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When Singing is Seeing: Practickal Body-Musick

“Hungrily, hummingly, Dr P. started on the cakes. Swiftly, fluently, unthinkingly, melodiously, he pulled the plates towards him, and took to this and that, in a great gurgling stream, and edible song of food, until, suddenly, there came an interuption: a loud, peremptory rat-tat-tat at the door. Startled, taken aback, arrested, by the interruption, Dr P. stopped eating, and sat frozen, motionless, at the table, with an indifferent, blind, bewilderment on his face. He saw, but no longer saw, the table; no longer perceived it as a table laden with cakes. His wife poured him some coffee: the smell titillated his nose, and brought him back to reality. The melody of eating resumed.

How does he do anything, I wondered to myself? What happens when he’s dressing, goes to the lavatory, has a bath? I followed his wife into the kitchen and asked her how, for instance, he managed to dress himself.

‘It’s just like the eating,’ she explained. ‘I put his usual clothes out, in all the usual places, and he dresses without difficulty, singing to himself. He does everything singing to himself. But if he is interrupted and loses the thread, he comes to a complete stop, doesn’t know his clothes - or his own body. He sings all the time - eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs, everything. He can’t do anything unless he makes it a song’...

We returned to the great music-room, with the Bsendorfer in the centre, and Dr P. humming the last torte.

‘Well, Dr Sacks,’ he said to me. ‘You find me an interesting case, I perceive. Can you tell me what you find wrong, make recommendations?’

‘I can’t tell you what I find wrong,’ I replied, ‘but I’ll say what I find right. You are a wonderful musician, and music is your life. What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the centre, now make it the whole, of your life.’

This was four years ago - I never saw him again, but I often wondered how he apprehended the world, given his strange loss of image, visuality, and the the perfect preservation of a great musicality. I think that music, for him, had taken the place of image. He had no body-image, he had body-music: this is why he could move and act as fluently as he did, but came to a total confused stop if the ‘inner music’ stopped...”

Oliver Sacks , The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, 1985; page 15-17

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