Eric Kandel: Insight and Reconciliation

Vienna-born Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel on art, science and the evolution of the mind

scientist Eric Kandel

Brain scientist Eric Kandel speaking at the Austrian Academy of Sciences | Photo: R. Oehner

“It’s remarkable how Austria has grown up in the last few years,” Eric Kandel declared to a packed auditorium at the Austrian Academy of Sciences on 9 October. The occasion: a presentation of the Viennese-born neuroscientist and 2000 Nobel Prize Laureate’s most recent book, The Age of Insight (see “Eric Kandel: Nectar for the MindTVR June 2012), recently released in German.

However, the pioneering research scientist and enthusiastic art collector had not come to discuss the political evolution of his homeland that day. Rather, he sought to trace the genealogy of the modern mind, which took off where the Enlightenment had fallen short, and explains what happens in the human brain when looking at a work of art. Thus the Academy’s magnificent Festsaal, with its impressive ceiling fresco of Italian Baroque painter Gregorio Guglielmi (1714 – 1773), was ideally suited to the occasion.

Then again, politics could not be kept at bay. Kandel (b. 1929) is now feted and honoured by Vienna, the city that had once ostracised his family and forced them – fearing for their lives – to emigrate to New York in 1939. Once in the U.S., he went on  to study history and literature at Harvard and trained to become a psychoanalyst before going into medicine at the New York University in 1952, where he eventually founded the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the university’s Medical School.

During a demanding week of engagements in Vienna in early October, Kandel opened the international symposium “Days of Molecular Medicine”, discussed the fraught relationship between art and science at the Secession, spoke about “The Creative Interactions of Jews and Christians in Vienna 1900” at the University of Vienna, and was guest of honour at a dinner given at the Austrian Parliament.

But it was the book presentation at the Academy of Sciences that drew the largest crowd.


A magnum opus

“No more suitable location could have been devised for this book presentation,” U.S. Ambassador William C. Eacho pointed out in his welcome address, gazing up at Guglielmi’s ceiling fresco depicting the disciplines of philosophy, theology, medicine and law in what was once the home of the University of Vienna. Kandel, who was trained both in the liberal arts and the medical sciences, thrives on the cross-fertilization of academic cultures, as his latest book amply demonstrates.

Kandel’s presence in Vienna was itself a statement, as President of the National Council of Austria Barbara Prammer pointed out in her introduction. In the early days of the Second Republic, “talented spirits” like Kandel, who “lost his home, his youth, his friends and relatives”, were neither invited nor welcomed back after World War II. Only in the past two decades has Austria become aware of its responsibilities, she continued. But still “it hurts to think about what Austria would look like today without this loss.”

Frail, yet sharp-eyed and exuding warmth, Kandel ascended the podium, wearing his trademark crimson bowtie. Tellingly, the lecture was delivered in English, with the text beamed overhead together with plentiful illustrations – art works and medical brain diagrams.

In a voice still compelling in spite of his 82 years, Kandel sketched out the main points of the book – a kind of declaration of love to fin-de-siècle Vienna – pausing at length on the portrait artistry of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. The power of Austrian Modernist painters, he argued, stems from their being “extraordinarily gifted psychologists… who picked up things that Freud missed,” most notably regarding female sexuality.


Time for praise

Ever since his Nobel Prize in 2000, Kandel has been showered with honours: He became an honorary citizen of the City of Vienna in 2009 and this year, received the “Silver Star” Grand Order of Merit (Große Silberne Ehrenzeichen mit dem Stern) from Austria’s President, Heinz Fischer.

But the reconciliation was long in coming, as Kandel explained in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard of 26 June; an important milestone was the recent rechristening as “Universitätsring” of the Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring, named for the popular but anti-Semitic mayor of early 20th century Vienna (see “Renaming the Ring: a Reconciliation, TVR Sept. 2012). The bond with his native city was “very negative for a long time,” he said, “before turning ambivalent, and [it] now resonates with pleasant overtones.”

Judging by his bright smile during the book-signing session that followed his presentation, this rapprochement with the city of his interrupted childhood must be a source of deep satisfaction.

As a seasoned professor, Kandel ended his lecture by giving the audience some “homework”, warmly recommending the 1998 book by biologist E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He then praised his host, the Academy of Sciences, for “carrying forward the spirit of Vienna 1900”, and continuing to weave the links between the arts and sciences.

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