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The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head [Hardcover]

Raymond Tallis

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Book Description

Sept. 23 2008

In this pathbreaking book, one of Britain’s most eloquent and original thinkers writes about the head, what happens in it, and how it is and is not connected to our sense of identity and consciousness. Blending science, philosophy, and humor, Raymond Tallis examines the extraordinarily complex relationship we have with our heads. His aim, as he says, “is to turn readers into astonished tourists of the piece of the world that is closest to them, so they never again take for granted the head that looks at them from the mirror.” Readers will delight that this is precisely what he accomplishes.

 

The voyage begins with a meditation on the self-portrait of a mirror image, followed by a consideration of the head’s various secretions. Tallis contemplates the air we exhale; the subtle meanings of nods, winks, and smiles; the mysteries of hearing, taste, and smell. He discusses the metaphysics of the gaze, the meaning of kissing, and the processes by which the head comes to understand the world. Along the way he offers intriguing digressions on such notions as “having” and “using” one’s head, and enjoying and suffering it. Tallis concludes with his thoughts on the very thing the reader’s head has been doing throughout the book: thinking.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (Sept. 23 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300142226
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300142228
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16.4 x 2.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 612 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #447,218 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

“Tallis is extremely erudite, writes very well, and mixes his medical knowledge with allusions to writers and poets. I would not have believed it possible to write a book about the head without focusing mostly on the brain, but that is exactly what he has done. And, it is remarkably engaging.”—E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., author of Surviving Prostate Cancer
(E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.)

“This is a most unusual and an unusually enjoyable book. As the author promises it is a rich feast of digressions. Tallis attacks his varied topics with unflinching straightforwardness and honesty, leavened by considerable humor.”—Adam Zeman, author of Portrait of the Brain
(Adam Zeman)

"British medical doctor Tallis considers the looks and actions of the human head . . . Creative and proudly humanistic, Tallis' tour might induce readers to scrutinize their reflections as minutely as Tallis does his own."—Booklist
(Booklist 2008-09-15)

”Ray Tallis is one of the hidden treasures of British intellectual life. . . . The Kingdom of Infinite Space is a book to make you laugh, cry, yawn. It might even make you use your brain.“—Kenan Malik, Sunday Telegraph

 
(Kenan Malik Daily Telegraph 2008-05-09)

“Tallis is a literary dandy of dazzling, almost narcissistic proportions, but he is also one of the most prolific and serious essayists of our time.”—John Cornwell, Literary Review

(John Cornwell Literary Review)

“With playful puns and allusions, occasional Joycean fuges and personal digressions, Tallis reflects on the social, cultural and emotional meanings of every aspect of a head’s appearance, secretions and actions, his elegant prose makes the mundane extraordinary.”—Chris McManus, Times Higher Education
 
(Chris McManus Times Higher Education)

"Reminds us of the glory of human beings."—Jane O’Grady, Guardian
 
(Jane O'Grady Guardian)

"A sparkling tour of our senses and the way in which we are embodied . . . make the world seem a more interesting place and life that much more important.”—Nicholas Fearn, Independent
(Nicholas Fearn Independent)

"Reading [Tallis] . . . gave this reviewer the sense of being exposed to a literary genius—literary because of his erudition and eloquent use of language, a genius because he demonstrates extraordinary knowledge and insights. . . . Highly recommended."— Choice
(Choice)

Chosen as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2009 by Choice Magazine
(Choice 2010-01-01)

About the Author

Raymond Tallis is emeritus professor of geriatric medicine, University of Manchester, UK. As a poet, novelist, and philosopher, he has explored consciousness, language, and what is distinctive about human beings. His recent books include The Hand; I Am; The Knowing Animal; and The Enduring Significance of Parmenides: Unthinkable Thought. He lives in Cheshire, UK.


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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heads Up Oct. 18 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Where are you? Raymond Tallis wants to know. He is not asking about your physical location; a GPS unit could supply an answer to such a simple question. Where are you inside yourself? If someone kicks you in the leg, sure, the leg is part of you, and the kicker has surely kicked you, but the leg is somehow "out there", it is literally a limb and is definitely distant from the "you" who feels the kick, or the "you" who might think about it or talk about it. Where that you is, and who that you is, are the themes in _The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Portrait of Your Head_ (Yale University Press). You may well have the feeling that the real you is somewhere in your head; perhaps you got this feeling because you learned long ago how the brain within your cranium is in charge of everything. You cannot feel your brain doing this work; it is all automatic, and though the brain is full of nerve cells, it has no cells assigned to do any feeling of pain or of bustling activity. The ancients thought that the brain was an organ to cool the blood, and so its role in cognition was not always assumed. It feels to me, and it might feel to you, that my me is somewhere right behind my eyes, though if I ask where those feelings are coming from, I can't feel their origin. Tallis's serious but brightly written book has much to say about consciousness, but it starts off with a paradox: "This book about the head says little about the brain." Tallis jokes, "First, be assured the importance of the brain has not entirely escaped my attention." The brain is the biggest and most important part of the head, but Tallis spends much more time on the head's activities around the brain, the things that might make us think that the head is our headquarters.

"Selves are not cooked up, or stored, in brains," Tallis writes. "Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments." So it is instructive to examine the head and its "outer" activities, because, Tallis explains, "the brain is absurdly over-rated", and for all its power and mystery, a brain cannot constitute a whole being's world. "I want to celebrate the mystery of the fact that we are embodied," Tallis writes, and the celebration here has to do with the myriad non-brain activities of the head. Like secretions. Can you list them all? Well, there is saliva, of course. You will, quite automatically, slurp up around 30,000 liters of saliva during your lifetime, most of which you won't think about at all. It is remarkable that we humans have taken secretion of saliva, a biological necessity, and put it under our conscious control, at least whenever we want it to be, for the purpose of insulting someone else, or to lick a stamp. Saliva has within it molecules that help fight infection, and so does ear wax. There's mucus. There's sweat, which is produced in other places of the body, of course, but sebum, a mixture of fats and dead cells from the hair follicles, is produced almost all from the head. After all these, Tallis winds up with tears, "a secretion at last with a bit of class". There is plenty here on the way humans use our heads to communicate by shaping air and making sounds, but plenty also on how heads communicate silently. Blushing is one way, as are the expressions that are hard wired into us; even congenitally blind people use the same expressions for anger, surprise, fear, and so on.

Tallis is a retired professor of medicine, which enables him to give physiological details about such head activities as kissing, yawning, or vomiting, or the skills of head-butting, or details of the worms and insects that will infest a lifeless head. He is also a poet, and his love of language is found throughout this thought-provoking book. There are many gentle puns, such as his reflections on the use of Botox: "The wrinkles return and injections have to be repeated and, eventually, the face has to face up to the fact that it is no longer beautiful; and to withstand the inattention that anticipates its ultimate effacement." With all his physiological information about the extra-cranial activities of the head, Tallis succeeds in taking the focus away from the brain, a blow against the "neuromythology" that reduces consciousness to intracranial processes only. He has no more solved the knotty problems of consciousness than the neurologically-based philosophers have, but the physical / mental puzzle is probably intractable. What he has done is raise fascinating questions by reminding us that we are wonderfully complex embodied physiological masses, part of nature but always able to use nature to step out of ourselves and observe, and always pulled back into our physical selves no matter how objective we try to be. The combination of philosophy and physiology proves to be a heady mix.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Capital! Jan. 8 2010
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A wonder-full book by this flamboyant doctor, psychologist, philosopher, wordsmith and pyrotechnical polymath about the processes going in your head, where four of our five sense are exclusively located.

He tells us that he will say very little about the brain; and what he does say is to belittle the claims of what he calls `neuromythology'. This self-denying ordinance seems to me at its most awkward during a long passage from pp.265 to 268, where he lists a range of things which are stored up in "the head", but then sets up the Aunt Sally to say that "I, or my head, or my brain" are not like a computer. Some people - even some philosophers - may think that the brain is like a computer; but I guess that most people are aware of the difference.

With often sparkling wit (and occasionally with baroque convolutions of expression) he describes and meditates on everything from the taking in of breath to the discharging of saliva, mucus, sweat and tears. Of many of these processes we are scarcely, if at all, conscious; many of them involve very complicated mechanisms and a cocktail of ingredients; few of them can we control; and some of them run definitely counter to our wishes and interests. Here is a passage that gives you a flavour of Tallis' writing:

"The particular cruelty of acne vulgaris is that it breaks out in adolescence, when one feels most defined by one's physical appearance. This is compounded by one of the body's nastier little ironies: the hormone testosterone that makes boys achingly attracted to spotless beauties is also the most important driver to the overproduction of sebum that makes them spottily unattractive."

His discussion of breathing involves descriptions not only the physiological mechanism of laughter but also the psychological situations which trigger different kinds of laughter, from the snigger to the bellow. An even more elaborate mechanism, involving complex arrangements of tongue, lips, the oral cavity, the glottis, the vocal cords etc is required for speech. But non-verbal communication can be just as demanding: there are 43 muscles that, in various combinations, shape about 3,000 meaningful facial expressions, from several kinds of smile to scowls. To such intentional signals we can add the unintentional one of the blush.

Then the eye: beginning with conveying the sense of wonder about the complexity of its structure, Tallis goes on to comment not only on looking but on being looked at, and on the meanings of the downcast gaze.

The structure and operations of our auditory organs (there are up to 20,000 hair cells in the cochlea of the ear) are another miracle.

Our recognition of taste depends on about 5,000 taste buds in our mouths, and of smells on 10 million receptors at the back of our nasal cavity. (Dogs have more than a billion such receptors.)

And eventually to the wrinkled skin and to the empty skull, and to Tallis' reflections on our mortality.

From time to time he has indulged himself in digressions into areas which have nothing to do with the head - as, for example, in his disquisition on the origin of spelling. The chapter on kissing is worked (up) into a story of frenzied anticipation - and never mentions what Freud had to say about the origins of oral gratification. But for the most part these digressions are thought-provoking and have the wryness of observation, the richness of similes and the plays on words which are among Tallis' hallmarks.

He is constantly amazed that our heads - or we as its owners - exist at all, the processes of their formation being near-infinitely complex and the odds against their creation near-infinitely great. Every now and again throughout the book he muses about the relationship between our Self and our body, particularly that part of our body - the head - in which we tend to locate our Self while at the same time being aware that it is an object of our contemplation; and the reader - unless he yawns at those passages as too philosophical for his grasp or for his interest (and there is a disquisition on yawning also) - becomes involved in the same mind-boggling conundrums as is Tallis himself. This is especially true of the difficult last chapter, in which he worries where thoughts come from, to what extent we form them and to what extent they come to us unbidden, and where they are actually located. But there are many illuminations in the earlier chapters for those who cannot follow Tallis to the end of his book.
1.0 out of 5 stars Just could not read this! July 25 2013
By S. Demo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I found Tallis' writing to be extremely pompous and uninteresting. I was aware that this was a book about the anatomy and physiology of structures in the head, and I really enjoy learning about human anatomy and physiology, but this book absolutely fell flat for me. Unless you are a serious scientist, and it wouldn't hurt to be British to understand some of his jargon, I cannot recommend this book. I stopped reading it after about 30 pages or so. My copy of the book was stamped "Withdrawn" from the Harvard Medical Library (purchased it used)--I can certainly understand why.
4 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The author seems to think that 20 pages of prose do the same job as a short poem March 27 2012
By Jackal - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I got hold of this book after reading a book by Alain de Botton, who also writes in a philosophical way about common life phenomena. I have to say that the current book pales in comparison to Botton (e.g.The Architecture of Happiness (Vintage)). The current book provides poetic descriptions, but in prose format. I find the approach quite tedious. I do not love poetry, but I can on occasion appreciate it. Good poetry invokes emotions by using few words. The current book needs a lot of words to convey similar emotions. The result is not the same and I do not have patience for this. Both Tellis and Botton have a verbose, pompous style of writing. However, Botton often has something thoughtful to say once you get used to his style. So I conclude by giving this book two stars and recommend Botton instead.

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