November 03, 2011


Leonardo’s Legacy: How Da Vinci Reimagined the World. By Stefan Klein. Translated by Shelley Frisch. Da Capo. $16.

The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain. By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.

      The literal translation from the original German in which Stefan Klein wrote his book about Leonardo Da Vinci says the great creative genius “newly invented” the world, or “invented it anew” (neu erfand). The English “reimagined” seems an inadequate substitute, for all that Shelley Frisch’s translation generally reads well and makes it easy to follow Klein’s line of argument. The difference is that Klein’s wording emphasizes Leonardo’s actual, real-world creativity, while the translation indicates that what Leonardo did was largely within his own mind. Yet it is important to understand that Leonardo was no idle dreamer but a highly practical constructor of instruments of peace and war, of ancestors of robots, and of diagrams of the human body whose accuracy is quite astonishing even though the worldview through which Leonardo saw anatomy now seems hopelessly quaint. To Leonardo and others of his time, the human body – a divine creation – was a microcosm of the larger world: “So then we may say that the earth has a spirit of growth, and that its flesh is the soil; its bones are the successive strata of the rocks which form the mountains; its cartilage is the tufa stone; its blood the springs of its waters.” One of the most amazing things about Leonardo is that he could foundationally accept this viewpoint while conducting experiments whose findings are as strikingly modern as the man-as-microcosm belief is archaic. Klein’s book, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, not only discusses well-known aspects of Leonardo’s work, such as his three-decade preoccupation with flying, but also less-known but more important ones, such as “the first city map the world has ever seen,” of the town of Imola, near Bologna. The map is reproduced in the book, showing the town from a bird’s-eye view, and it is amazing. But then, so much that Leonardo did was amazing – and a great deal of it was in the service of war. Klein makes no attempt, unfortunately, to reconcile Leonardo’s stated and apparently sincere aversion to violence with the instruments he imagined (and sometimes created) for propagating it: “In one sketch, archers are running away from an exploding grenade, which Leonardo referred to as ‘the deadliest of all machines.’ In another, a war chariot with rotating scythes as large as men is mowing down soldiers and leaving behind a trail of severed legs and dismembered bodies.” It has been argued that Leonardo needed, after all, to support himself, and that rulers such as Cesare Borgia wanted his expertise for reasons of conquest, not peace. True enough, but this is an incomplete truth, since any requirements that Leonardo create machines of war surely did not mandate that he show their gruesome expected effects in such detail. This is one Leonardo mystery that Klein does not attempt to solve; nor does he seek to explain, for example, why Leonardo so much time and effort over so many years trying to unravel the mysteries of flight. But Leonardo’s Legacy is nevertheless a fascinating book, whether Klein is discussing the Mona Lisa or explaining that “Leonardo considered water the perfect symbol of the maelstrom of time,” leading him to create, for example, a remarkable picture of a giant , apocalyptic tidal wave. And what, finally, is the legacy to which Klein’s title refers? It is, the author says, that Leonardo “showed us what man is capable of when liberated from the constraints and apparent certainties of the world.” Although others might phrase this differently, or analyze Leonardo’s contributions in different ways, Klein has certainly made an effective point about the man who was surely one of the world’s great lateral thinkers.

      Lateral thinking – the solving of a problem by looking at it from multiple angles rather than attacking it head-on – is but one form of “brain work” at which certain people are better than others. Those who are not very good lateral thinkers may have other strengths. In fact, argues California psychologist Thomas Armstrong, a “differently wired” brain like Leonardo’s would probably today produce a diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder). For, Armstrong says, people with ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and other forms of mental illness really have compensating strengths that go unappreciated in the rush to treat (and especially medicate) the overt symptoms. In reality, Armstrong argues, brain differences should be observed through a diversity model – one in which, for example, depression and bipolarity are seen to be indicative of creativity; one in which differences in brain structure and function are celebrated instead of there being a set of “normal” brain behaviors and a set of deviant ones. Armstrong seems to want to bring political correctness to neurology, just as others have insisted there are no “disabled” people, only “differently abled” ones. At a certain level, the attempt is admirable, for marginalizing people with, for example, Asperger’s syndrome, does little to help the individuals and may actually be detrimental to society. At another level, though, Armstrong’s argument quickly becomes absurd, much like the protests of defense attorneys against forced medication for schizophrenic defendants on the grounds that giving them behavior-altering drugs that will allow them to stand trial infringes their civil rights. It is difficult to tell just who the audience for this book is supposed to be, since on one hand Armstrong discusses good career paths for “differently wired” people (useful information for them), while on another he talks about creating better environments for the “neurodiverse” (useful ideas for parents, caregivers, teachers and employers). Armstrong’s basic point – which he makes repeatedly – is that “there is no example of a normal brain” and “the important question [is] who is normal anyway.” Well, there is such a thing as a bell curve, and the 80% of people in its middle can reasonably be considered “normal,” but Armstrong prefers to talk about “the rainbow of intelligences,” “the advantages of anxiety,” “the positive side of being autistic,” and more (those three quotations are chapter titles, not passing references). Armstrong is also dismissive of economic costs associated with widespread changes in education or management of the “neurodiverse,” saying, for example, that appropriate educational changes have been shown to work in two schools and can therefore work everywhere. This is not just arrant nonsense but arrogant nonsense – which, however, does not mean the idea is a poor one. “The concept of neurodiversity provides an alternative approach where we begin to break down old divisions that separate people with disabilities from so-called normal people,” writes Armstrong, and this is certainly a well-meaning statement. But there is so much underlying naïveté here, such utopian insistence on the essential goodness and equality of everyone under all circumstances, that The Power of Neurodiversity finally fails to convince – because it refuses to acknowledge that its approaches may make sense some of the time for some people under some circumstances. Seeking all or nothing makes it that much more likely to get nothing – a reality of which Armstrong is unaware, or one that he choose to ignore. The book gets a (+++) rating for those who accept its underlying equivalence between those who are “differently abled” mentally and physically, but a (++) rating for those who do not accept the inherent superiority of cultures “which are based less on rational grounds than contemporary Western culture,” and in which “people with symptoms that might be regarded as schizophrenic by Western clinicians are in some cases celebrated as gifted” and regarded as shamans.

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