Neuropsychiatrist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel’s recent book on the brain, art and the creative process is a fascinating look into the brand new area of research called “neuroaesthetics.” Just as fascinating is his perspective on turn-of-the-century Vienna, the city of his birth, which later expelled him for being Jewish.

When Auguste Rodin visited Vienna in June 1902, art critic Berta Zuckerkandl invited him to spend an afternoon in her famous salon. As the hostess later recalled, the great French sculptor and Austrian artist Gustav Klimt had seated themselves beside two remarkably beautiful young women — Rodin gazing enchantingly at them. Rodin leaned over and said to Klimt: “I have never before experienced such an atmosphere — your tragic and magnificent Beethoven fresco, your unforgettable temple-like exhibition; and now this garden, these women, this music … and round it all this gay, child-like happiness … What is the reason for it all?”

Klimt slowly nodded and responded with a single word: “Austria!”

This is the opening scene in New York neuroscientist Eric Kandel’s exploration of his native Vienna, a tome entitled “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present,” published this spring in English and this month in German. It’s a 656-page excursion that takes the reader all the way to the depths of the soul, the cavernous chasms of sex and the secrets of beauty. Here, in Vienna, the former capital of the Habsburg Empire, the author traces a major revolution in Western thinking.

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