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April 28, 2010


The agony of the constant present and the power of music

by quaesitor

I’ve enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ books before (especially his best, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) and have got much out of Musicophilia. I wouldn’t say it was as good as some of the reviews made out – rather too bitty and uneven – but it is rescued by occasional flashes of his characteristic compassion and the ability to make fascinating connections.

I was profoundly affected, however, by his chapter on Music and Amnesia. His focus was almost entirely on English musician Clive Wearing, who found himself, as the result of a brain infection, with a completely destroyed memory. Consequently, he had a memory span of only a few seconds. He was the subject of a BBC documentary by Jonathan Miller, Prisoner of Consciousness, and his wife Deborah wrote a book about their life together. She describes the affliction:

His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem to be able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view. I tried to imagine how it was for him… Something akin to a film with bad continuity, the glass half empty, then full, the cigarette suddenly longer, the actor’s hair now tousled, now smooth. But this was real life, a room changing in ways that were physically impossible.

… It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment. Clive was under the constant impression that he had just emerged from unconsciousness because he had no evidence in his own mind of ever being awake before… “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelled anything,” he would say. “It’s like being dead.” (pp 202-203)

As Sacks adds:

In addition to this inability to preserve new memories, Clive had a devastating retrograde amnesia, a deletion of virtually his entire past.

This can be seen in the devastating, eerie journal he kept (some of which is quoted on the Wiki entry on him). The reason that Sacks spends so much time reflecting on Clive’s tragic predicament is that the two things that made his life liveable were his wife and music. Somehow, he had a deep awareness (almost but not quite like a memory) of her and his dependence on her. He needed her. But music helped him too. He had been a conductor and expert on several composers, especially Lassus. And in fact when he performs or conducts, all his abilities and creative expression prove to be intact – and the music’s momentum will sustain him longer than his memory – for as longs as the piece lasts.

The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was becuause in every phase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody. It was marvellous to be free. When the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal. (p 225)

Memory fascinates me. But the thought of not having it is truly haunting, unbearable even. Yet it strikes me that, as a culture, we have lost our memories. The causes are many and complex – shifts in hermeneutics and epistemology have had profound, debilitating effects as we no longer have any confidence that truth is knowable. As I’m fond of quoting in talks, Donald Drew of L’Abri once put it like this:

People today are dazzled by the last 24 hours, confused by the last 24 years, bemused by the last 24 centuries.

It strikes me, though, that we need to regroup. We need to regroup around the old music of the grandest story of them all. For we are all part of the greatest story – and this can give the momentum that an amnesiac desperately needs. It is no accident that as Moses speaks to Israel’s second generation on the verge of Canaan, in what would be his last will and testament (the Book of Deuteronomy), the little word Remember is repeated 16 times. Remember what came before you in the story – so that you can play your own part in the story.

If we don’t remember, we are condemned to be confused every time we blink.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 28 2010

    Beautiful post, Mark, about a haunting (and haunted) life.

  2. Apr 28 2010

    What a great post 🙂

    • Apr 28 2010

      thanks for visiting and for the encouragement, wild focus!

  3. Apr 28 2010

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this…

  4. Apr 28 2010

    Music is indeed powerful.


  5. Andrea
    Apr 28 2010

    Music is a funny thing. If you remember nothing else, you will remember it. There are many events in my life, that music pulls out of their shadowy past. I feel for him, and m glad you wrote about him. This is an amazing story. I can only imagine how it must have been for his wife. At least he did remember her.

  6. Kris
    Apr 28 2010

    Very interesting read, thanks for posting and I will be checking out Musicophilia for myself. I saw in a documentary once that dealt with old people, and some in advanced stages of dementia, that almost the only thing they all responded to, when everything else failed- was music. Music touches something primal in us all. As the saying goes- music is a feeling.

  7. Apr 28 2010

    Great writing. After having neurosurgery 5 years ago I was told to expect personality changes. Fair enough, I thought, you’re digging around in my brain. Then I stopped loving, deeply loving music. A little prayer and some hard work later–and music is perhaps a larger portion of my life, as is food and any other sensual experience. They are the things that save us. This story fascinates me.

  8. Apr 28 2010

    Very impressive! I think I’ve heard about this story a few years ago. I study music video in a philosofical & aesthetical perspective. For me, understood what is time, memory and perception to our conscience is crucial to understand music. This book os Sacks might be very helpful to me. Thanks for the tip!

  9. Apr 29 2010

    I like your conclusion, “We need to regroup around the old music of the grandest story of them all. For we are all part of the greatest story…”

    Reminds me (no pun intended) how important it is to read the old stories of the Bible and reflect on their truths.

    Which reminds me of this verse, “I have hidden Your Word in my heart that I might not sin against You.” Psalm 119:11

    Thanks for the reminder to “Remember”. Off to google “hermeneutics” and “epistemology” 🙂 Gloris

  10. May 18 2010

    I found your site from the page which has several sites that are strong enough to make the page. Your site is wonderful and beautiful.


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