Friday, October 14, 2011
Well And Truly Fooled
Friday, October 14, 2011
I’ve been reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, by neurologist Oliver Sacks. I’m sure many of you have read it, or at least heard of it. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time, and that time has finally come. (Crime and Punishment is another, but that’s a subject for a separate posting.)
Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, and this is a collection of short case studies dealing with various intriguing and not-so-common neurological problems he encountered in the 70s and 80s in his practice. Most of them, like the one that afflicts the title character, are perceptual deficits, disorders that touch on some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and to see ourselves and others as parts of our essential surroundings. In fact, Sacks himself suffers from an inability to recognize faces, a condition called “prosopagnosia,” which I’m sure is part of the reason he undertook this area of study in the first place.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is elegantly written, filled with quotes from great thinkers and philosophers as well as frequent references to the work of his eminent colleagues and forbears in the study of neurology. Without affectation, Sacks makes constant use of dazzling polysyllabic words that showcase his own complex working vocabulary and reflect the perplexing nature of the subject matter. Some of the terms are reminiscent of the way the German language tends to spin out long words to express specific ideas. (Recall Fahrvergnugen, used in the Volkswagen ads of the last century, which conveyed, in a single word, the idea of the pleasure of driving an automobile.)
Sacks’s patients do not experience intellectual existential crises along the lines of Who am I and what’s it all about?; rather, they literally do not know who or what they are as physical beings. They have medical conditions caused more often than not by tumors and other pressures on the brain; but precisely because they are disorders of the body’s nerve and thought center they go to the crux of what it means to be a person. Some of these problems fall within the ambit of something called “proprioception,” the sense of knowing that our bodies, or parts of them, belong to us, a sense so taken for granted by most of us that we can scarcely imagine what it must be like, for example, not to recognize that one of our own legs, or even our entire body, belongs to us. In other cases the patients he describes have forms of amnesia familiar to those who have seen the movie "Memento," with Guy Pearce, where the protagonist was prevented from creating new memories.
Nestled in the midst of this intriguing and challenging book, almost hidden, is a little piece entitled "The President’s Speech." It’s about the reactions of certain patients in a facility where Sacks was working in the early 1980s to a televised speech by the President of the United States. Sacks does not name the chief executive in question, but in referring to him as "the old Charmer, the Actor," he makes sure we know he’s talking about Ronald Reagan. It seems that he and other staff members noticed a group of patients laughing at the TV one night, and went to investigate. He found that they were watching Reagan give a speech. The thing most of these patients had in common was a condition known as severe receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words as such. Nevertheless, since the mind tries to find ways around the roadblocks it encounters, they often could understand what was being said to them on the basis, as Sacks puts it, of "extra-verbal clues—tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual clues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture). . . ." These aphasiacs had developed the power of understanding, without words, what was being said to them.
The reason the patients were laughing was that they knew from all of his nonverbal clues that the President was lying and generally putting on an act. The words, otherwise incomprehensible to them, when delivered by the speaker himself, rang false, and they were thus able to understand an essential truth about both the man and the message.
This clinical observation would have been powerful enough, but Sacks takes it a step further by turning it inside out, as it were. It happens that certain people are afflicted with a different perceptual problem, called tonal agnosia, in which they understand words themselves but are unable to add meaning to them with any nonverbal clues of hearing, such as intonation and phrasing. For them, all words come out flat, as if they were written, and the way they discern true meaning from a speech is by watching the posture and movement of the speaker. One such patient with tonal agnosia, after also watching the President’s speech, had conclusions of her own: "'He is not cogent,' she said. 'He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.'" The observations of this woman and the others, taken together, don’t present a very flattering picture of the man the media has consistently called The Great Communicator.
So, what of the rest of us, supposedly not afflicted with any processing difficulties? Why did we elect and re-elect this man? Sacks concludes that we "normal" people, "aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled."
I had already read this piece and most of the rest of the book when, a day or two ago, I happened to see a photo in the newspaper of yet another of the interminable series of Republican candidate debates. In this one, a gigantic photo of Ronald Reagan was projected on a screen behind the debaters, making me think of Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984 and also making it crystal clear that the man whose "vision" for America the debaters most cherished was Ronald Reagan. What the photo said, wordlessly, as Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or someone stood at his podium in the foreground, was that the face in the gigantic photo stood for everything the American people, or at least the Republican people, think is great about America.
That photographic image, and that idea, helps me understand the true nature of the division in what might be termed our "national proprioception," that is, our sense of what it means to be Americans in this country--of what makes up our national identity. For many people, the old liar Reagan symbolized, and continues to symbolize, the greatness of America. Reagan, like Hitler with his German volk, cast his spell by telling Americans what he knew most of them wanted to hear, by spinning tales of a mythic past and by evoking the specter of evil, both from within and without the borders of the nation. As Oliver Sacks’s piece points out by the simplest of devices, Reagan told lies, lies, and more lies. Had he been Pinocchio, his nose would have stretched from sea to shining sea.
Why did a guy like that, whom a group of mental defectives could laugh at and spot for the bullshitter he was, get away with so much for so long? And more to the point, why does the Republican Party still hold him up as the apotheosis of the greatness of this country? Well, perception—or proprioception—is everything, isn’t it? The Republicans of today and their sympathizers, like the people who listened to Reagan before them, need to think that what makes this country worthwhile is its power, whether that takes the form of military strength, immense and enviable wealth, a carefully selected mishmash of unassailable religious "values" carrying the full force of God Almighty, or a larger-than-life mythic past filled with striving and taming and achieving and winning. Reagan seemed in control. He seemed powerful. He seemed to be running this great and perpetually victorious operation we thought of as America. He therefore represented greatness, real or imagined. That’s what was important and remains important today to many Americans. And these are the ones who, in a strictly neurological sense anyway, are considered “normal.”
Sometimes I'm amazed at how far out of the mainstream I feel. I must have a sort of aphasia or agnosia when it comes to our national rhetoric and vocabulary. The singing of patriotic songs, the display of flags, the pledging of allegiance, the constant repetition of the cheap buzzwords of the politicians, the incessant and meaningless "God Bless America"--they all make me suspicious, like Sacks's patients, of what I sense to be their pretension and falsehood. The only things I trust about this country are the Constitution and the rule of law, and the fact that we try, sometimes in spite of ourselves, to tolerate anyone who wishes to partake of them, regardless of how they come across our borders. The rest is laughable.