Jonah Lehrer’s Downfall: Life Far More Interesting With Real-Life Complications

Written by NYPress on . Posted in Blog, NY Press Exclusive.


Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons

by Alissa Fleck

Journalist and self-proclaimed Bob Dylan obsessive Michael C. Moynihan read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works and realized something was not right. This skepticism ultimately resulted in Lehrer’s outing as a fraud—an inventor and tinkerer of material when it was convenient, when it suited his thesis. Many praised the book’s genius from the outset, but Moynihan knew something was off by chapter one—things seemed to fit a little too neatly.

The well-worn proverb proclaims truth is stranger than fiction—was Lehrer so determined to say something new, something “genius,” he was willing to dip into the realm of the invented? Certainly fiction has its place, but was Lehrer so egotistical as to believe what he could invent and tailor would somehow be more earth-shattering than reality? Life, and literature, are arguably far more interesting when we plumb the depths of the real, which explains how Moynihan instantly succeeded in pulverizing Lehrer’s facade.

It might be easier to invent, but complication—the kind you cannot fabricate—is undoubtedly where interest lies.

Greil Marcus, culture critic and renowned Bob Dylan aficionado (he’s penned a few books on the subject), reacted to the scandal: “I read the Dylan material in a bookstore and for me it was shallow, obvious, and most of all gaseous. Now we know why.”

Marcus said people were “pressing that book on [him],” insisting they’d never understood Dylan before. As if the point is, after all, to “understand” Dylan. And, particularly, to understand Dylan through Lehrer’s young, hip lens. Maybe the problem lies in our culture’s insistence on such understanding.

Someone, under the pseudonym of fictional TV news anchor Will McAvoy, wrote on Twitter: “It became clear Jonah Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan when it was discovered he was able to get coherent quotes from Bob Dylan.” What does it say about us that we demand such coherence from existence?

If it wraps up neatly enough for such a book, with a thesis on which you can tie a bow, it’s probably too neat for real life.

In seeing the publication process through to completion, in waiting, knowing this book would drift around for literary eternity, I wonder, did Lehrer feel proud of his invention? Did he feel fulfilled?

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