Monday, November 19, 2012

Chapeau Errors and Musical Fidelity

Thanksgiving Break is here at last.  The traditional feasts don't hold too much interest for me, I admit.  But I’ll have class today and tomorrow, and the rest of the week is my own, to do with as I will.  Piña Coladas, road rage, trips to the moon . . . nothing is impossible.  With so much freedom of time slots, so much possibility, what shall I do?  Besides actually see my friends for a little, I mean.  Hmmm.

I think I’ll work on my Psychology project.

Actually, I've been looking forward to this all semester.  I’m doing a book review on a lovely little piece of unusual neurology cases called The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.  You've probably heard of it.  Fascinating stuff, actually.  Not a lot of technical terms or dehumanizing poking and prodding about in other peoples’ skulls.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Oliver Sacks' prose reveals a very caring and philosophical person.  He is a highly educated man with an open mind and a spiritual outlook, and that most prized of all resources, an inquisitive mind.

The first case is also one of the longest, both fascinating and tragic.  It is the tale for which the book was named.  A music professor, a painter, a brilliant mind slowly losing over the years the ability to decode abstract symbols into a meaningful thought pattern.  He thought there was something wrong with his eyes.  But he could see perfectly.  He just had trouble decoding what he saw.

“Ah!”  he might exclaim when you handed him an object.  “A leather pouch, a container.  And with the larger cavity branching off into five smaller ones, it must be very useful.”

“Indeed,” you could say.  “What might it contain?”

“Why, I have no idea.  Money, perhaps, with coins in the smaller cavities, and folded currency in the larger . . .”

The object, of course, was a glove.  

On his way out of the office after their first meeting, the professor looked around for his hat.  Seeing his wife standing there, he gently grasped he head and lifted, seeking to wear her head on his own.  He realized his mistake fairly quickly, and she smiled, accustomed to such errors.  But yes: he mistook his wife for a hat.

His brain had slowly lost its ability to communicate, somehow, with the concrete aspects of his experiences and environment.  Prosopagnosia, it is called.  He was brilliant in music, and had been a superb painter.  But over the years, his painting had been disintegrating along with his ability to identify.  His wife applauded his changing style, seeing her husband expand and fly out of the confines of form and substance in the visual world.

But he wasn't flying.  He was falling.  And there was no way to stop.

Yet even in this tragedy there was inspiration.  In order to eat properly, or dress, he had a kind of song he would sing to himself, that was his adaptation. If his melody was interrupted, he would become completely lost, true.  But he had found a way to use his music to find his way around the ideas, the thought patterns, that he had lost.

Even in the darkest maze of neurological damage, he had found light.  And he had found it not in therapy or drugs or institutionalization, but in his music.

As I understand it, he continued teaching until he died.  And since Dr. Sacks has recently put out a new book, apparently he is as well.  That sits well with me.  I heard part of an interview with him on NPR, and I think he would be a fascinating person to talk to.  But until I get the opportunity to do so – assuming he lives long enough – I will content myself with his books.  And from what I have read thus far, I highly recommend them.


(Formless Purgation is by OneLifeOneArt and is available for viewing along with other works at; illuminated labrynth photo by Deborah Munro at; Wile E. Coyote is still (c) Warner Broters.  All rights reserved by the rightful owners unless they decide not to.)

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