By Brian George
In chapter two of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks tells the story of “The Lost Mariner,” an alcoholic ex-sailor named Jimmie G., who was 49 years old in 1975, the time of their first meeting. For Jimmie, the Second World War had just ended in a triumphant Allied victory. FDR was dead. Truman was at the helm of the freshly painted ship of state. Silk stockings were again available. Radios blasted boogey woogey. New aerodynamic cars were getting ready to roll. Girls could be expected to spontaneously kiss servicemen on the street. It was 1945. The free world loved us. There were great times ahead.
Bounced from Bellevue to a nursing home in Greenwich Village to The Home for the Aged, where Sacks worked, Jimmie came complete with a cryptic transfer note. It read, “Helpless, demented, confused and disoriented.” At first suspicious of 1945 as a cut-off point—as a year that seemed too symbolically sharp—Sacks went on to diagnose the mariner as a victim of Korsakov's syndrome, resulting in near total short-term memory loss, in this case compounded by extreme retrograde amnesia. For Jimmy, there would always be 92 elements in the periodic table, as he would be glad to demonstrate by drawing you a chart. The “transuranic” elements would never be included.
Navy records indicate that he was functional until his discharge in 1965. A born sailor, he was well liked by his friends, who gladly made excuses for his reluctance to grow up. His casual good humor was contagious. For sure, there was a taste for alcohol. Now and then a few missing days. A tendency towards impulsive action. It was not like he was a mama's boy; he pitched in, followed orders, and did not complain when the going got tough, but the dream of perpetual youth was already active in this macho Peter Pan. A mariner is meant to be at sea, braving dangers, responding to sirens, perpetually setting off in search of a lost continent. Jimmie was not able to translate water into earth. He should have stayed in the Navy, which provided some structure for this happy go lucky being.
He never knew how good he had it. You never know what you have until it's gone. Who knew that the Second World War would turn out to be so much fun? After being discharged, he started to drink heavily, quit several jobs and, according to his brother, one day just “went to pieces.” He was never again the same. Around Christmas of 1970 he “blew his top,” became deliriously excited and confused, and at that point was taken to Bellevue. Soon, his pleasant attitude returned. His memory did not. The years flew backwards until 1945, where the pages of the calendar stopped turning.
According to Sacks, intense verbal energy is needed to maintain this constant re-imagining of the present as the past. Events, of course, cannot be trusted to cooperate. It is of no importance, since, in several minutes, no memory will be left of this lack of cooperation. You are, let’s say, a 19 year old sailor, glad to be on shore leave, and the good doctor has just handed you a mirror. Your breath stops—as you stare in horror at the face. Who is this gray-haired stranger so intently looking back at you? Is this some demonic joke? Are you dreaming? Kids can be heard playing baseball in the park outside the window. A man in a white lab-coat sits before you. He seems to be a doctor. It is just possible that you have seen him somewhere before.
No. You are an expert in Morse code, a trained observer, who during sleepless nights with binoculars on the bridge has scanned the horizon for ME 262s, the latest of Nazi aircraft. You would never forget a face. Is there something wrong? Your heart still seems to be pounding. It looks like your breath has stopped. The good doctor has directed you to look out of the window. The trauma disappears, as though never having existed. Across from you, a man in a white lab coat has asked if you know what city you are in. Your hand shakes, and there seems to be a mirror in it. Just a few hours ago you had cut yourself shaving. So why is there no cut on this puffy clown mask in the mirror? You have two days to get back to your battleship at the San Diego Naval Base. First, you must deal with this jerk off in the mirror, who seems to be repeating every word that you say.
An informative conversation with the man in the white lab-coat follows. It is, however, quite disturbing. How is it possible that you have never heard of a submarine called “The Nimitz?” Are there Reds in Hollywood? Are you the victim of a secret government mind-control experiment? It is again time to look at the kids playing ball outside the window. No. It can't be. Some girl has hit the ball out of the park! The year is 1945. Things are good all over. Villagers laugh—having overcome their fascist ways—as they hang by the heels the ox-like Mussolini. Hitler and Eva Braun have been hosed out of their subterranean bunker. Budweiser is the king of beers. You not only would but have walked a mile for a Camel. You have just been discussing baseball with that man in the white lab-coat, who you first met at a bar called “Sleepy Joe's.” He is a physicist, perhaps. Does he work at Los Alamos?
You are glad to be a 19-year old sailor out on shore leave. From household appliances to the female body, everything has been redesigned for maximum acceleration. They are just about to take off. Who knows, in 50 years it might be possible to send a rocket to the moon, or is that way out science fiction, Flash Gordon stuff? There are 92 elements in the periodic table. Uranium is the last, but not the least. It was fun to think about atomic energy, which might one day be employed to more efficiently boil water. The splitting of the atom would soon turn us into gods! “Hula-hoops” have appeared in someone else's dream, inexplicably, since they have not been invented yet. Immune to current photographs, you are never hung over at the end of even the wildest shore-leave binge. Although subject to subject to the occasional black out, it is true, and sometimes oddly creaky at the knees, it was good to be an intelligent young man in the pre-Sputnik era!
Is there anything to be done, a way to orient the Lost Mariner? The subject enjoys games, such as tic tack toe and checkers, which do not require long term concentration. Easily bored, it is often hard for him to say if he feels anything at all. Music and art, however, are able to reach inside to touch him, and he is moved to tears by the celebration of the mass. A dove appears. The music of the spheres invades Normandy. Against the bow-ramps of the Higgins landing craft, machine gun bullets ping. Brave soldiers run into them. Pillboxes explode. Kamikaze pilots in their A6M Xeros fall like cherry blossoms on the Leyte Gulf. At Iwo Jima, flame liberates the once human shadows from their maze of underground tunnels. There are no noncombatants. Heads break apart, but not in a bad way, as the light within them reaches out to deconstruct the horizon. Harmony in great waves washes every beach. Time future and time past now turn like a tornado, lifting what they kill.
Up, and then further up, beyond the smoke-clouds of the Pacific and the European Theatres, beyond the network that the Fates wove from fake archeological artifacts, to the realm of the Ideal. A seizure will instruct the Mariner in the art of bi-location. Shock upon shock overtakes him; he is neither here nor there. Doors to a transparent city open. From its data-banks there is no one who has, in all of History, departed. Passionate in concentration, he waits for the host to land upon his tongue.
Sacks comments on the therapeutic value of this state of total attention. He first quotes Luria: “A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibility, moral being. It is here that you may touch him, and see a profound change.” Sacks then says, “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.” Though the author does not use the word, the concept of the hologram is implicit in this passage; however blurred, perhaps the story of each life is a hologram, which refers back, first, to the already completed pattern of that life, and, beyond that, to the larger story of the world.
The study of disease may yet provide a key to open the locked doors of the memory theater, which, for unknown reasons, has been boarded up since the Renaissance. In every niche of the rotunda is a cue that serves to activate an engram.
If, as folklore and some contemporary research has it, a person’s life flashes before his/ her eyes as the moment before death, we must ask where this Tsunami of information has been stored. It seems strange, indeed, that a process of such scope and power should be able to get underway so quickly. Not that the shutting down of the body is a trivial event, yet it can seem as though the process is just waiting for some pretext to occur.
If chemicals, such as DMT, flood the brain as death approaches, the skeptical reductionist would argue that the visions that result are no more than hallucinations, of a particularly detailed sort. They may look dramatic, yes, but they have no objective significance. A depth-charge of neurotransmitters has disturbed the locus coeruleus, and has caused the right temporoparietal junction to short circuit; “tunnel vision” can occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted from the eye. The only truth revealed pertains to the abnormal functioning of our cells. It would be just as reasonable to argue, however, that these chemicals purge, prepare, and then activate the brain centers for an alternate mode of processing. In this mode, we may witness the reversal of all previous frames of reference, as consciousness attempts to break from the space outside us in, and not, as is habitual, from the space inside us out.
So, let us grant that our brains go through chemical changes when the moment of death approaches, as they do during every other aspect of our lives: this is hardly some sort of revolutionary insight. In fact, things could not be otherwise. Let us say that you are diving with your family in a car and, quite suddenly, a tractor trailer turns the wrong way onto the highway and is just about to flatten you. Your brain will no doubt undergo some significant chemical changes. This does not mean that the truck does not exist, that you will not, within a few seconds, be in a catastrophic wreck, or that your neurotransmitters have somehow caused the accident. No, it is simply that death approaches, and that this prompts certain changes in our chemistry. Correlation is not the same thing as causation, as every skeptical reductionist should know. Because a set of chemical reactions may be present in the brain, it does not follow that an NDE must be caused by that set of chemical reactions.
If this flood of information is somehow able to self-organize, and is a purely physiological process, we must ask why such a talent took so long to reveal itself when, in countless situations, we might have put it to good use. If we can access a talent only when we will soon cease to exist, what possible evolutionary purpose does this serve? How utterly perverse: to be able to gain access to the key facts in our story at the exact moment when we are powerless to put such knowledge to practical use. We might theorize that such knowledge is not meant to be practical, or that it is practical, in its own way, but only in regards to ends that we have long been prevented from seeing. Life itself, not only Korsakov’s Syndrome, can create lacunae large enough for whole worlds to pass through, as well as occult blocks that we do not dare to touch. When we are deaf, dumb, and blind, and our hands still seem to work, there is no end to our enthusiasm for grand self-defeating projects. Our hyperactivity drives us to reach the far side of the hamster wheel. When our vision is at its widest, however—and quite maddeningly—we may pause to note that there is no life in our hands.
If this death flash video is other than an accident of biology, a set of haywire neurotransmitters, a massive overstimulation of the temporal lobe, this expanded state might point to the existence of an alternate self, with which we, under certain conditions, can communicate, and of a parallel system in which all events are stored. If this backup system is outside of time/ space as we know it, then there is no reason that s syndrome such as Korsakov’s, as devastating as it is, should be regarded as more than a foreground inconvenience.
Jimmie, the lost mariner, seems to intuit the existence of this alternate form of memory, of a backup system to the all too human one, and to be fully at attention only during the celebration of the mass. No longer scrambled, his mind was absorbed by each necessary action. His feelings were transformed. His consciousness became one-pointed. If, as Parmenides asserted, there is actually only ONE—one body that is coextensive with its mind; one databank whose limit is the circumference of a sphere; one seed that contains the genetic code of every species; one tongue that twists the grammar of the universal language, so much so that it makes no sense at all; one oceanic dodecahedron that has gone in search of our fingers—then there may be no detail so insignificant that upon it the whole sphere does not depend. Still unable to gain access to its breadth, the lost mariner was nonetheless reassured: It would not be long before he stepped back through the aperture that just yesterday had clicked shut behind him at his birth.
Is Jimmie a lost soul, and if so, what does this imply? Has he lost his soul or has he lost touch with his soul? Towards the end of “The Lost Mariner”—about a different patient, who had suffered a sudden thrombosis in the posterior circulation of the brain—Sacks writes, “Forthwith this patient became completely blind, but he made no complaints. Questioning and being tested showed, beyond doubt, that not only was he centrally or cortically blind, but he had lost all visual images and memories, lost them totally, yet had no sense of any loss. Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing, and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words such as ‘seeing’ and ‘light.’” Sacks presents this as a clinical description; we could, however, choose to interpret this type of blindness as a metaphor. Like this patient, we have forgotten what it once was like to see. Our vision is quite different than it was, before the pineal gland became no more than a vestigial appendage, before Earth’s Guardians locked the top part of the skull and then threw away the key.
Six ages or more back, before the Deluge redrew the coasts of every continent, we possessed both local and nonlocal bodies, which together functioned like a kaleidoscopic field. The ocean was a womb, and our incantations were the catalytic seeds. Vast energies danced on the head of every pin. It came as something of a relief when we first noticed that our bodies had grown dimmer, for the world had come to seem too overwhelmingly bright.
Now, for unknown reasons, we prefer to exist in a contracted state, which to us seems the definition of good health. Life means moving forward. We experience the one all-encompassing moment as a threat.
Dead-end circumstances require desperate means, and invite the use of unconventional technologies. Unconventional technologies do not necessarily imply technologies that are new. We humans have suffered from metaphysical brain damage for millennia. Some technologies that are new to us may be actually very old. If there is no hope for a cure, we should, perhaps, question the assumptions upon which our diagnosis is based. If the physical brain has, in fact, been irreversibly damaged, we should not assume that we have the power or the breadth of vision to begin to figure out what to do. True healing may depend less on what we know than on what we do not and can never know. It is possible that healing may be waiting only for the right pretext to occur. To provoke a near-death experience, for example, initiates from ancient Greece would sometimes throw themselves from cliffs into the sea. Our problem with this method would be twofold: we would prefer to avoid pain and we do not want to die.
If time/ space is a construct, a mere tragicomic convenience, a kind of crutch that assists us in crossing from one lacuna to the next, it could be that any necessary healing may have long ago taken place. If we are deaf, dumb, and blind, we are not well positioned to even begin to form an opinion on the intricate, nonlinear clockwork of the time-cycle. It is always possible that the Mariner may not actually be lost, that some aspect of his consciousness may have never been diminished, and that he may be doing exactly what he had once agreed to do. Let us say that the Mariner has been picked up and transported: Death’s aperture clicks open, and the light, quite unexpectedly, no longer hurts his eyes. An epileptic ocean heaves, and his memory expands to all horizons on its currents. Events that, while he was alive, might have vanished into the depths, might there be again visible down to the smallest of details. With his left foot in one world and his right foot in the next, it seems nonetheless possible that he might have been informed, “No, this is NOT your time. Your mission is not yet complete.”
(Illustrations: Philip Guston)