EOne of the companion books of my life is the case study collection “Awakenings” by Oliver Sacks. In it he describes his experiences as a doctor in the late sixties at Mount Carmel Hospital with patients who suffered from the long-term effects of encephalitis lethargica, some of them completely frozen, like people who appear to be in a vegetative state, trapped in an extreme form of Parkinsonism. Dr. Sacks administered the then newly developed drug called L-Dopa to the patient, and there was a “time of awakening”, as the German title of the (unfortunately poorly translated) book puts it, but which has posed completely new challenges and difficulties for several Decades of motionless people brought with it.
The story of “Miss H.” has always moved me most. It is not one of the “famous” stories in the book like that of Leonard L., which was even made into a film with Robert De Niro in the lead role. Miss H. spent her childhood locked up in an orphanage, contracted the insidious encephalitis mentioned above, and Parkinson’s symptoms began to take over her body at the age of sixteen. “When she was eighteen she was so disabled,” writes Sacks, “that she had to be transferred to Mount Carmel Hospital. As a result, she had no opportunity to get to know the world ‘outside’. What she knew about her, she learned from hearsay and books. For the next 37 years she slowly but steadily went downhill. “
But Miss H. remained an avid reader. She devoured Dickens in particular over and over again and, as people who talked to her could determine from his works, a strikingly deep knowledge of human nature and wisdom in relation to life. Sacks writes: “When I asked her many years later, she replied with an example from Dickens (which she loved to do): ‘You always ask me about the location of the pain. The only answer I can give is Mrs. Gradgrind’s to such a question: ‘I usually felt that there was a pain somewhere in the room, but I couldn’t say for sure that I had it.’ “
Towards the end it says: “Miss H. thinks a lot, but keeps her thoughts to herself. She entrusts them volume by volume to her extensive diaries. “There is hardly any other work that I would rather discover in an archive than these diary volumes.
Many think of such a case of “secondary” or virtual experience solely in terms of compassion. Miss H. used Dickens’ stories as substitutes for the missed life. You compare your own biography with theirs, feel more gifted and immediately create a difference.
This becomes even clearer in texts written by people who lacked a sense of perception. One example is William Prescott’s tremendous Tale of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), a colorful, stirring description of the Spanish invasion. However, he has never been to Mexico himself – and he was blind. Do we read his visual descriptions differently?