Lost in memory, yet found in spirituality

After quoting some lines from the story of (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales) by Oliver Sacks, I started reading the next short story/case in the section (Losses), and it’s called (The Lost Mariner).

I should say that I felt emotionally overwhelmed by the story, feeling like every line I read is transformed to a heavy burden in my chest, not a chest tightness, but an intense state of empathy (or maybe sympathy) with the patient. It was so intense that I had to divide the reading over extended time to restore my calm self.

In brief, it’s a story of a man who had amnesia (memory loss), Jimmie, he had his memory erased back to 1945, and also can’t remember anything that happens in the present, Dr Oliver met him in 1975. At the beginning, I felt really sorry for him, then towards the end of the story when Dr Oliver speculated over the case in more depth, I felt sorry for myself that I felt so much sorry for him.

After finishing the story, I can say that what I experienced through the story is exactly what we usually feel when we hear of a tribulation/disaster occurring to someone, especially if it’s very unfamiliar to one’s own experience in life. What usually happens, I think, is that we reduce the person to just “his disaster”, we even define him/her with it, same with patients in clinical practice. Some of the coming quotes from the story will help to clarify the point.


‘And you, Jimmie, how old would you be?’

Oddly, uncertainly, he hesitated a moment, as if engaged in a calculation.

‘Why, I guess, I’m nineteen, Doc. I’ll be twenty next birthday.’

Looking at the grey-haired man before me, I had an impulse for which I have never forgiven myself — it was, or would have been, the height of cruelty had there been any possibility of Jimmie’s remembering it.

‘Here,’ I said, and thrust a mirror toward him. ‘Look in the mirror and tell me what you see. Is that a nineteen-year-old looking out from the mirror?’

He suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he whispered. ‘Christ, what’s going on? What’s happened to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy? Is this a joke?’ — and he became frantic, panicked.

‘It’s okay, Jimmie,’ I said soothingly. ‘It’s just a mistake. Nothing to worry about. Hey!’ I took him to the window. ‘Isn’t this a lovely spring day. See the kids there playing baseball?’ He regained his colour and started to smile, and I stole away, taking the hateful mirror with me.


What could we do? What should we do? ‘There are no prescriptions,’ Luria wrote, ‘in a case like this. Do whatever your ingenuity and your heart suggest. There is little or no hope of any recovery in his memory. But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities,moral being — matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak.

And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him. And the circumstances of your work especially allow this, for you work in a Home, which is like a little word, quite different from the clinics and institutions where I work. Neuropsychologically, there is little or nothing you can do; but in the realm of the individual, there may be much you can do.’


Since he’s been at our Home — that is, since early 1975 — Jimmie has never been able to identify anyone in it consistently. The only person he truly recognizes is his brother, whenever he visits from Oregon. These meetings are deeply emotional and moving to observe — the only truly emotional meetings Jimmie has. He loves his brother, he recognises him, but he cannot understand why he looks so old: ‘Guess some people age fast’ he says.


Jimmie both was and wasn’t aware of this deep, tragic loss in himself, loss of himself. (If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self — himself — he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.)


One tended to speak of him, instinctively, as a spiritual casualty — a ‘ lost soul’: was it possible that he had really been ‘de-souled’ by a disease? ‘Do you think he has a soul?’ I once asked the Sisters. They were outraged by my question, but could see why I asked it. ‘Watch Jimmie in chapel’, they said, ‘and judge for yourself.’


Memory, mental activity, mind alone, could not hold him; but moral attention and action could hold him completely.

But perhaps ‘moral’ was too narrow a word — for the aesthetic and dramatic were equally involved. Seeing Jim in the chapel opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion. The same depth of absorption and attention was to be seen in relation to music and art: he had no difficulty, I noticed, ‘following’ music or simple dramas, for every moment in music and art refers to , contains, other moments.

He liked gardening, and had taken over some of the work in our garden. At first he greeted the garden each day as new, but for some reason this had become more familiar to him than the inside of the Home. He almost never got lost or disoriented in the garden now; he patterned it, I think, on loved and remembered gardens from his youth in Connecticut.


If Jimmie was briefly ‘held’ by a task or puzzle or game or calculation, held in the purely mental challenge of these, he would fall apart as soon as they were done, into the abyss of his nothingness, his amnesia.

But if he were held in emotional and spiritual attention — in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel — the attention, its ‘mood’, its quietude, would persist for a while, and there would be in him a pensiveness and peace we rarely, if ever, saw during the rest of his life at the Home.


Empirical science told me there was not — but empirical science, empiricism, takes no account of the soul, no account of what constitutes and determines personal being.

Perhaps there is a philosophical as well as clinical lesson here: that in Korsakov’s, or dementia, or other such catastrophes, however great the organic damage and Humean dissolution, there remains the undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, by communion, by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation.

End of quotes.
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