It is not the most uplifting knowledge: the fact that we are utterly captive to physiological processes, not only in our obvious physical functioning, but also in our deepest sense of Self, in our thinking and feeling.
The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
Tales of neurological dysfunctions are always harrowing – they seem so utterly without redemption or catharsis, unless … unless they’re told by a sensitive humanist as Oliver Sacks . As a clinical neurologist he has studied neurological deficits resulting in all kinds of devastating losses: “loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, ….” . As a sympathetic human being, as a humanistic writer he is interested in how the “person", the "human being” deals with these pathological aggressions. As he writes in the introduction to his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, there’s always “a reaction, on the part of the affected individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity”.
Anyone with lesser scientific credentials than Sacks might be dismissed as being naïve in this stubborn, humanist respect for a “self” which remains in the midst of physiological disintegration (1). As it is, his poignant stories show us human identity as both frail, utterly subject to illness and decay, and resilient. In a story about a man suffering from Tourette’s syndrome he asks rhetorically “How will, how can, the ego stand this bombardment? Will identity survive? Can it develop, in face of such a shattering, such pressures – or will it be overwhelmed, to produce a “Tourettized soul? ”. And yes, apparently identity can move beyond the pathology, for instance , in this story, through channeling the wild Tourette’s tics in brilliant jazz improvisations.
Or in the case of a man suffering from severe amnesia, living in a string of unconnected present moments, without any remaining capacity to form human bonds or even to hold a thought for longer than just a moment : “But if he were held in emotional and spiritual attention – in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel – the attention, its “mood”, its quietude would persist for a while and there would be in him a pensiveness and peace we rarely, if ever, saw during the rest of his life at the home."
It is quite moving (and consoling? ) to see how convinced Sacks is of the redemptive potential of art – which, in its free and disinterested appeal to our senses & sensibilities, seems to be able to concentrate whatever mental energies we may have left and thus to keep us from being at the mercy of “crude drives and impulsions ”. Sacks sincerely believes in the “undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, […] by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation” .
When the Self is Sniffing & Sneezing
But let’s move to less traumatic realms to test the behavior of our Self amidst physiological turmoil. Let’s take those instances when we’re just tired or hungry or feverish. Not only will we be cycling uphill less swiftly, but also may we be less likely to arrive promptly to the conclusion that 1 plus 1 equals 2. Unless we’re professional cyclists our sense of self will be hardly affected by the muscle-fatigue but how about that diminishment in the mental faculties?
Amongst the latter it seems that in particular Reason and Logical Thinking are the first to go under duress (2). Ah, Reason! That summit of human capabilities! Yes, but is it really integral to our sense of Self, to our Identity? Important, valuable and indispensable (3) as they are, Reason or Logical Thinking somehow seem like neutral qualities: though they unquestionably differentiate us, they do not really characterize us as a person (4). In a way it’s like with muscles – some people just have a more powerful apparatus than others. And mere swings in the sugar level, for instance, will affect the functioning of both Muscle and Logical apparatus.
Now, in any modern competitive environment one is definitely judged according to one’s Reasoning skills (these days less so on muscle power) and one cannot really afford any lapses in logical thinking. There will always be those specimens of the human race who prey on any perceived weakness and who will not fail to humiliate the hapless feverish & sneezing human, rejoicing in their own contrasting strength of mental grasp. (5) But thank god there are also those other specimens of the human race (and yet, they are too few) who show concern when someone is ill – who value and respect people for more than their Logical Skills.
But so, think of that hapless feverish human – who is dead tired, who cannot cycle, who cannot think logically: what kind of “I” is there still left, which Selves do still remain?
Well not the foreign language Selves at any rate (it takes only a simple cold or an empty stomach or a bit of stress to have me helplessly fumbling for words in any language but my own). Nor does the practical, problem-solving Self seem a very resilient persona (goes to show that is only an acquired trait - ready to go at the first spot of trouble - well, in my case, that is). But hopefully, yes hopefully, there does remain a courteous & affectionate Self, who treats people with love and respect. (6) And a feeling, intuitive Self? Oh yes definitely, no doubt, the feeling Self remains and perhaps even all the more so, when fever has dissolved all other, pedantically analytical and logical, Selves.
And truly, nothing like a slight fever to promote full immersion into an art experience – visual arts, I would say, or music – an immersion without reserve, without the distancing chaperone of logic. And though eloquency often fails me in such conditions of feebleness (no strength to compose a sentence let alone a full text, no energy even to read a longer text) I can still happily & feverishly tinker then with photos, perhaps I'm even all the more spontaneously and contentedly immersed in the visual , when not under the strains of reasoning. (7)
And when being ill, while not interested in food at all, I am still sensitive to the quality of light, to the slow dances of shadows, to far-off echoing sounds of playing children and humming birds, to the smell of rain, … Oh yes, under duress, that inner atmospheric barometer might be the very last one of my Selves to go ….
And there will always be Proust ...
But in matters of neurology and self-observation the last word of course has to go, yet again, to Proust (8) :
“For some moments, […] I stayed alone with this little inner person, who greeted the rising sun with a song. Of all the Selves which compose our personality, it are not the most apparent that are most essential for us. In myself, when ill health will have slain one after another, there will still remain two or three Selves, more enduring than the rest, notably a certain philosopher who is happy only when he has discovered in two works of art, in two sensations, a common element. But the last of all, I have sometimes wondered whether it would not be this little weather-fellow, like the one the optician at Combray had in his shop window to forecast the weather, and who, taking off his hood when the sun shone, would put it on again if it was going to rain. This little weather-man, […] I do think that in my final hour of agony, when all my other ‘selves’ will be dead and gone, if a ray of sunshine were to break through the clouds, while I am breathing my last breath, the little barometer-fellow will feel quite comfortable, and will take off his hood to sing: “Ah! at last, fine weather!”
Selves hidden in the footnotes
(1) Colin Mc Ginn in a NYRB review of Sacks’ latest book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain -
“ His implied message is therefore one of tolerance and understanding. […] The preservation of self: that could be the motto for all of Sacks's writing on neurological disorders. […] There is always an "I" there, someone to whom things matter; so long as there is consciousness at all, there is a subject of that consciousness. Even if you can't tell your wife from a hat, there is still a you that must deal with this disability. Ultimately, then, Sacks's clinical case studies are exercises in love and respect »
(2) A recent experiment showed that when sugar-levels are too low, people were less likely to take decisions based on logical thinking but would rather resort to Intuition, which apparently needs less glucose to operate. “It takes a lot of nervous energy to do logical thinking, whereas intuition takes very little (since intuition usually requires the mind to be free-wheeling or idling). When the nervous energy of the brain runs down then the mind switches off logical thinking”
(3) Is that enough of an ode to Reason? I really wouldn’t want to look like a reason-basher here!
(4) Because Reason is supposed to be objective/universal, not subjective?
(5) Personal note: I should learn to stay home from work when I feel ill – that heroic work-presenteism of mine only gets me into trouble – and besides, I hate being humiliated
(6) Well, one can always hope and try, but truth is: when I’m feverish and tired I often snap at people. Though on the other hand, I do seem to be more, um, softer or compassionate when I run a fever, more tolerant of human fallibility & frailty in general. My own feebleness as a source of affection for my “fellow creatures of chance’s kingdom” ?
(7) This ‘words versus visuals’ passage echoes another blog-discussion about analytical and distancing words versus ‘unthinking’ visuals --- the visual does seem to appeal to a more intuitive self, and feels less exhausting, requiring less disciplined, systematic reasoning.
(8) Proust - La Prisonnière p6 - « Pendant quelques instants […] je restais en tête à tête avec le petit personnage intérieur, salueur chantant du soleil […] De ceux qui composent notre individu, ce ne sont pas les plus apparents qui nous sont le plus essentiels. En moi, quand la maladie aura fini de les jeter l’un après l’autre par terre, il en restera encore deux ou trois qui auront la vie plus dure que les autres, notamment un certain philosophe qui n’est heureux que quand il a découvert, entre deux œuvres, entre deux sensations, une partie commune. Mais le dernier de tous, je me suis quelquefois demandé si ce ne serait pas le petit bonhomme fort semblable à un autre que l’opticien de Combray avait placé derrière sa vitrine pour indiquer le temps qu’il faisait et qui, ôtant son capuchon dès qu’il y avait du soleil, le remettait s’il allait pleuvoir. [.. .] je crois bien qu’à mon agonie, quand tous mes autres « moi » seront morts, s’il vient à briller un rayon de soleil, tandis que je pousserai mes derniers soupirs , le petit personnage barométrique se sentira bien aise, et ôtera son capuchon pour chanter : « Ah ! enfin, il fait beau »