Monday 9 March 2015

Awakenings by Oliver Sacks

Next door to our room last night at the Absolute Hotel a course called Introductory Mindfulness was in progress. At Limerick Junction, on the way home, a woman up the platform was reading If I die.

I was reading Awakenings and the stationmaster was reading the paper. My neighbour praised the stonework of the building opposite, the one that is perforated in mysterious ways, either by bullets or decay. The train was late but I didn't mind; I was deep in the strangest lives it's possible to read.

Twenty case studies of Oliver Sacks' patients at a hospital in the Bronx in the late sixties and early seventies, who, some for as long as forty years, had been fixed in severe Parkinsonism after an attack of sleepy sickness, in the era of epidemics towards the end of World War One.

Then along comes a new drug at the end of the 1960s, L-DOPA, that wakes them up, often explosively. Suddenly there they after forty years in their own reality. One patient wanted to return to 1926. The lost forty years were absurd, unbearable. You don't always want a miracle. You want ordinariness. Cobbling shoes or playing the piano. Walking into the garden and sitting talking with your sister.

The language that you meet chez Oliver Sacks is as strange as his patients' lives, but if you skate over the words you don't know, if you don't anguish over the meaning of erethism or oculogyric crisis, their humanity is ours too, at railway and all other junctions. What is illimitable and insatiable, (Oliver Sacks likes italics), either too fast or frozen, what is immeasurable in their experience is ours too. Our lives as collections of moments without time and change without transit, like quantum mechanics. A lifetime burning in every moment, as Eliot says.
The state is there, and it cannot be changed. From gross still vision, patients may proceed to an astonishing sort of microscopic vision or Lilliputian hallucination in which they may see a dust-particle on the counterpane filling their entire visual field, and presented as a mosaic of sharp-faceted faces.
In her halcyon days on L-DOPA, Gertie L. was in a state of 'great inner stillness' and of 'acquiescence'.
'My mind was like a still pool reflecting itself.' She would spend hours and days and even weeks reliving peaceful scenes from her own childhood – lying in the sun, drowsing in a meadow, or floating in a creek near her home as a child; these Arcadian moments could apparently be extended, indefinitely, by the still and intent quality of her thought.
Rose R. had a repertoire of means of thinking about nothing.
One way is to think about the same thing again and again. Like 2=2=2=2; or, I am what I am what I am what I am. It's the same thing with posture. My posture continually leads to itself. Whatever I do or whatever I think leads deeper and deeper into itself.
Frances D. thought up ways to negotiate space.
It's not as simple as it looks. I don't just come to a halt, I am still going, but I have run out of space to move in… You see, my space, our space, is nothing like your space: our space gets bigger and smaller, it bounces back on itself, and it loops itself round till it runs into itself.
How to stay alive and human in a Total Institution. Rolando P. is at the end of his tether.
'Can't you fuckers leave me alone? What's the sense in all your fucking tests? Don't you have eyes and ears in my head? Can't you see I'm dying of grief? For Chrissake let me die in peace!' These were the last words which Rolando ever spoke. He died in his sleep, or his stupor, just four days later.
When to get out.

Every afternoon after lunch Leonard L. lay down on his bed and hallucinated into the frame of a picture of a shanty town from a Western movie. He ordered the painting for the sole and express purpose of hallucinating with it. Creating reality. 'They hallucinate the richness and drama and fulness of life. They hallucinate to survive'.

Imagine knowing your crisis comes every week on a Wednesday, and being able now and again to delay it till Thursday; drinking five or six gallons of water a day; planning your route to bed, Now! Deciding to die. Being utterly still yet perpetually moving, in an ontological orbit contracted to zero, like Hester Y., or, like Robert O., have thoughts suddenly vanish in the middle of a sentence, drop out and leave a space like a frame without a picture.

As much as Proust or Virginia Woolf or TS Eliot or Beckett or Rilke. Read Awakenings.

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