Sacks got plenty of mixed reviews (and I linked to a couple of them in this blog too — here and here, for example). Thus, I approached the book with a bit of trepidation. However, I need not have worried. Sacks is yet to disappoint me.
Be it a couple of references to A R Luria and Hughlings Jackson, two of his favourite neurologists, or to literary figures such as Nabokov or Tolstoy, Sacks’ writing is always a pleasure to read — both for its lucidity and the ideas that they convey. Here is, for example, a quote from E M Forster, from his discussion on the therapeutic values of music, and how, to be catharatic, music must steal on one unawares:
“The Arts are not drugs,” E. M. Forster once wrote. “They are not guaranteed to act when taken. Something as mysterious and capricious as the creative impulse has to be released before they can act.”
It is lines like these which shine so much of light on the writers, their observations, and how they match with the clinical observations of himself and his colleagues that makes reading Sacks such a pleasurable literary experience.
One of the main themes that runs throughout the book is how
… singing (…) is a very basic existential communication
and, Sacks shows how, even when almost all the identity of self is wiped out in patients with Alzheimer or other such diseases or accidents which cause extensive damage to frontal lobes, music can still help give the patient access to his self.
The book is also full of interesting pieces of information, like this one about E O Wilson, for example:
Edward O. Wilson describes in his autobiography, Naturalist, how he lost an eye in childhood but nonetheless is able to judge distances and depths with great accuracy. When I met him I was struck by a curious nodding of the head, and took this to be a habit or a tic. But he said it was nothing of the sort–it was a strategy designed to give his remaining eye alternative perspectives (such as normally two eyes would receive), and this, he felt, combined with his memories of true stereopsis, could give him a sort of simulacrum of stereo vision. He said that he adopted these head movements after observing similar movements in animals (like birds and reptiles for instance) whose visual fields have very little overlap.
I have seen such very distinct head movement at least in crows (and, of course, my grandmother had the following mythological explanation for their behaviour: a demon of the crow form, called Kakasura, was rendered blind in one eye by Rama).
Sacks also tells the moving tales of some of the musicians, like Jacob and Fleisher, who, through their musical activities, attention and will, literally reshape their brains and overcome their debilitating diseases.
His section of musicians dystonia made me wonder if Chembai’s loss and regain of voice isn’t some type of dystonia (especially, considering his unbelievable and out-of-this-world excercising of throat muscles, such as the alapanas he used to make with his mouth closed):
In 1952, Chembai was singing in a concert at the temple town of Suchindram. In the middle of the concert, his voice chords snapped and he could not sing thereafter. The concert ended in confusion. Here is an account (in his own words) of how his faith in God had brought back his voice:
“On January 7, 1952, I was giving a concert at holy Suchindram. An hour had elapsed and I was at the peak of my performance. All of a sudden, my vocal cords got stuck up, as it were, and my voiced totally failed me. The concert broke up in confusion. Many rushed up to the dais to render help. Doctors tried their best with pills and potions but to no avail.
I went through life without any hope and no ray of hope seemed to come anywhere. In this state of desperation, in 1954, on the great Ekadasi Day in Guruvayoor, I stood before the Lord and wrung out my heart to Him. I could not give vocal utterance to my anguish. Memories of the glorious days when I had sung His praises surged forward.
O Lord, I cried out, will Thou not let me sing Thy praises? Will Thou let my heart break, for without this outward expression of my heart’s agony, I can hardly live? Had Not Thou in the past not given the gift of speech to the great Muka Kavi? Had he not sung Thy praises in enchanting Sanskrit verses known so well as the Muka Panchasati Stotras?
In my agony and mute supplication to the Lord, I had not noticed a Namboothiri standing at a distance of some fifty feet from me. He divined my trouble and came to me. He had evidently heard my inarticulate prayer. He promised to rid me of my trouble, Guruvayoorappan willing.
The Lord had sent his minister to help me and I regained my voice. In keeping with my promise I have since then been singing the praises of Bhagavan. Every year, I have the ‘Udayastamana’ puja performed at the temple fo Guruvayoor and the sum of Rs. 5,000 need for it comes from the concerts that Guruvayoorappan himself arranged.”
The only jarring note I found in Sacks’ book is his reference to the Indian music as Hindu music (I am happy he didn’t spell Hindu as Hindoo as some of the 19th century European scholars used to do). The reference is all the more surprising in a friend of V S Ramachandran.
Having said that, this is a book certainly worth your time if you are interested in music, and is a nice complementary read for Levitin’s This is your brain on music; have fun!