This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.
I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.
This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.
I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):
If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.
Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.
. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.
For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.
Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.
Bryce Canyon at twilight:
Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:
Charlie in Antarctica, photo by Rowena Gross:
6 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates eulogizes her late husband in a science journal”
You ask me, Joyce Carol Oates has churned out high-quality prose at a pace that outstrips any of her American contemporaries. She writes at a rate faster than most of the rest of us can read.
Of all the books of hers I’ve yet read, I have a special affection for a slender volume she did about the squared-circle, On Boxing.
That book came as a revelation, as as much of a surprise as a righthand lead. Who’d’ve ever thought that Joyce Carol Oates, of all people, had an abiding affection for (and profound knowledge of) pugilism — an affection, as I recall, that dates back to her having attended fights ringside as a youngster with her father?
So sorry to learn of the loss of her husband.
This is very moving. How wonderful that two people from very different vocations can find great concordance.
Very nice and moving. Great images.
Stephen Fry actually once wrote in Nature Reviews Urology, about his prostate cancer surgery (just, since we’re speaking of famous people in scientific journals):
I read one of her novels about a man who has no ability to create new memories – it was very good. The Man Without a Shadow…
Great photos but more interesting is when it is possible to find true love so late in life. That is deeply cool.
Hope for all of us! 😉