power of Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” and “St. Jerome” to their having been left unfinished, and then suggests that this connects Da Vinci to Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. I see Leonardo’s incomplete works as having been cast aside by a man who took on too much, but detect intentionality in the raw spaces of canvas that Cezanne let peek through some of his late works.

Shlain goes on to devote an entire chapter — “Duchamp/Leonardo” — to establishing connections between the father of conceptual art and the creator of the Mona Lisa. Could it be that artistic trickster who once inscribed a postcard of the Mona Lisa with a series of letters that were the phonetic equivalent of the French phrase for “She has a hot ass” really strongly resembled Leonardo, as Shlain contends, “in temperament and character”? Is Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man with its Shiva-like multiple arms and legs really “a prelude to Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’”? It’s a great and unexpected question from the mind of an author blessed with boundless curiosity: just this chapter of Leonardo’s Brain has more original thinking in it than most eight-pound art history texts manage to cram between their covers.

One chapter I found particularly captivating — “Fear, Lust and Beauty” — asks and answers a remarkable series of questions about the humankind’s aesthetic sense seen from an evolutionary point of view. “At the heart of all creativity lies our fear of danger,” Shlain writes, and as the chapter continues he discusses sexuality — pointing out the links between fear and arousal — and then has quite a bit to say about the appearance of the evolutionary adaptation that we call appreciating beauty:

From that evolutionary moment forward, the species that would evolve into Homo Sapiens began to create, seek, find, assemble, and rearrange material objects and abstract symbols. Increasingly, these artifacts possessed the qualities of elegance and grace.

Leonardo’s tremendous interest in beauty of all kinds is proof, in Shlain’s view, that he represents a highly evolved example of humankind. Shlain also argues that Leonardo’s acute sense of beauty was one side of a balanced brain. His other faculties — for doing, reasoning, and abstract thinking — somehow managed to perfectly collaborate and fuse with the man’s extraordinary aesthetic side. Leonardo is presented as the possessor of an intellect perfectly tuned to both art and science: “ … only one person in all of history was able to excel in both of those fields,” Shlain notes, “to achieve a unique synthesis.”

The final chapter of Leonardo’s Brain — “Evolution/Extinction” — opens with the observation that “We are in a transitional state of evolution.” You will need to buy the book to learn more, but it probably won’t surprise you to find out that Leonard Shlain felt that humankind was just starting to catch up to Leonardo. It’s a shame that Shlain isn’t here to comment on some recent developments, including some substantial new challenges to idea of left-brain/right brain divide. Fortunately, he left behind a very stimulating final book that challenges all of us who care about the future to think more broadly across disciplines, fueled by the world’s beauty and the “Wows” that it offers to those who appreciate it.

Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius, by Leonard Shlain, is available through Lyons Press, Amazon, and other online booksellers.

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