Research Notes · 11/27/2015

Melissa

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jonathan Taylor writes about Melissa from Salt Publishing.

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On Melissa, Musical Hallucinations and Neurology

The idea for my novel, Melissa (Salt Publishing, 2015), originated — as all the best ideas do — in an Archimedes-like moment in the bath, when certain personal experiences, memories and research coalesced into a central image: that of a community struck by a collective auditory hallucination, at a moment of emotional intensity. This became the basis for the opening chapters, in which the residents of a small street in Stoke-on-Trent, England, experience the same musical hallucination and symptoms, immediately following the death of a young girl, Melissa, from Leukaemia.

The novel’s central image is “inspired by true events.” As with my earlier books — which include a memoir and a first novel, Entertaining Strangers — this new novel mingles fiction with non-fiction, both in its subject matter and in its modes of narration. The “true events” in question include various personal stories, memories and experiences, while I was growing up in Stoke-on-Trent and afterwards. I don’t necessarily want to be too explicit about these — people can find out for themselves, if they so wish. What I will admit, personally speaking, is that the novel’s tone (as opposed to content) was probably informed at some level by more immediate experiences: in 2008, my wife and I had twin girls, Miranda and Rosalind. The circumstances surrounding the birth were traumatic, and the twins were born early and tiny (one was only two and a bit pounds). The twins are now seven years old, fine and healthy; but the experiences in intensive care and afterwards made real the sheer unalloyed terror of being a parent to sick children.

In more general, historical terms, there are a large number of documented cases of collective phenomena not unlike the musical hallucination in Melissa. For example, there was the well-known case of the Dancing Plague of Strasbourg in 1518, when up to 400 people danced themselves into a frenzy and ultimately — over a period of weeks — to death by exhaustion. Significantly, many of the participants screamed that they could hear music in their heads. Since then, there have been hundreds of comparable cases: convents where all the nuns became convinced they were cats; factories where workers simultaneously came down with the same phantom sickness; schools subject to mass fainting fits; Tanganyikan villages overtaken by laughter epidemics; and so on and so forth.

By and large, these cases are seen as manifestations of what is known as mass psychogenic illness — that is, so-called “mass hysteria,” whereby, for instance, one dancer’s or laugher’s hysteria is witnessed by someone else, who “catches” it and joins in, and who then spreads it to another person, and so on, until an entire community is stricken. Nonetheless, even if these phenomena are now put down as “merely” cases of mass hysteria, there is still something strange, inexplicable, viral, irrational, unconscious, compulsive, maybe even neurological, about the ways in which they spread. In fact, as I read more about these things, I did begin to wonder — and I’m not alone in this by any means — if there might be such a thing as “mass neurogenic illness” as well: mass hysteria, if you like, which spreads through complex neurological systems and processes from one person to another. I’m not usually of a mystical term but I do wonder — as many psychologists and neurologists have done, too — about possible neurological bases for forms of telepathy and mass-psychic connections.

For example, a number of contemporary neuroscientists have recently proposed the idea of “mirror neurons,” which come close to these ideas. Mirror neurons, they argue, are located in old, even pre-human sections of the brain, such as the premotor, primary somatosensory and posterior parietal cortex, and possibly the anterior and middle cingulate areas, precuneus, and frontal areas; and their name originates from the idea that they not only fire when a particular action is performed by the individual, but also when the individual observes the same action performed by others — whose mirror neurons are also, presumably, firing as well. At this primitive level, the brain is an imitative organ, which is programmed to mirror the world, and indeed, the other brains, around it: at this neuronal level, the individual’s brain mirrors other brains as part of a wider social organism. In a sense, perhaps at the pre-human, pre-linguistic level of mirror neurons, a kind of pseudo-telepathic communication can take place.

There are connections here with music and musical imagery: clearly, music also affects the brain at both the pre-linguistic and pre-human levels, as well as in the higher cortical sections. Indeed, the experience of music, as many neurologists have pointed out, is one of the few “universal” or global experiences of the brain, in that it affects almost every single section of it. Music, too, works a bit like a mirror neuron, in that it is both an individualistic and a communitarian experience. It would be easy to dismiss a concert — and particularly a classical concert — as an individualistic, even solipsistic activity, in which members of an audience seem shut in their own interior world. But, in many ways, this is not necessarily (or neurologically) true. The audience members’ experience of the music, and the similar effects this music has on the auditory circuits of their brains, is a form of collective auditory communication — that is, mass communication through listening, as opposed to speaking.

Many writers, philosophers, musicians and musicologists have described music in terms of a collective experience. After all, music and dancing have always been social activities, associated with religious, celebratory, or commemorative gatherings of different kinds. This persists in the modern world, where concerts have their own atmospheres, their own forms of group psychology. As George Eliot puts it: ‘Music stirs all one’s devout emotions [and] blends everything into harmony — makes one feel part of one whole, which one loves all alike, losing the sense of a separate self.’ Similarly — but in a more mystical, Schopenhauerian, vein — the music-dramatist Richard Wagner declares that, in music, ‘the individual will … awakes … as the universal Will …. The will feels one forthwith, above all bounds of individuality: for Hearing has opened it the gate through which the world thrusts home to it, it to the world.’ Ultimately, whether one entirely agrees with this ultra-Romantic view or not, there does seem to be something almost telepathic about the effects of intense musical experience — which is why millions of people attend concerts, gigs, festivals, instead of just listening to personal stereos. The most successful concerts capture something of this collective telepathy, even those where the audience are still and quiet (quiet, that is, together). Successful concerts establish pseudo-telepathic links between listener and dead composer, listener and performers, and, most significantly, listener and all other listeners in the audience.

No doubt that communitarian, pseudo-telepathic aspect of music is sometimes overlooked, forgotten or repressed in the modern world. To some extent, what I wanted to do in Melissa was to unveil it again in a modern context: to give one atomised community a glimpse of the ancient, telepathic energy of music, and see what happens in the wake of it. After the musical hallucination, the characters all behave in different ways, and, in that sense, the novel is as much about the reception of that phenomenon, as it is about the phenomenon itself. It is an attempt to explore, in narrative terms, the ways in which a community deals with the hidden, overwhelming power of music, in a culture where music is all too often sidelined, marginalised, commodified, turned into a hobby for the rich.

I’m not alone, of course, in thinking such neurological, medical, musical and cultural subjects might be explored in narrative terms; the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks does something similar, in demonstrating the ways in which narrative forms and medical discourse overlap. For Sacks, neurological illnesses have their own (often individualistic) narratives — and, indeed, a narrative sense can aid in the treatment of illnesses. More than any other text, Sacks’s wonderful book Musicophilia, which includes case studies about auditory hallucinations, provided the model and guide for what I did in novelistic terms in Melissa. Through reading Musicophilia in the bath, I came to hallucinate, as it were, the story of the entire novel.

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Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa _(Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir _Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta, 2007). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk