Thursday, November 8, 2007

The now that bridges the abyss


Music has also played a crucial role in Sacks's work as a neurologist. In his writings, he uses music as a metaphor for his unusual approach to medicine. He cites a Novalis aphorism—"Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution"—in several books, usually when discussing the therapeutic powers of music. But it's clear that Sacks also believes in a deeper, less literal connection between medicine and music, which is why Musicophilia reads like a retrospective. Music encapsulates two of the most essential aspects of his work: listening and feeling. The art form is the model for his method. As a doctor, Sacks is exquisitely attentive, not just to the symptoms, but also to the person. He treats each patient like a piece of music, a complex creation that must be felt to be understood. Sacks listens intensely so that he can feel what it's like, so that he can develop an "intuitive sympathy" with the individual. It is this basic connection, a connection that defies explanation, that allows Sacks to heal his patients, letting them recover what has been lost: their sense of self.

from Jonah Lehrer's profile of the neurologist Oliver Sacks and his new work Musicophilia.

The first chapter, excerpted in the NY Times, narrates the experience of a surgeon struck by lightning who develops a deep desire for piano music, to both listen to and play it:

With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites — the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind √Čtude, the Black Key √Čtude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. [see Ashkenazy playing a Chopin etude] "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house — so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.

What fascinates me, in part, about Sacks and his work is how his examination suggests that music is not decoration but a different and basic way of knowing and experiencing the world. He writes near the end of the book about musicologist and performer Clive Wearing, who suffers from such terrible amnesia that he cannot remember his world moment to moment. He scribbles in a journal on page after page:

“I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. He would write: “2:10 P.M: This time properly awake. . . . 2:14 P.M: this time finally awake. . . . 2:35 P.M: this time completely awake,” along with negations of these statements: “At 9:40 P.M. I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.” This in turn was crossed out, followed by “I was fully conscious at 10:35 P.M., and awake for the first time in many, many weeks.” This in turn was cancelled out by the next entry.

This man who "no longer has any inner narrative," however, becomes, for the moments when he is playing a Bach prelude, "himself again and wholly alive." Music becomes for him the only continuous, linear "now" he has. As Sacks writes, in this man's disconnected world, music is "the 'now' that bridges the abyss."

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