03 May 2008

The Man with a Shattered World

I've been a fan of Oliver Sacks for many years. Hie empathic accounts of people with bizarrely specialized neurological problems (people who can't see parts but can see wholes, people who can't remember what happened 5 minutes ago but can remember their childhoods, people who can't stop swearing) have always enthralled me. What drew me was both the way the physical details seemed to resonate so richly with more commonly metaphorical ways of experiencing the world, and also Sacks' evident humanity.

I learned about this book, by A.R. Luria, from Sacks; he often mentions Luria as a hero and cites this book as an example of what he's trying to do. It is a case study--collaboration between doctor and patient--of a man who suffered severe effects from a brain injury incurred during the Second World War; he's lost most of his memory, including his education and how to do the simplest things; however his brain's intact when it comes to his personality. He's in the worst possible position, in a way, because he's conscious of all his deficiencies, but he's almost powerless to correct them.

Almost. But he can try. The part of him that can try is intact. This is a great book to read when you're depressed and feeling sorry for yourself because it makes you feel how lucky you are. The patient tries to get his life back back by writing about his experiences: what he can do, what he can't do, what he's trying to do. It's heartbreaking but also stunning, what can be accomplished by will alone--will is pretty much all the patient has left.

A fascinating and moving book.

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