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4.0 out of 5 stars An Anthology of writing on the subject of memory loss, 22 Jan. 2013
By 
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vintage Book of Amnesia (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) (Paperback)
Perhaps it's 'wrong' of me, but I was fascinated by the two scientific true stories in this collection, though there were a number of notable writers whose fiction was enjoyable - Christopher Priest's, mainly because I've read a number of his books, and this was an excerpt from his novel The Affirmation (S.F. Masterworks), and Steve Erikson's cinematic story about a `discovered' nephew whose condition causes a state close to Tourette's syndrome, only in French (it seems he had spent some time in France with other relations). It was the piece by Valentine Worth, together with the article by Oliver Sacks, that really interested me.

Valentine Worth's account of Geoffrey Sonabend's three-volume work: 'Obliescence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter' departed from all previous research with the premise that memory is an illusion. He describes amnesia thus:

"We Amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events."

While not denying the experience of memory, Sonnabend's work was predicated on the idea that: "what we experience as memories are in fact confabulations, artificial constructions of our own design based around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusions of imagination..." Long term or distant memories, he contends, are illusions. He builds convincing models of obliescence in his work which I can't pretend to fully comprehend, but I felt partly convinced, when searching my own memory of childhood. This short excerpt of Sonabend's theory has the essence of truth about it. How else would I retain memories, except by excerpting something vivid, the colour of the grass of my childhood, for instance, had an intensity that I am otherwise unable to account for. Grass was magical. I retain something of my astonishment also, but who is to say it is not my own imagination at work?

Oliver Sacks reciprocates something of this in his article on 'The Last Hippie'. "There may be a childlike spontaneity and transparency about such [amnesiac] patients in their immediate and unpremeditated (and often playful) reactions. And yet there is something ultimately disquieting and bizarre," he continues, "because the reacting mind (which may still be highly intelligent and inventive) loses its coherence, its inwardness, its autonomy, its "self" and becomes the slave of every passing sensation." Indeed he footnotes the link specifically quoting the indiscriminate reactivity sometimes seen in people with Tourettes syndrome. Something he describes elsewhere as " ceaseless inner talking between cerebral cortex and thalamus, a ceasless interplay and feeling, irrespective of whether there is sensory input or not." He cites the case of Greg, a patient who had spent years being inculcated with religious imagery which completely changed his personality from an extremely intelligent young man with a bright future, to a fat, lonely, unintelligible nothing. He had no memory of his childhood or of his youth. Drugs may have played a part, but it was the religious input that persuaded him that his eyesight was diminishing because he was achieving Nirvana (In which one needs only the inner light - or so his co-participants told him). In reality, he was going blind, and by the time he was hospitalised he was untreatable.

"Where he had been so "difficult", so tormented, so rebellious in his pre-Krishna days, all this torment and angst now seemed to have vanished; he seemed to be at peace," but at peace at an unacceptable price."

Robert Lowell is quoted:
"Flabby, bald, lobotomised,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonising reappraisal
jarred his concentration..."

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest springs to mind.

This book is much more concerned with the fictional than my review suggests but while there are a good few interesting stories, none resonates so strongly as the true story of Greg. For anyone interested in the history of treatment via the frontal lobes (though Greg was never lobotomised) Sacks additionally presents some very salient facts.
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The Vintage Book of Amnesia (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
The Vintage Book of Amnesia (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) by Jonathan Lethem (Paperback - 1 Dec. 2000)
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