It’s time to make room for Raymond Tallis, the playful polymath whose wonderful new book, The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head (Yale, $28), will make you see yourself not just in a new light, but from a dozen new angles. If that sounds like more self-scrutiny than you can bear, think of it as an exercise in philosophical anatomy—or if that’s still too scary, take Mr. Tallis’ suggestion and think of it as tourism: a guided trip around a body part that happens to house the sense of self.
A bonus, for those of us who care about how sentences are made: Reading The Kingdom of Infinite Space is an aesthetically pleasing experience. Expect to be surprised and delighted by the writing, which is fluid and witty and densely allusive.
So who is this guy? “A leading British gerontologist,” Wikipedia informs me. A retired professor of medicine who in his spare time composes violent screeds denouncing postmodern literary theory; a published poet (three volumes and counting); a passionate lay philosopher with a bee in his bonnet about what he calls “neurophilosophy”; and a critic who ponders the respective roles of art and science in human culture. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he can play Wagner on the kazoo.
The Kingdom of Infinite Space begins with the looking glass:
“The first and most obvious thing to be said is that the gaze that is looking out at your head is also the gaze that is looking in at your reflection. It is your gaze and it is intersleeved with itself, in a chaste, ocular auto-copulation. This seems promising, a perfect philosophical thought, though difficult to maintain. The mental gaze—unable to stand still, unlike the long-legged fly on a stream or a kestrel at stoop—wanders.”
In conjunction with this kind of airy speculation, Mr. Tallis deploys “biological events”: the 30,000 liters of saliva produced over a lifetime; sebum secreted by the face and scalp; mucus in nasal passages; cerumen (ear wax) in the ear canal—all this happening ceaselessly in the head without our noticing, let alone consenting.
Breathing (“Our heads are endlessly trafficking with the atmosphere”) leads to speaking (a column of air “sculptured by the lips, the tongue, the palate, the throat”), and from there we get to nodding, winking and smiling. Oh, the things the head can accomplish. … And we haven’t even gotten to the eye. Or to the things heads do with other heads (“Kissing is both a biological and a social scandal”).
The brainy Mr. Tallis saves thinking for last, in part because he believes the brain is both overexposed and “absurdly overrated.” He’s adamantly opposed to the notion that consciousness is identical with the neural activity of the brain. Thoughts, he reminds us, are social, they “belong to the network of symbols, the nexus of meanings, the space of possibility, created by the collective of heads.”
Here’s an answer to the question of who is Raymond Tallis: He’s a humanist, and very good at his job.
I wonder what Professor Tallis would think of the Velvet Underground lyrics I’ve had echoing in my noggin ever since I picked up his book:
I’ll be your mirror,
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know,
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset,
The light on your door to show that you’re home
When you think the night has seen your mind,
That inside you’re twisted and unkind,
Let me stand to show that you are blind.
Please put down your hands
’Cause I see you.