Judith and Holofernes

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Kandel misreads Klimt. It is clear from the painting that Klimt intended to depict Judith before she struck the fatal blow on Holofernes. She is not holding the head. Rather she is cradling the head. Any orgasm she may have enjoyed emanated from her tryst with Holofernes, not from the act of hacking off his head.

Indeed, Klimt depicts Judith running her fingers through Holofernes’ hair. This is a gesture that is emotionally far more fraught and ambiguous than cutting the head off a hated enemy. The viewer is invited to imagine what evoked Judith’s gesture, given that no less than Biblical authority insists that she has just had intercourse with Holofernes and soon will decapitate him.

March 11, 2012

Eric Kandel’s Visions

By Alexander C. Kafka

In 590 BC, to protect her besieged city of Bethulia, the alluring Jewish widow Judith drank with and seduced the attacking Assyrian general Holofernes. When he fell into a drunken, sated heap, she decapitated him with his own sword and displayed his head as trophy, rallying her fellow citizens to rout the Babylonians.

So the Bible tells us, and so the Viennese Expressionist Gustav Klimt depicted in a famous 1901 painting, “Judith,” that reflects, in tune with the psychological and artistic sensibility of his era, the braided ecstasy and aggression of women’s sexuality. Klimt depicts her “as a symbol of the devastating power of the female erotic urge.” Judith, “barely clothed and fresh from the seduction and slaying of Holofernes, glows in her voluptuousness. Her hair is a dark sky between the golden branches of Assyrian trees, fertility symbols that represent her eroticism. This young, ecstatic, extravagantly made-up woman confronts the viewer through half-closed eyes in what appears to be a reverie of orgasmic rapture,” writes Eric Kandel in his new book, The Age of Insight.
Wait a minute. Writes who? Eric Kandel, the Nobel-winning neuroscientist who’s spent most of his career fixated on the generously sized neurons of sea snails? What’s he doing lecturing us on art history?
We see part of the general’s severed head, Kandel goes on, and “the theme of decapitation is carried further by Judith’s gold choker: Rendered in the same gilded style as the background, it formally severs Judith’s own head from her body.” That Judith is dressed like the sort of elegant, often Jewish Viennoise whose portraits Klimt painted and with whom he was rumored to have affairs, that she particularly resembles his famed subject and mysterious intimate, Adele Bloch-Bauer, only heightens the work’s mysterious, carnal charge.
Hmm. Is Kandel, the 82-year-old Columbia University professor, indulging a little dilettantish fancy after his 50-plus years of intense lab research and theoretical thunderclaps? Or perhaps, after all that strain, he’s just going a little bonkers?
Kandel goes on to speculate, in a bravura paragraph a few hundred pages later, on the exact neurochemical cognitive circuitry of the painting’s viewer:
“At a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith’s smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes’s decapitated head, as well as Judith’s own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer’s memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt’s ‘Judith’ so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.”
This is surely not Art Appreciation 101. But it turns out that Kandel is neither trifling nor touched. He is instead poised, as he long has been, on the cusp of a fledgling scientific discipline with deep implications for the humanities.
Jack Barchas, for one, expects no less. Head of the psychiatry department at Weill Cornell Medical College, he calls Kandel “one of the truly great intellects, … one of the greatest scientists and greatest neuroscientists of the last 100 years.” Kandel has “this wonderful far-reaching mind that is not afraid … to ask questions, to be integrative, to take a bold leap of imagination.” And some bold career leaps as well.
In the 1960s, Kandel found clinical psychiatry, his initial calling, to be insufficiently empirical and turned his back on it. In what he later called “the most difficult career decision of my life,” he turned down the chairmanship of the Harvard Medical School psychiatry department for the pleasures of working with the sea snail Aplysia, a move that even some of his fellow neuroscientists found alarming, given their focus on the vertebrate brain. His key findings on the snail, for which he shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, showed that learning and memory change not the neuron’s basic structure but rather the nature, strength, and number of its synaptic connections. Further, through focus on the molecular biology involved in a learned reflex like Aplysia’s gill retraction, Kandel demonstrated that experience alters nerve cells’ synapses by changing their pattern of gene expression. In other words, learning doesn’t change what neurons are, but rather what they do.
The study of memory and its relationship to traumatic and pleasurable experiences has been part and parcel of Kandel’s work, first in Aplysia and later in mice. It has spurred research, in his biotech ventures, on drug treatments for age-related memory loss. And Kandel is collaborating with his wife, the Columbia epidemiologist Denise Kandel, in relation to her “gateway drug” sequence theory, on a study of the biochemistry of drug experiences in mice depending on whether they are exposed to nicotine before cocaine or after. (Results show, he says, that there is a unidirectional biological sequence: Exposure to nicotine enhances the cocaine experience.)
OK, but what does all that have to do with art?
In his acclaimed personal and scientific 2006 memoir, In Search of Memory (Norton), Kandel offered what sounded at the time like a vague research agenda for future generations in the budding field of neuroaesthetics, saying that the science of memory storage lay “at the foothills of a great mountain range.” Experts grasp the “cellular and molecular mechanisms,” he wrote, but need to move to the level of neural circuits to answer the question, “How are internal representations of a face, a scene, a melody, or an experience encoded in the brain?” Since giving a talk on the matter in 2001, he has been piecing together his own thoughts in relation to his favorite European artists. And the result is The Age of Insight, with its hefty subtitle: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present (Random House).
The field of neuroaesthetics, says one of its founders, Semir Zeki, of University College London, is just 10 to 15 years old. Through brain imaging and other studies, scholars like Zeki have explored the cognitive responses to, say, color contrasts or ambiguities of line or perspective in works by Titian, Michelangelo, Cubists, and Abstract Expressionists. Researchers have also examined the brain’s pleasure centers in response to appealing landscapes.
Neuroaesthetics isn’t, its pioneers say, just an elaborate parlor trick: Hey, look at this nude, or this Henry Moore sculpture, and this circuit over here lights up. Rather, it is fundamental to an understanding of human cognition and motivation. Art isn’t, as Kandel paraphrases a concept from the late philosopher of art Denis Dutton, “a byproduct of evolution, but rather an evolutionary adaptation—an instinctual trait—that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being.” The arts encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way. Sometimes instinctively, sometimes more consciously, artists play with perception’s variables in keen acknowledgment of the viewer’s active role, which the art historian Ernst Gombrich poetically called the “beholder’s share.”
Kandel’s key contribution to neuroaesthetics in The Age of Insight, Zeki says, is to focus on the work and milieu of three Austrian Expressionist artists: Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, all of whom Kandel has studied extensively and whose work he and his wife have collected since the 1960s.
Kandel views the Expressionists’ art through the powerful multiple lenses of turn-of-the-century Vienna’s cultural mores and psychological insights. But then he refracts them further, through later discoveries in cognitive science. He seeks to reassure those who fear that the empirical and chemical will diminish the paintings’ poetic power. “In art, as in science,” he writes, “reductionism does not trivialize our perception—of color, light, and perspective—but allows us to see each of these components in a new way. Indeed, artists, particularly modern artists, have intentionally limited the scope and vocabulary of their expression to convey, as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt do, the most essential, even spiritual ideas of their art.”
Akin to the manner in which his reductionist approach aided his work on neurons, Kandel’s narrowed focus in The Age of Insight allows him to explain how those three artists were influenced in Vienna’s close-knit intellectual circles by anatomists like Emil Zuckerkandl, who emphasized the importance of looking beneath the surface of things. It also enables Kandel—building on the work of Gombrich and the psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris, among others—to compare the painters’ rendering of emotion, the unconscious, and the libido with contemporaneous psychological insights from Freud about latent aggression, pleasure and death instincts, and other primal drives.
Kandel concentrates his attention further by focusing on the three artists’ portraits, especially half- to three-quarter-length ones, analyzing particularly their emphasis on facial distortions. That’s why, although Kandel considers The Age of Insight to be more a work of intellectual history than of science, the book summarizes centuries of research on perception. And so you’ll find, in those hundreds of pages between Kandel’s introduction to Klimt’s “Judith” and the neurochemical cadenza about the viewer’s response to it, dossiers on vision as information processing; the brain’s three-dimensional-space mapping and its interpretations of two-dimensional renderings; face recognition; the mirror neurons that enable us to empathize and physically reflect the affect and intentions we see in others; and many related topics. Kandel elsewhere describes the scientific evidence that creativity is nurtured by spells of relaxation, which foster a connection between conscious and unconscious cognition.
All that is to say that while Kandel’s treatise is focused, it is also thorough. The author of a classic textbook on neuroscience, he seems here to have written a layman’s cognition textbook wrapped within a work of art history.
Did he ever have doubts about taking on such a project?
“I’m a Viennese Jew,” says Kandel with a wry chuckle. “Of course I have doubts.” But “one’s career goes through stages—and I don’t just mean senility-related aging.” Having given up most of his administrative functions and delegated much of his lab activity, he says, “I reached the point where I no longer run anything, practically.” And so he had time to delve into a project that not only satisfied his scientific curiosity but also was therapeutic on a more personal level.
Kandel fled Nazified Austria in 1939, when he was 9, for a stable but hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn. Referring to the anti-Semitism and refugee experiences of his boyhood, about which he wrote in detail in his 2006 book, Kandel says: “I have, I would guess, not in a symptomatic way but on some level, a post-traumatic-stress disorder. And the way I come to grips with it is by mastering it in true scholarship. Why do I collect Viennese art? Why do I like this stuff? … There are complex feelings I’m trying to work through in kind of an intellectual way.”
And now that he’s slayed his intellectual Holofernes? Having found the project “very therapeutic,” Kandel says, “I can’t say I’m in psychologically better shape. … It’s a little like psychotherapy—you don’t wake up one day thinking, ‘Wow, I’m cured.'”

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