This is a book of enormous scope, whose
two parts are illustrated by its subtitle.
The title refers to an old Sufi tale, in
which the Master is an enlightened sage who, as his teaching
spreads more and more widely, delegates the administration
of it to his favoured disciple. This Emissary gradually
takes control of the teachings. He has a vast amount of
knowledge, but it is piecemeal, and does not stem from a
deep understanding of his experience in and of the world. In
the book he stands for the left hemisphere, that part of us
which analyses and ‘re-presents’ (McGilchrist’s hyphen
elegantly emphasises the point).
The argument is that Western culture has
arrived at a stage in which what the author identifies as
left hemisphere modes of thought and expression are too
dominant, with a corresponding weakening of the functioning
of the right hemisphere, with its capacity to sense things
as a whole, in depth and context. McGilchrist’s objective is
to plead for the restoration of balance:
hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to
depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but
doesn’t believe. … The Master needs to trust, to believe in
his Emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be
abused. The Emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is
invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are
invincible: but if it is abused, it is not just the Master
that suffers, but both of them, since the Emissary owes his
existence to the Master."
thought we knew about left and right hemispheres when it
became a popular idea (language on the left, spatial
awareness on the right, etc.) turns out to be a fairly crude
and not altogether accurate picture -the right hemisphere does have language, for example:
"If it is
true that most syntax and vocabulary, the nitty-gritty of
language, are in most subjects housed in the left
hemisphere, it is nonetheless the right hemisphere which
subserves higher linguistic functions such as understanding
the meaning of a whole phrase or sentence in context, its
tone, its emotional significance, along with use of humour,
irony, metaphor, and so on."
on Language, Truth and Music will be extremely
thought-provoking for students of Alexander’s work. Much of
its argument reinforced my understanding of F.M.’s constant
effort in his books to keep to a ‘broad reasoning approach’,
and to use ‘blanket words’, so as not to limit meaning.
McGilchrist contrasts the word ‘rational’ (left brain
territory with its Latin roots in measurement and
proportion), with ‘reason’, so implying a more contextual
approach which does not preclude some kind of intuiting or
even paradox. Too often nowadays we consider that things are
explained and ‘wrapped up’ if we can produce a few
example from McGilchrist’s exhaustive survey of the
scientific literature (his bibliography is huge), may sum up
the situation. Evidently when a chicken feeds, its right eye
(left brain) is focussed on the little grains it is pecking
at, while at the same time its left eye (right brain) scans
the horizon, the general surroundings, for possible trouble.
Partial detail versus total context -the chickens seem to
have got it right.
It may be
that people with wide and expert knowledge in the
neuroscientific field will find the book wanting. I gave my
brother a copy, and he raised the caveat that drawing
conclusions from the examination of damaged or otherwise
dysfunctional brains does not in the end tell us how the
fully integrated brain really works. Mind you, a vast amount
of our neuroscientific knowledge is based on doing just
The focus on
left and right is itself partial. What about top and bottom
-the relationship between cortex and sub-cortical brain
areas? With this narrow focus McGilchrist might be accused
of the sort of overly left-brained approach he decries. He
does not hesitate to accuse António
Damásio of a similar crime in
Descartes’ Error, deftly pointing out that Damásio
commits Descartes’ error towards the end of the book!
half of the book, with its broad canvas of the history of
Western culture, I found utterly absorbing. It started me on
explorations which I might not otherwise have made, many of
which seem to have links with Alexander’s work. I
particularly enjoyed tracing the often fragile line of
thought which began with the pre-Socratic philosopher
Heraclitus and contemporary dramatists like Aeschylus.
Heraclitus is he of "everything flows" fame (except that he
probably didn’t say quite that, but something more
provoking, rather shocking, and relevant in a hidden sort of
way to our work). The thread almost disappears from Plato
onwards, comes and goes, but is almost always implicit to
some extent in art, music and literature. It surfaces in
Keats, Hegel, Heidegger and Mahler, to name a few.
McGilchrist also mentions John Dewey and William James.
Alexander of course respected and admired the work of both.
What the thread is would take more discussion than there is
room for here, so I hope I have aroused your curiosity!
This book may
not lie in everyone’s sphere of interest, or may spill over
from that sphere into too many others. Whatever its
scientific merits or demerits, it stands, if nothing else,
as a metaphor for ways of thinking, some constructive, some
destructive, which I think have a significant bearing on our
work. How, for example, do we approach the question of
anatomical and physiological knowledge? What is ‘thinking’?
How many of us spent our early Alexander years constructing
all sorts of mental models of the Technique, each seeming to
be ‘the one’ -for a while! Such
misapprehensions usually arise from taking the anatomical
description, which can only be partial, as describing the
right thing, which, as F.M. continually emphasised, must be
allowed to ‘do itself’. But such knowledge can be very
helpful if it throws some light on how things might go wrong
and need to be consciously inhibited. Taken in that spirit,
I think The Master and his Emissary offers a good
Ron Colyer 2010