Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Wendy MacNaughton’

31 AUGUST, 2015

Love, Kindness, and the Song of the Universe: The Night Jack Kerouac Kept a Young Woman from Taking Her Own Life

By:

“I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge.”

In the late 1950s, a young woman named Lois Sorrells Beckwith did what many passionate book-lovers find themselves doing — she fell in love with an author through his work; not with the writing alone, but with the man. That man was Jack Kerouac and the book that tipped Lois over the edge of infatuation was his newly published novella The Subterraneans (public library), a semi-fictional account of a fervid romance.

But then Lois did something few ardent readers would dare to do.

A native New Englander then living in California, she moved back to the East Coast and, one fateful afternoon in 1958, mustered the timid brazenness to drive herself to Kerouac’s home in Northport, Long Island, hoping to meet him. She pulled up to the house and found him sitting under a tree in his front yard, meditating — a practice he had taken up some years earlier as he plunged into Buddhist philosophy.

So began a romance that lasted many years. Lois was twenty-three. Jack was thirty-six and had just published On the Road, the novel that would become a counterculture classic and catapult him into literary celebrity.

“I had fallen in love with the soul of this man,” Lois — the mother of my friend Sebastian Beckwith, whom I know through the wonderful and talented Wendy MacNaughton — tells me as she looks back on this unusual and electrifying adventure in love and literature.

The relationship continued, on and off, for years. The “on” phases were intensely beautiful — the two shared an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the era’s creative culture, which they relished fully. Lois recounts:

We were drinking lots of wine and dancing and making love and listening to him read.

They went to poetry readings together and listened to music and led a life that Lois remembers as “pretty fast-paced and exhausting.” But it was also incredibly tender — every time he left the apartment, Jack wrote Lois a sweet note.

Writing, indeed, was not only what had brought them together but what kept them together. During the “off” phases, they wrote each other letters that sustained their romance. But marriage was never something either of them desired. Jack had already been married and divorced twice. Lois has fallen in love with his writing and respected it as his greatest commitment. She reflects:

I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge. And I loved being with him. But I never thought of marrying him — he was a writer, and he had to write.

And then Lois lost her mother, with whom she had been incredibly close. Gutted by grief and mired in a thick depression, she went to stay with her father for a while.

Late one night, there was a knock at the door. It was Jack, with an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back. Already one of the country’s most famous writers, he had been away on a book tour when he received Lois’s letter about her mother’s death and her depression. Terrified that she might commit suicide, he had flown in, walked five miles from the other side of town with the giant device, and come to play Lois a song to lift her spirits.

This man, in whom the tender and the troubled always coexisted, had recognized in his beloved the wounded part of himself. He had extended to Lois the comforting care he was ultimately unable to grant himself. Lois recounts:

As he became more famous, he drank more — it was very sad.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Kerouac himself once wrote, and in this enormous gesture of kindness, he had transported himself to heaven, if only for a night.

Eventually, the couple parted ways as lovers but remained friends. In fact, it was Jack who introduced Lois to her husband, who became my friend Sebastian’s father.

And then, many years later, something unusual happened.

One day, when Lois was about to turn eighty and Jack had been dead for nearly half a century by the troubledness that eclipsed his radiant spirit, a piece of paper fell on her floor as she was moving some papers at home. On it, the phrase “universe — one song” was written in the handwriting of her youth.

Lois immediately remembered a vivid dream she had had all those years earlier, in that New York apartment. She recounts the dream:

I was just walking around on a very hot, sultry night — it was exciting, sensual — and I heard the most exquisite music. I asked someone what it was, and they said that it was the voices of all nationalities speaking. The dream was all about kindness — this huge love and kindness — so it made me think of Jack on the night of his heroic five-mile walk. And that’s still what I think about when I think about Jack.

Moved by the memory of the dream and Jack’s generous gesture, Lois penned a poem in remembrance of his kindness. Here she is, at eighty, reading it:

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
    a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

Complement Lois’s beautiful story with Kerouac on kindness and the “Golden Eternity,” the difference between genius and talent, and his “beliefs and techniques” for prose and life.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

07 AUGUST, 2015

If Librarians Were Honest

By:

“If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

My mother was trained in library science, but went on to have a career in software systems. Perhaps it was this epigenetic guilt that planted the unconscious seed for Brain Pickings — my personal digital archive of reading — which was born, twenty-one years after my mother completed the degree she would never use, in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the world’s first subscription library. As library-lover Steve Jobs memorably remarked, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” and these formative dots have since been connected to paint a clear picture of my deep love of libraries — those most democratic cultural temples of wisdom where we come to commune with humanity’s most luminous minds; where the rewards are innumerable and destiny-changing, and the only price of admission is willingness. Between the walls of the library are the building blocks of the most powerful technology of thought there is.

That’s what Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, cofounders of the The Library as Incubator project, celebrate in The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (public library) — an imaginative and practical collection of artists’ stories and ideas for how to use the library as a sandbox for creativity, a productivity-booster for your work, and a source of immense nourishment for the life of the mind. What emerges is an invaluable tool for any artist, by the wonderfully loose definition of “a person who learns and uses creative tools and techniques to make new things.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

The practical tips and exercises are interspersed with various meditations by artists, the most delightful of which is a poem by Joseph Mills — a nomadic poet who gets a library card every time he moves in order to root himself in each new city.

Befittingly, in the context of free libraries, the poem begins with Benjamin Franklin’s colorful complaint as an epigraph of sorts:

IF LIBRARIANS WERE HONEST

“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute.
They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.

They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

Mills tells Batykeffer and Damon-Moore:

Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals. In enabling people to educate themselves they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions.

Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials. In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am.

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is an immeasurable delight in its entirety. Complement it with a photographic love letter to public libraries, Thoreau on his ideal sanctuary for books, and these marvelous vintage ads for libraries.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

09 JULY, 2015

Musicked Down the Mountain: How Oliver Sacks Saved His Own Life by Literature and Song

By:

The extraordinary survival story of “a creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other.”

“Without music I should wish to die,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a 1920 letter to a friend. One fateful afternoon half a century later, beloved British neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933) — a Millay of the mind, a lover of poetry, and a scientist of enormous spiritual exuberance — came to live this sentiment as more than a dramatic hyperbole.

In his superb 1984 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library), Dr. Sacks tells the story of an extraordinary experience he had atop a Norwegian mountain a decade earlier, on “an afternoon of peculiar splendor, earth and air conspiring in beauty, radiant, tranquil, suffused in serenity,” many miles from the nearest human being — an experience in which the only thing that stood between him and his death was music; an experience that brought him not merely near death but in an intimate tango with it danced to the sound of life itself.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

With his Thoreauesque prose, Dr. Sacks recounts the August day on which he set out to climb a Norwegian fjørd up a steep mountain path and before descending into hell:

Saturday the 24th started overcast and sullen, but there was promise of fine weather later in the day… I looked forward to the walk with assurance and pleasure.

I soon got into my stride — a supple swinging stride, which covers ground fast. I had started before dawn, and by half past seven had ascended, perhaps, to 2,000 feet. Already the early mists were beginning to clear. Now came a dark and piney wood, where the going was slower, partly because of knotted roots in the path and partly because I was enchanted by the world of tiny vegetation which sheltered in the wood, and was always stopping to examine a new fern, a moss, a lichen. Even so, I was through the woods by a little after nine, and had come to the great cone which formed the mountain proper and towered above the fjørd to 6,000 feet.

There, to his surprise, was a fence bearing an even more surprising sign: “BEWARE OF THE BULL!” Accompanying the cautionary verbal message was a visual one in the universal language of comic art: “a rather droll picture of a man being tossed.”

So absurd was the sign, so bizarre the very notion of a dangerous bull living up in the fjørd, that Dr. Sacks took it for a prank by the local villagers and carried on, walking past the fence and up the path, determined to make it to the top of the mountain by noon. Unperturbed by the awareness of this “not exactly a populous part of the world,” he felt rather liberated by the sense of solitude — the kind of soul-stretching solitude where, as Wendell Berry memorably put it, “one’s inner voices become audible.”

And, suddenly, his solitude was ruptured by a most prominent presence:

There were ambiguous moments when I would stop in uncertainty, while I descried the shrouded shapes before me. … But when it happened, it was not at all ambiguous!

The real Reality was not such a moment, not touched in the least by ambiguity or illusion. I had, indeed, just emerged from the mist, and was walking round a boulder as big as a house, the path curving round it so that I could not see ahead, and it was this inability to see ahead which permitted the Meeting. I practically trod on what lay before me — an enormous animal sitting in the path, and indeed totally occupying the path, whose presence had been hidden by the rounded bulk of the rock. It had a huge horned head, a stupendous white body and an enormous mild milk-white face. It sat unmoved by my appearance, exceedingly calm, except that it turned its vast white face up towards me. And in that moment, in my terror, it changed, before my eyes, becoming transformed from magnificent to utterly monstrous. The huge white face seemed to swell and swell, and the great bulbous eyes became radiant with malignance. The face grew huger and huger all the time, until I thought it would blot out the universe. The bull became hideous — hideous beyond belief, hideous in strength, malevolence and cunning. It seemed now to be stamped with the infernal in every feature. It became, first a monster, and now the Devil.

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Mustering a semblance of composure, Dr. Sacks spun on his heel mid-stride, turned around, and coolly began his descent. But the calm facade soon gave way to the irrepressible inner terror of the encounter:

I ran for dear life — ran madly, blindly, down the steep, muddy, slippery path, lost here and there in patches of mist. Blind, mad panic! — there is nothing worse in the world — nothing worse, and nothing more dangerous. I cannot say exactly what happened. In my plunging flight down the treacherous path I must have mis-stepped — stepped on to a loose rock, or into mid-air. It is as if there is a moment missing from my memory — there is “before” and “after,” but no “in-between.” One moment I was running like a madman, conscious of heavy panting and heavy thudding footsteps, unsure whether they came from the bull or from me, and the next I was lying at the bottom of a short sharp cliff of rock, with my left leg twisted grotesquely beneath me, and in my knee such a pain as I had never, ever known.

Always a master of extrapolating from the facts of his life the greater truths of human existence, he adds:

To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless the next, in the pink and pride of health one moment and a cripple the next, with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next — such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations.

True to our tendency to leave our bodies after trauma, Dr. Sacks found himself, despite the excruciating pain, an almost disembodied observer of what was happening — but he used this disembodiment to his advantage, recasting his role in the unfolding drama from that of the patient to that of the professional physician. As if performing for an invisible audience of his students, he examined himself to determine the extent of the injury — “a complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon… muscle paralyzed and atonic.. unstable knee-joint… ripped out the cruciate ligaments.. considerable swelling, probably tissue and joint fluid, but tearing of blood vessels can’t be excluded…” — and proclaimed, aloud into the solitary stillness of the mountain air, that it was “a fascinating case!”

But he soon remembered that he was also the patient, the “case” in question:

Now, all of a sudden, the fearful sense of my aloneness rushed in upon me.

He realized, too, that at this altitude and latitude, he could easily freeze to death overnight, so his survival depended on being rescued before nightfall. He knew he had to climb down the mountain, closer to the villages, where his chances of being found would be higher.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing — a supreme feat of the human spirit.

Mobilized by the life-or-death choice before him, Dr. Sacks found himself suddenly “very calm and composed.” Thanks to his personal quirk of carrying an umbrella at all times, he had used one as a walking stick up the mountain and had somehow clutched it by instinct during his fall. Ripping his anorak in two and snapping off the umbrella handle, he fashioned a makeshift splint for his limp leg — without one, he realized, he wouldn’t have been able to move.

Speaking to a truth we all too often forget or gloss over — the fact that “luck” is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute — Dr. Sacks adds:

Mercifully, then, I had not torn an artery, or major vessel, internally… I had not fractured my spine or my skull in my fall. I had three good limbs, and the energy and strength to put up a good fight. And, by God, I would! This would be the fight of my life — the fight of one’s life which is the fight for life.

What followed is a remarkable testament to how great art lodges itself in the soul, a Trojan horse of hope, installing in us a kind of dormant software of knowledge and resourcefulness activated in moments of acute need — like the need to fight for one’s life. As Neil Gaiman observed in his magnificent meditation on how stories last, great art “can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” That’s precisely what Dr. Sacks experienced as he realized that if he didn’t make it off the mountain by nightfall, he would likely freeze to death. Suddenly, he remembered Tolstoy’s Master and Man — a moving 1885 short story about a selfish master who undergoes a spiritual awakening as he brings his peasant back from the brink of hypothermia by lying on top of him to save his life. The memory of this story sparked a life-saving epiphany:

If only I had had a companion with me! The thought suddenly came to me once again, in the words from the Bible not read since childhood, and not consciously recollected, or brought to mind, at all: “Two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up.” And, following immediately upon this, came a sudden memory, eidetically clear, of a small animal I had seen in the road, with a broken back, hoisting its paralyzed hindlegs along. Now I felt exactly like that creature. The sense of my humanity as something apart, something above animality and mortality — this too disappeared at that moment, and again the words of Ecclesiastes came to my mind: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other … so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast.”

A series of such life-saving literary epiphanies followed, carrying Dr. Sacks’s spirit over the abyss of desperation and connecting once more to his work with patients:

While splinting my leg, and keeping myself busy, I had again “forgotten” that death lay in wait. Now, once again, it took the Preacher to remind me. “But,” I cried inside myself, “the instinct of life is strong within me. I want to live — and, with luck, I may still do so. I don’t think it is yet my time to die.” Again the Preacher answered, neutral, non-committal: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time …” This strange, profound emotionless clarity, neither cold, nor warm, neither severe nor indulgent, but utterly, beautifully, terribly truthful, I had encountered in others, especially in patients, who were facing death and did not conceal the truth from themselves; I had marvelled, though in a way uncomprehendingly, at the simple ending of Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murad” — how, when Hadji has been fatally shot, “images without feelings” stream through his mind; but now, for the first time, I encountered this — in myself.

With this unfeeling clarity, he came up with the kind of idiosyncratic ingenuity that only grave necessity sparks:

I proceeded, using a mode of travel I had never used before — roughly speaking, gluteal and tripedal. That is to say, I slid down on my backside, heaving or rowing myself with my arms and using my good leg for steering and, when needed for braking, with the splinted, flail leg hanging nervelessly before me. I did not have to think out this unusual, unprecedented, and — one might think — unnatural way of moving. I did it without thinking, and very soon got accustomed to it. And anyone seeing me rowing swiftly and powerfully down the slopes would have said, “Ah, he’s an old hand at it. It’s second nature to him.”

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Always extrapolating from the particular to the universal and using his personal experience as raw material for advancing his scientific work to the benefit of all humanity, he adds:

So the legless don’t need to be taught to use crutches: it comes “unthinkingly” and “naturally,” as if the person had been practicing it, in secret, all his life. The organism, the nervous system, has an immense repertoire of “trick movements” and “back-ups” of every kind — completely automatic strategies, which are held “in reserve.” We would have no idea of the resources which exist in potentia, if we did not see them called forth as needed.

In a sentiment that speaks to the same alignment of haste and hopelessness against which Kierkegaard admonished two centuries earlier, Dr. Sacks remarks:

I could not hurry — I could only hope.

At that point, he thought of crying for help, and did — “lustily, with huge yells, which seemed to echo and resound from one peak to another.” But the cries suddenly reawakened his terror of the bull and made him fear a vengeful attack by the beastly overlord of the fjørd. So he descended in perfect silence, too afraid to even whistle, as “the hours passed, silently, slithering.”

Suddenly, he came upon a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — a stream he had been reluctant to cross even on his able-bodied way up, which he now had to traverse somehow. Unable to “row” himself across it with his gluteal-tripedal technique, he flipped into a facedown position and, with rigid outstretched arms — lest we forget, Dr. Sacks had been a weightlifting champion just a few years earlier — he propelled himself across the rapid-flowing, ice-cold stream, his head barely above water, exhorting himself:

Hold on, you fool! Hold on for dear life! I’ll kill you if you let go — and don’t you forget it!

But when he made it to the other shore, he faced another fork in this otherworldly road between life and death, one chillingly familiar to mountaineers and polar adventurers alike:

Somehow my exhaustion became a sort of tiredness, an extraordinarily comfortable, delicious languor.

“How nice it is here,” I thought to myself. “Why not a little rest — a nap maybe?”

The apparent sound of this soft, insinuating, inner voice suddenly woke me, sobered me and filled me with alarm. It was not “a nice place” to rest and nap. The suggestion was lethal and filled me with horror, but I was lulled by its soft, seductive tones.

“No,” I said fiercely to myself. “This is Death speaking — and in its sweetest, deadliest Siren-voice. Don’t listen to it now! Don’t listen to it ever! You’ve got to go on whether you like it or not. You can’t rest here — you can’t rest anywhere. You must find a pace you can keep up, and go on steadily.”

This good voice, this “life” voice, braced and resolved me.

Another, life-saving Siren took over — music’s miraculous power to enliven, which he had witnessed in his patients and recorded in his now-legendary book-turned-movie Awakenings, published just a few months before his encounter with the taurine devil. He recounts:

There came to my aid now melody, rhythm and music. Before crossing the stream, I had muscled myself along — moving by main force, with my very strong arms. Now, so to speak, I was musicked along. I did not contrive this. It happened to me. I fell into a rhythm, guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatmen’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own, accompanied by these words “Ohne Haste, ohne Rast! Ohne Haste, ohne Rast!” (“Without haste, without rest”), with a strong heave on every Haste and Rast. Never had Goethe’s words been put to better use!

Oh, how Goethe, himself an ardent advocate of science, would have rejoiced in knowing that his art was nothing short of life-saving for one of humanity’s greatest scientific minds. This melodic transcendence uncorked a surprising reservoir of perfectly paced strength Dr. Sacks didn’t know he had:

I no longer had to think about going too fast or too slow. I got into the music, got into the swing, and this ensured that my tempo was right. I found myself perfectly co-ordinated by the rhythm — or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: the musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently — all save those in my left leg which seemed silent — or mute? Does not Nietzsche say that when listening to music, we “listen with our muscles?” I was reminded of my rowing days in college, how the eight of us would respond as one man to the beat, a sort of muscle-orchestra conducted by the cox.

Somehow, with this “music,” it felt much less like a grim anxious struggle. There was even a certain primitive exuberance, such as Pavlov called “muscular gladness.” And now, further, to gladden me more, the sun burst from behind the clouds, massaged me with warmth and soon dried me off. And with all this, and perhaps other things, I found my internal weather was most happily changed.

More than thirty years later, in his 2007 book Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks would come to illuminate the neurological underpinnings of this astounding connection between music and the mind. But here, one limp foot over the precipice of death atop the Norwegian mountain, he simply observed with awe the way in which music led his mind to mobilize his body into the rhythmic motion that would carry him to survival:

It was only after chanting the song in a resonant and resounding bass for some time that I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the bull. Or, more accurately, I had forgotten my fear — partly seeing that it was no longer appropriate, partly that it had been absurd in the first place. I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music. And even when it was not literally (audibly) music, there was the music of my muscle-orchestra playing — “the silent music of the body,” in Harvey’s lovely phrase. With this playing, the musicality of my motion, I myself became the music — “You are the music, while the music lasts.” A creature of muscle, motion and music, all inseparable and in unison with each other — except for that unstrung part of me, that poor broken instrument which could not join in and lay motionless and mute without tone or tune.

As a child I had once had a violin which got brutally smashed in an accident. I felt for my leg, now, as I felt long ago for that poor broken fiddle. Admixed with my happiness and renewal of spirit, with the quickening music I felt in myself, was a new and sharper and most poignant sense of loss for that broken musical instrument which had once been my leg. When will it recover? I thought to myself. When will it sound its own tune again? When will it rejoin the joyous music of the body?

Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

At last, he could see the village in the distance — close enough to see it but not close enough for his cries for help to be heard, a tortuous rift between possibility and impossibility that once again reminded him of the interconnectedness of all life:

An anguish of yearning sharpened my eyes, a violent need to see my fellow men and, even more, to be seen by them. Never had they seemed dearer, or more remote… There was something impersonal, or universal, in my feeling. I would not have cried “Save me, Oliver Sacks!” but “Save this hurt living creature! Save life!,” the mute plea I know so well from my patients — the plea of all life facing the abyss, if it be strongly, vividly, rightly alive.

Slowly losing hope that he would live to see another tomorrow, his mind began unraveling the yarn of yesterdays of which a life is woven:

As the blue and golden hours passed, I continued steadily on my downward trek, which had become so smooth, so void of difficulties, that my mind could move free of the ties of the present… Hundreds of memories would pass through my mind, in the space between one boulder and the next, and yet each was rich, simple, ample, complete, and conveyed no sense of being hurried through… Entire scenes were re-lived, entire conversations re-played, without the least abbreviation. The very earliest memories were all of our garden — our big old garden in London, as it used to be before the war. I cried with joy and tears as I saw it — our garden with its dear old iron railings intact, the lawn vast and smooth, just cut and rolled (the huge old roller there in a corner); the orange-striped hammock with cushions bigger than myself, in which I loved to roll and swing for hours; and the enormous sunflowers, whose vast inflorescences fascinated me endlessly and showed me at five the Pythagorean mystery of the world…

All of these thoughts and images, involuntarily summoned and streaming through my mind, were essentially happy, and essentially grateful. And it was only later that I said to myself “What is this mood?” and realized that it was a preparation for death. “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” as Auden says.

Just as the sun set and dusk began descending with its promise of darkness and death, the improbable happened: Two reindeer hunters, a father and a son, emerged atop a nearby rock as though out of thin air, saw that struggling “creature of muscle, motion and music,” and ran toward him. Dr. Sacks recounts:

I had become almost totally unaware of the environment, having, at some level, given up all thoughts of rescue and life, so that rescue, when it came, came from nowhere, a miracle, a grace, at the very last moment.

As if this miraculous salvation by literature, music, and human kindness wasn’t already a most remarkable testament to Dr. Sacks’s genius and tenacity of spirit, the story took an even more moving turn as he found himself at the hospital, at once immensely grateful for his life and terrified of the long journey toward an uncertain recovery:

There was to be another story or, perhaps, another act in the same strange complex drama, which I found utterly surprising and unexpected at the time and almost beyond my comprehension or belief.

Dr. Sacks during his recovery (photograph courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Bedridden in a small Norwegian hospital, in the so-called care of an uncaring and downright hostile nurse, he found most anguishing of all the complete privation of music. He longed for it “hungrily, thirstily, desperately.” At last, a friend brought him a tape recorder with a single cassette — Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Dr. Sacks recounts the reprise of music’s enlivening role in the story of his survival:

It was (and remains) a matter of amazement to me that this charming, trifling piece of music should have had such a profound and, as it turned out, decisive effect on me. From the moment the tape started, from the first bars of the Concerto, something happened, something of the sort I had been panting and thirsting for, something that I had been seeking more and more frenziedly with each passing day, but which had eluded me. Suddenly, wonderfully, I was moved by the music. The music seemed passionately, wonderfully, quiveringly alive — and conveyed to me a sweet feeling of life. I felt, with the first bars of the music, a hope and an intimation that life would return to my leg — that it would be stirred, and stir, with original movement, and recollect or recreate its forgotten motor melody. I felt, in those first heavenly bars of music, as if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music, or consubstantial with music; that our living moving flesh, itself, was “solid” music — music made fleshy, substantial, corporeal.

[…]

The sense of hopelessness, of interminable darkness, lifted… A sense of renewal grew upon me.

Dr. Sacks during his recovery (photograph courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

In the remainder of A Leg to Stand On — a book as invigorating as Mendelssohn’s concerto — Dr. Sacks goes on to explore the mysterious machinery that carries the human mind and body to recovery after serious injury. Complement it with Dr. Sacks on storytelling and the psychology of writing and his breathtaking autobiography, which remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

Original illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 FEBRUARY, 2015

Addiction to Truth: David Carr, the Measure of a Person, and the Uncommon Art of Elevating the Common Record

By:

“We all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

We spend our lives pulled asunder by the two poles of our potentiality — our basest nature and our most expansive goodness. To elevate oneself from the lowest end of that spectrum to the highest is the great accomplishment of the human spirit. To do this for another person is to give them an invaluable gift. To do it for a group of people — a community, an industry, a culture — is the ultimate act of generosity and grace.

This is what David Carr (September 8, 1956–February 12, 2015) did for us.

He called out what he saw as the product of our lesser selves. He celebrated that which he deemed reflective of our highest potential. And by doing so over and over, with passion and integrity and unrelenting idealism, he nudged us closer to the latter.

He wrote to me once, in his characteristic lowercase: “am missing you. how to fix?” Such was his unaffected sweetness. But, more than that, such was the spirit in which he approached the world — seeing what is missing, seeing what is lacking, and pointing it out, but only for the sake of fixing it. He was a critic but not a cynic in a culture where the difference between the two is increasingly endangered and thus increasingly precious. The caring bluntness of his criticism was driven by the rare give-a-shitness of knowing that we can do better and believing, unflinchingly, that we must.

This is what David Carr did for us — but only because he did it for himself first.

David Carr (Photograph: Chester Higgins Jr. courtesy of The New York Times)

The test of one’s decency — the measure of a person — is the honesty one can attain with oneself, the depth to which one is willing to go to debunk one’s own myth and excavate the imperfect, uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary truth beneath. That’s precisely what Carr did in The Night of the Gun (public library) — an exquisitely rigorous, utterly harrowing and utterly heartening memoir of his journey from the vilest depths of crack addiction to his job at The New York Times, where he became the finest and most revered media reporter of our century, and how between these two poles he managed to raise his twin daughters as a single father. It’s the story of how he went from “That Guy, a dynamo of hilarity and then misery” to “This Guy, the one with a family, a house, and a good job.” It’s also a larger story reminding us that we each carry both capacities within us and must face the choice, daily, of which one to let manifest.

The story begins with Carr’s point of reluctant awakening upon being fired from his job as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis:

For an addict the choice between sanity and chaos is sometimes a riddle, but my mind was suddenly epically clear.

“I’m not done yet.”

With his flair for the unsensationalist drama of real life, he recalls the aftermath of one particularly bad trip, which precipitated his journey out of the abyss:

Every hangover begins with an inventory. The next morning mine began with my mouth. I had been baking all night, and it was as dry as a two-year-old chicken bone. My head was a small prison, all yelps of pain and alarm, each movement seeming to shift bits of broken glass in my skull. My right arm came into view for inspection, caked in blood, and then I saw it had a few actual pieces of glass still embedded in it. So much for metaphor. My legs both hurt, but in remarkably different ways.

[…]

It was a daylight waterfall of regret known to all addicts. It can’t get worse, but it does. When the bottom arrives, the cold fact of it all, it is always a surprise. Over fifteen years, I had made a seemingly organic journey from pothead to party boy, from knockaround guy to friendless thug. At thirty-one, I was washed out of my profession, morally and physically corrupt, but I still had almost a year left in the Life. I wasn’t done yet.

It isn’t hard to see the parallels between that experience and the counterpoint upon which Carr eventually built his career and his reputation. His work as a journalist was very much about taking inventory of our cultural hangovers — the things we let ourselves get away with, the stories we tell ourselves and are told by the media about why it’s okay to do so, and the addiction to untruth that we sustain in the process.

David Carr with his daughter Erin

In fact, this dance between mythmaking and truth is baked into the book’s title — a reference to an incident that took place the night of that bad trip, during which Carr had behaved so badly that his best friend had to point a gun at him to keep him at bay. At least that’s the story Carr told himself for years, only to realize later upon revisiting the incident with a journalist’s scrutiny that the memory — like all memory — was woven of more myth than truth. He writes:

Recollection is often just self-fashioning. Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other “memories” are just redemption myths writ small. Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare. The historical self is created to keep dissonance at bay and render the subject palatable in the present.

We are most concerned, he suggests, with making ourselves palatable to ourselves. (One need only look at Salinger’s architecture of personal mythology and the story of how Freud engineered his own myth for evidence.) But nowhere do we warp our personal narratives more than in our mythologies of conquering adversity — perhaps because to magnify the gap between who we were and who we are is to magnify our achievement of personal growth. Carr admonishes against this tendency:

The meme of abasement followed by salvation is a durable device in literature, but does it abide the complexity of how things really happened? Everyone is told just as much as he needs to know, including the self. In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky explains that recollection — memory, even — is fungible, and often leaves out unspeakable truths, saying, “Man is bound to lie about himself.”

I am not an enthusiastic or adept liar. Even so, can I tell you a true story about the worst day of my life? No. To begin with, it was far from the worst day of my life. And those who were there swear it did not happen the way I recall, on that day and on many others. And if I can’t tell a true story about one of the worst days of my life, what about the rest of those days, that life, this story?

[…]

The power of a memory can be built through repetition, but it is the memory we are recalling when we speak, not the event. And stories are annealed in the telling, edited by turns each time they are recalled until they become little more than chimeras. People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.

In this experience one finds the seed of Carr’s zero-tolerance policy for untruth — not only in his own life, but in journalism and the media world on which he reported. If anything, the mind-boggling archive of 1,776 articles he wrote for the Times was his way of keeping our collective memory accurate and accountable — an active antidote to the self-interested amnesia of cultural and personal mythmaking. He toiled tirelessly to keep truthful and honorable what Vannevar Bush — another patron saint of media from a different era — poetically called “the common record.”

David Carr with his daughter Meagan

Carr writes of the moment he chose sanity over chaos:

Slowly, I remembered who I was. Hope floats. The small pleasures of being a man, of being a drunk who doesn’t drink, an addict who doesn’t use, buoyed me.

So much of Carr’s character lives in this honest yet deeply poetic sentiment. He was, above all, an idealist. He understood that our addiction to untruths and mythologies spells the death of our ideals, and ideals are the material of the human spirit. He floated us by his hope. He was the E.B. White of twenty-first-century journalism — like White, who believed that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” Carr shaped for a living; like White, who believed that a writer should “lift people up, not lower them down,” Carr buoyed us with his writing.

In the remainder of The Night of the Gun, Carr goes on to chronicle how he raised his daughters “in the vapor trail of adults who had a lot of growing up to do themselves,” why he relapsed into alcoholism after fourteen years of sobriety and “had to spin out again to remember those very basic lessons” before climbing back out, and what it really means to be “normal” for any person in any life.

Toward the end, he writes:

You are always told to recover for yourself, but the only way I got my head out of my own ass was to remember that there were other asses to consider.

I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.

David Carr by Wendy MacNaughton

Am missing you now, David — we all are. How to fix?

Perhaps some breakages can’t be fixed, but I suppose the trick is indeed to be grateful — even when, and especially when, the caper does end; to be grateful that it had begun in the first place.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.