The Oldie - - ASK VIRGINIA -


In 2003, neuropsychologist Paul Broks pub­lished a cel­e­brated ex­plo­ration of the mind-brain bound­ary, Into the Silent Land. His lat­est book, a genre-de­fy­ing study of grief fol­low­ing the death of his wife Kate, is, thought James Mc­connachie in the Times, ‘just as bril­liant’.

‘To un­der­stand what this book is re­ally about you need to know the end­ing of the quote in the ti­tle. It comes from a 19th-cen­tury Rus­sian poem and con­cludes: “The deeper the sor­row, the closer is God.” Ex­cept that there is no God in this book, there are only ter­ri­ble depths of grief, along with layer upon layer of neu­ro­science, phi­los­o­phy, mem­oir and Greek myth.’

In Stand­point, Adam Ze­man was bowled over: ‘The Dark Night is the bleak, stump­ing fact of death: death in gen­eral, but one death in par­tic­u­lar, that of Paul Broks’s beloved wife; the Bright Stars are just those, as Broks is a star-gazer, and a lover of as­tron­omy. Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy is his trade, the study of the neu­ral ba­sis of the mind and its disor­ders; the book is an odyssey, both be­cause it charts his life, from boy­hood mem­o­ries of Air­fix models and dreams of foot­ball star­dom to adult loves and fas­ci­na­tions, but also be­cause it fore­grounds the per­va­sive role of myth and le­gend in our think­ing.’

Mc­connachie re­flected that some might find parts of the book ‘in­tol­er­a­bly self-con­scious and art­ful’ and David Aaronovitch in the Times was un­con­vinced by its for­ays into fic­tion but he ended on an up­lift­ing note: ‘I pre­fer Broks when he’s talk­ing about him­self and his own life and Kate’s death. Here he is on hope and can­cer. “There is no hope. Hope is worth­less. Hope is delu­sional. Hope is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Ac­cept the hope­less truth. See hope­less­ness as an hon­est com­pan­ion who walks the last days with you. Love out­lives hope. Get hope out of the way.” That seems to me to be both true and beau­ti­fully put,’ wrote Aaronovitch.


Dy­ing painfully of can­cer, Al­dous Hux­ley elected to ease his pass­ing by tak­ing LSD. Not for the first time he was ahead of the game. Re­view­ing Michael Pollan’s ‘sweep­ing and of­ten thrilling chron­i­cle of the his­tory of psychedelics’ in the Guardian, Oliver Burke­man re­vealed that sci­en­tists now ac­cept that psychedelics might enor­mously ben­e­fit the dy­ing, as well as al­co­holics and those with ‘treat­ment re­sis­tant’ de­pres­sion. He quoted this be­atific epiphany from a ter­mi­nally ill trip­per: ‘Oh God, it all makes sense now, so sim­ple and beau­ti­ful.’ Pollen him­self says ‘LSD al­lows us to re­boot the brain and dis­cover new pat­terns of thoughts and be­hav­iour.’

In Sa­, Ben­jamin Bell opined that ‘very few book ad­vances can have been spent the way Pollan spent his: traips­ing round the coun­try sam­pling psy­che­delic drugs un­der the guise of “re­search”.’ But, said Bell, it was time well spent, be­cause hav­ing in­ter­viewed scores of peo­ple ‘who be­lieve that hal­lu­cino­gens are the keys to un­der­stand­ing and sal­va­tion … Pollen does a remarkable job con­vinc­ing us these devo­tees may be on to some­thing.’ In the Times David Aaronovitch con­curred. Ap­proach­ing the book ‘with prej­u­dice’, he was ‘won over by Pollan’s ar­gu­ments against to­tal pro­hi­bi­tion, in favour of de­vel­op­ing the ther­a­peu­tic use of psychedelics, and in­deed in favour of per­sonal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in con­trolled cir­cum­stances’.

THE IN­CUR­ABLE RO­MAN­TIC AND OTHER UN­SET­TLING REV­E­LA­TIONS FRANK TALLIS Lit­tle, Brown, 296pp, £18.99, Oldie price £14.62 inc p&p

There is no doubt this book about the de­struc­tive power of ob­ses­sive love is a dis­turb­ing one. It takes the form of a se­ries of sto­ries, based on heav­ily dis­guised case stud­ies, told by psy­chother­a­pist Frank Tallis. Christina Pat­ter­son in the Times de­scribed with fas­ci­nated hor­ror the tale of Me­gan, hap­pily mar­ried for 20 years, who fell in love with her den­tist and, er­ro­neously con­vinced he loved her too, de­stroyed her life. Of ‘im­mac­u­late, beau­ti­ful’ Anita who is con­sumed by sex­ual jeal­ousy and ‘spends her life search­ing for ev­i­dence of the af­fairs she has con­vinced her­self her hus­band is hav­ing’; of Ali, who has ‘come to ther­apy os­ten­si­bly to save his mar­riage but has been see­ing about 3,000 pros­ti­tutes’. Of the man in love, ‘like Romeo, like Tris­tan, like Werther’ – but with the six-year-old daugh­ter of his friends. ‘It is al­ways un­wise,’ Pat­ter­son quoted Tallis as say­ing, ‘to sup­pose that hu­man sex­ual be­hav­iour has its lim­i­ta­tions.’ Kathryn Hughes told us in the

Guardian that Tallis had ‘cher­ryp­icked these anec­dotes from a ca­reer that has spanned sev­eral decades’. And given that Tallis is also a novelist, she won­dered whether ‘ev­ery­thing – or rather, every­one – is a com­pos­ite, tacked to­gether from bits and pieces of other peo­ple’s an­guish’. Pub­lish­ers Weekly praised Tallis’s ‘grace­ful nar­ra­tive style’ and Pat­ter­son too was struck by the beauty of the writ­ing, de­scrib­ing it as prose that ‘edges to­wards the poetic’. Most im­por­tantly, there is deep com­pas­sion for his pa­tients, she said, to the ex­tent that the whole project it­self feels noth­ing short of ‘an act of love’.

‘Hope is worth­less... Love out­lives hope. Get hope out of the way’

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