Broken creatures


“When I first saw her - clumsy, uncouth, all-of-a-fumble - I saw her merely, or wholly, as a casualty, a broken creature, whose neurological impairments I could pick out and dissect with precision.”

This is Oliver Sacks, who died last year, writing in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat about a patient called Rebecca. In his clinic, she was simply “a multitude of apraxias and agnosias, a mass of sensorimotor impairments and breakdowns.” She fell apart in problem-solving and pattern-seeing tests. She seemed utterly conceptually inept. But then Sacks describes a new scene. He is in the garden, and notices Rebecca sitting quietly by herself. Suddenly she seems whole and harmonious: “composed by a natural scene, a scene with an organic, aesthetic, and dramatic unity.” Pursuing this intuition, he comes to see in Rebecca an ability that the tests could never reveal: an ability to see the world as a coherent, poetic whole. Poetry and stories were “a deep need or hunger for Rebecca - a necessary form of nourishment, of reality, for her mind.”  

This showed Sacks for the first time two distinct modes of being, that he called “paradigmatic” and “narrative.” The first is the intellectual architecture that Rebecca clearly lacked, but the other is the way we first begin to make sense of the world, and the way we always intuitively exist in it. Children understand complexities in stories, long before they can understand complex abstractions. (Sacks himself must have been seeing in this mode to perceive Rebecca's gift in the first place.) But although the narrative has what Sacks calls “spiritual priority,” it’s always ranked below the paradigmatic mode. Irrational is lower or less than rational. Left brain beats right; maths pull rank on poetry. Unlike Keats - or Shakespeare - we are incapable of being in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, instead we irritably reach after fact and reason. The intuitive, aesthetic unities of being fall apart in testing, and test results are the only thing we value now as truth.

For Sacks this anomaly about Rebecca revealed the shortfall of the clinical approach, where tests show only deficits, not powers. To me it illustrates the greater shortfall of our disenchanted, rationalist culture: we’ve privileged the paradigmatic, and radically undervalued our need for poetic thinking, our hunger for stories. We are the broken ones, like birds with one wing limp and folded. We can pass all kinds of tests, but we've forgotten how to sit in the garden: composed, attentive, and whole.