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New Literary History 32.3 (2001) 563-584

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The Poetics of Tourette Syndrome:
Language, Neurobiology, and Poetry

Ronald Schleifer

The "I" of the lyricist . . . sounds from the depth of his being: its "subjectivity" in the sense of modern aestheticians is a fiction.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy 1

The neural bases of human language are intertwined with other aspects of cognition, motor control, and emotion.

Philip Lieberman, Human Language and
Our Reptilian Brain

In this essay I want to examine the relationship of poetry to the neurobiological condition known as Tourette Syndrome. Tourette Syndrome is clearly an organic condition that involves, among other symptoms, the seeming emotion-charged use of language, the spouting forth of obscene language that, as researchers note, "may represent" among other symptoms "a common clinical expression of underlying central nervous system dysfunction." 3 The uncanny verbalizations of Tourette's, as David Morris has argued, are apparently connected "to subcortical structures [of the brain] that permit them to tumble out unbidden, like a shout or cry." 4 Poetry also, in the description of the semiotician A. J. Greimas, attempts to create the "meaning-effect" of a "primal cry," an "illusory signification of a 'deep meaning,' hidden and inherent in the plane of expression," in the very sounds of language. 5 Language, as neuroanatomy has demonstrated, involves various regions of the brain, especially Broca's area in the frontal region of the neocortex and Wernicke's area in the posterior area of the cortex. Both the cortex and neocortex have been consistently associated with more abstract modes of reasoning. 6 But subcortical regions of the brain, especially the thalamus, the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the basal ganglia--regions that have been called our "reptilian brain" since humans and other primates inherit them from earlier and less complex life forms--have also been associated with language. Studies in experimental neurobiology have closely correlated these areas of the "reptilian" or "old brain" with motor activity, basic instincts, and emotions. [End Page 563]

Poetry, I am contending, in its more or less intentional and willful activity, calls upon all of these neurological resources of language--so that in poetry, as in the neurobiology of language more generally, the strict distinction between language and motor activities is less and less apposite. This contention, I believe, is illuminated by an examination of Tourette Syndrome in its more or less unintentional and impulsive activity. Just as the facial tattoos of Maori warriors create the "effect" of the facial signaling of aggression, 7 which is part of the behaviors of many primate species and has clearly been associated with cortical and subcortical regions of the brain (especially the amygdala, the seat of emotions in primates containing what researchers describe as "face-responsive [neuronal] cells" 8 ), so poetry creates the effect of the vocal signalings of primates, which, it seems clear, manifest themselves involuntarily in Tourette Syndrome. In this essay I argue that the conventions and resources of poetry and of what Roman Jakobson calls the "poetic function" of literary language more generally 9 --fascinations with the sounds and rhythms of language, with rhymes and repetitions, with its chants and interpersonal powers--haunt the terrible and involuntary utterances of Tourette Syndrome in its powerful connections between motor activity and phonic activity.

But before I begin in earnest, let me make clear what I am not doing. I do not want to suggest that Tourette Syndrome is not a terrible ailment, occasioning powerful distress and appalling disruptions in people's lives. Oliver Sacks makes this clear in his book Awakenings, in which he describes the "immense variety of involuntary and compulsive movements [that] were seen" in postencephalitic patients after they were treated with L-DOPA, including virtually all of the involuntary and compulsive symptoms of Tourette Syndrome I will describe in a moment. 10 Describing these symptoms shared by his patients and people suffering from Tourette Syndrome, Sacks quotes a line from Thom Gunn's poem "The Sense of Movement": "One is always nearer by not being still." "This poem," Sacks writes, "deals with the...


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