In his new book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks (no relative, alas) tells the poignant story of Clive Wearing, an eminent musician and musicologist, who was struck by a devastating brain infection. The result was acute amnesia. Wearing was unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds. As his wife Deborah put it: “It was as if every waking moment was the first waking moment.”
It is a heartbreaking story. Unable to thread experiences together, he was caught in an endless present that had no connection with anything that had gone before. He had no past at all. In a moment of awareness he said about himself: “I haven’t heard anything, seen anything, touched anything, smelt anything. It’s like being dead.”
Two things broke through his isolation. One was his love for his wife. Whenever he saw her he felt intense relief, knowing that he was not alone, that she was there, loving and caring for him. The other was music. He could still sing, play the organ and conduct a choir with all his old skill and verve.
What was it about music, Sacks asks, that enabled him, while playing or conducting, to overcome his amnesia? He suggests that when we “remember” a melody, we recall one note at a time, yet each note relates to the whole. He quotes Victor Zuckerkandl, who wrote: “Hearing a melody is hearing, having heard, and being about to hear, all at once. Every melody declares to us that the past can be there without being remembered, the future without being foreknown.” Music is a form of sensed continuity that can sometimes break through the most overpowering disconnections in our experience of time.