Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Convulsions of a Forgetful Pianist

In high school I took a rather odd course called Theory of Knowledge; it was one part deconstructionist philosophy, one part introductory logic and rhetoric, and one part college application prep. We mostly read about ways of knowing, did critical thinking drills, and learned how to write reasoned arguments. It was the best class I had ever taken.
On of the first subjects we attacked, and I use that word with every connotation of its meaning - by the time we moved on from a subject I invariably felt that I knew less about it than when we started, was memory. One class we watched a short film about a great pianist whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. In an accident of some kind, the specifics of which I also cannot recall, he had lost his long-term memory. As soon as he looked away from someone and then looked back it was as if he had never met them. That is unless he had an emotional attachment to the person before the accident - he acted very loving toward his wife. The mind apparently stores emotional connections differently than linear memory.
Another thing he had not lost was his musical skills. He could not practice an instrument or compose music, as he could not concentrate on anything for more than, at the very longest, a couple minutes minutes. But he could sight-read beautifully. His wife would set him in front of a piano and as long as she kept the pages of the sheet music turning he would keep playing - he was truly a gifted musician. She did this rarely though, because of what would happen when he would stop. When the song would end or she would stop turning the pages he would go into convulsions. His doctors said that what was happening was that his brain desperately needed continuity (he would keep journals, pages and pages of mostly identical paragraphs describing how he felt like he had just woken up and was confused as to what was going on) and that in the task of sight-reading he had found it, and the forcible shock from that security back into a memory-examining state, for which there was no memory to examine, was a violent transition. What happens when you sight-read, and I played the cello for eight years so I can say this with some idea of what I am talking about, is that you are completely absorbed by the task, you don’t think about the past or the future or anything but the note you are playing at that moment and perhaps the note you will play next.
I recount this story not because of any psychological insight I can offer into that poor man’s condition, but because his sight-reading offers an possibly insightful way of looking at my own behavior. Non-being does not really frighten me - I cannot conceive of not existing; it is infinity that I live in fear of. Descartes claimed that the existence of the idea of infinity in our minds cannot be attributed to anything other than an innate idea planted by God. I disagree. Consciousness is, as far as any individual can tell, infinite. I know on some level that I could cease to exist, but I cannot really imagine it, and so I perceive myself as an infinite being. And this is my dread: all of existence stretched out before and behind me, all of it a dim blur. Most of the time this fearfulness is on the periphery, little flashes of it may emerge from time to time but for the most part I am able to suppress it. But sometimes when I am absorbed in a project, usually a literary one, I let down my guard. I throw myself into the intellectual game of composition, argumentation, crafting words into landscapes and sculptures and songs. And I forget where I am. In those moments I could be anywhere on earth - there is only my mind and my tongue and the words I am writing. But then it ends and all the horror of the infinite comes rushing down upon me. Everything that cannot be changed and everything I may become and everything I may pass by forever. Like that forgetful pianist I find temporary shelter in the act of creation but when it is done I am more aware of the horror than I was before. Yet still I begin to write. I sit down with the intension of losing myself knowing, on some level, that I will have to end. It is the behavior of any drug addict, any alcoholic, any escapist.
Tolkien wrote about escapism. He said that the man in prison should not be faulted for trying to escape or, if this is impossible, trying to think of things besides bars and locks. On some level it is foolish to escape into a fantasy you know will end in pain, but only if you do so without thought to that pain. The pain must be understood and accepted - it must be an accepted consequence.

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