This summer I had the rare experience of sitting around and reading great books in a log cabin by log Tahoe (unlike Thoreau, I didn’t build it with my hands). One of the books I enjoyed was “A Brain Wider than the Sky” by Andrew Levy. As a migraine sufferer myself, I was looking for confirmation (which I found) that many famous writers and artistic geniuses suffered from migraines, and that in fact the pain, nausea and visions may have actually been the cause of their brilliance. But Levy goes further, making some theological claims and insights that are worth sharing.
The first connection I appreciate was that St. Paul’s Damascus Encounter may actually describe migraine episode; an aura, followed by spiritual elation, followed by 3 days when he could neither eat nor drink.
“Has the history of religious vision, then, actually been a neurological history?” Levy asks, before continuing:
“And does it really make a difference? What speaks better of God: that He might impose visions on normal human brains from a safe distance, or that He endowed normal human brains with the capacity to experience blinding flashes of light and hallucinatory disorientation, occasionally veiled all around with a transporting sensation of awe, of joy, of clarity?”
“I suspect most people will answer the former, or, at least, experience disappointment and even despair when confronted with the clinical description of the latter, precisely because it implies that there is no God, just chemical altercations. But the devil, so to speak, lies in the details: Where is God, and how does God work in the world, if God works in the world at all? That God might place this capacity to feel something unwordly within the world – within the brain, coded deep in its secret places, triggered not by prayer or passages of doubt but by nitrates or aspartame or desert sun – is this really a bad thing? Contrarily, if one can produce from within deep awe and blinding vision, then what might that imply about the need for a God at all? who needs Him, if we can do this stuff ourselves?” (pg 86)
Levy opens up the possibility that all spiritual awareness has actually been neurological messiness – that there is no God apart from our misfiring synapses. But he also roamingly wonders whether migraines aren’t simply God’s way of crushing us down in pain so that we will turn towards Him for comfort:
“But take a closer look at the Bible. Look at who most appalls God: stiff-necked people, people with hardened hearts. As Elaine Scarry writes in an absolutely perfect phrase, God’s “forceful shattering of the reluctant human surface and repossession of the interior” is where the Old Testament action really lies. God doesn’t have an agenda: he just wants us pliant, humble, cracks us open like eggshells because that, really, is all we are. And pain is the agent that makes this happen.” (pg 89)
At first, but only in the very beginning, I was put off by Andrew Levy’s flowery language and expansive description of minute details of his personal experiences. But as he makes clear in this diary/history of migraine, an inspired awe, introspective fascination, and mind-tingling, non-linear, poetic confusion of words is part of the migraine experience.
I loved the sections on famous migraine sufferers in history (Emily Dickinson, Elvis, Virginia Wolf, Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Caesar, George Bernard Shaw, George Eliot, Kipling, Freud (whose remedy of cocaine up each nostril kept him from sleeping), Alexander Graham bell, Harry Truman, John Calvin, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh) and how their migraines inspired their artistic vision and literary genius; how specific migraine episodes sparked philosophies, movements and even political regimes.
Levy also accurately records the “social atmosphere” surrounding migraine sufferers; how the symptoms of migraine are perceived and discusses inside of relationships. Finally, the author comments on some of the most common migraine medication currently prescribed and their effects. My only complaint (if it can be called a complaint) is that this book is too short – I read it rapturously and finished it in a sunny afternoon…. it seems like a cute and short introduction to a rich and fascinating history; although most readers these days will appreciate this brevity, for me it piqued my interest without satisfying my curiousity.
It should also be noted that migraine sufferers looking for a cure will not find it in this book: Levy points out correctly that there are many medications which will not work for everyone… and the point of this book is not to find the cure, but to understand and accept the experience of the living with migraines. For sufferers frustrated with trying to explain their pain and dehibilitating symptoms with family or loved ones, however, “A Brain Wider than the Sky fills a much needed gap. It makes me feel less a victim and more a privelged few who experience much deeper, fuller states of awareness than “ordinary” people. For anyone interested in the history of mankind, literature, art, and psychology, this book is highly recommended. For migraine sufferers or those close to migraine sufferers, this book is a Must Read.
“The migraine, I began to see, might be conceived as an intellectual problem: one that was not solved by an experiement, but healed by the use of one’s intellect as a battering ram against the pain.” (pg. 100.)