raymond tallis in your head


Inside this unnaturally elevated head of ours are crammed organs and orifices that interact in complex ways with the world beyond. “I want to celebrate the mystery of the fact that we are embodied,” he writes; also, that our consciousness is beyond us, in every way. “We are not to be understood, as animals may be understood, as stand-alone organisms; even less are we to be understood as stand-alone brains.”

Of course, what has already drawn attention to the book in some quarters are its delightful discussions of the head’s various disgusting secretions (snot, saliva, ear wax), and its under-appreciated everyday activities such as smiling, yawning, masticating foodstuff, vomiting it up again, and breathing. Making strange the familiar is a special gift, and Tallis seems to know which facts we will sniff at, which we will swallow, which will inspire nausea, and which will make us simply stretch our eyes. We produce a quart of mucus every 24 hours, apparently. We will yawn, in the course of our lives, a quarter of a million times. If our hair had feeling, we’d have to have a local anaesthetic when we had it cut. The mouth is “the anus of the face” (or so says Samuel Beckett). Drink a cold glass of orange, and you feel its progress beyond the windpipe and gullet: “It is a torch, momentarily lighting up the darkness within the body.”