Tuesday 20 September 2005

Thoughts from the man who cannot think

A rare thing occurred tonight: ITV showed a decent television programme. It was about Clive Wearing, a conductor and musician, who used to produce early music for BBC Radio 3, who suffered a rare after-effect of the herpes or cold-sore virus, having contracted a serious bout of the flu that was passing around north London 20 years ago. The virus crossed from his blood into his brain and destroyed the part of it that makes and stores memories. Since 1985 he has had acute amnesia, able to remember anything for little more than 7 seconds. The mind, effectively, of a goldfish. He wakes up constantly, for the first time, over and over again, as his devastating diaries reveal. It's like being dead, he says, over and over again, there's no difference between night and day, it's like being asleep without dreaming. Yet he is unable to remember it for long enough to be bored or become frustrated. He can't remember how awful it is to be alive. He remembers that he was once a musician, but he can't remember any performances; yet he has aural hallucinations, hearing music far away, somewhere deep in his consciousness, a memory in sound that has not been muted. He can somehow sense his wife, Deborah, but he can't remember her having visited as soon as she walks out the door. He remembers strange, useless things, such as the number plate of his parents' car, or his old, four-digit phone number from when he was a child, but he doesn't recognize his own son, and has to guess what his wife's job is.

There are rhythms to his speech, he seems to speak by repitition, and yet he wouldn't be able to remember what he is saying. It's as if he has learnt to live by rote. Although he claims not to be able to think, some of his sayings are most profound, almost as if he has rehearsed them or committed them to some part of his brain that isn't memory. "What does love mean?" his wife asks him. "Zero in tennis; everything in life," he replies, slightly jokingly, with the snort of a schoolboy telling a familiar joke.

Walking arm in arm with his wife, back to his own house, which he of course doesn't recognize, doesn't remember ever having seen, he says what his house means to him: "The opposite of walking outdoors."

What is home to him? "Home is yesterday." Yet, of course, he can't remember yesterday, so he would never feel at home anywhere.

The documentary was profoundly moving. His wife, Deborah, is an inspirational woman. She stayed with him for nine years after his illness and then divorced him and moved to New York, where she conducted a number of unsatisfactory relationships with artists, none of whom was enough like Clive to satisfy her. She realized, eventually, that she would have to go back to him, but that they couldn't be together. They renewed their marriage vows and appear to have developed a way to live and love, if only in the snippets of time between blinking, when all is forgotten, the slate wiped clean like an Etch-A-Sketch. She only seems him, though, on average, once a month, so the appearance of their relationship on film is deceptive. Most of the scenes are quite short, so we don't get a sense of how repetitive their conversations are, how many dead ends and deja-vus she must endure. Even when the conversation does loop, it's edited with an inter-title of "7 seconds later", "45 seconds later", "2 minutes later". If it were a film directed by Gus Van Sant, I imagine it would have been much harder to endure, but much more like what time with Clive Wearing feels like i.e. very wearing. Christopher Nolan made a more sinister film about the condition, Memento, in which the note-writing becomes a weapon, the lack of memory a void to exploit.

Clive Wearing is a man emancipated from time. He lives in an eternal moment that keeps resetting. He has no capacity to learn, no means by which to structure his thought, no footholds in the past, no sense of hope for the future, except the wish not to be alone. Every time someone leaves him, he asks them to come back "at the speed of light". Light-years are measures of unfathomable distances, and it is this lack of comprehension of time that distances Clive from other people in space, suggesting that time and space are linked. That without time, something essential to the human condition is removed. Perhaps that's all that death is: time stops.

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