Thursday, 4 August 2016

The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Up until this week, I knew Oliver Sacks' book "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" only as an excellent option when playing charades (book, 9 ( NINE!) words in the title, first word... ).

Turns out it's outstanding, certainly the best thing that I've read in some months. Sacks is/ was a professor of clinical neurology, and the book is nothing more than a collection of short descriptions of, and reflections on, a selection of Sacks' patients. What makes this collection so interesting is that:

(a) Sacks writes beautifully -- vigorous, visceral prose with an abundance of rich allusion and literary reference (but not to the point that his prodigious learning gets on your tits -- I'm thinking of you, Saul Bellow). More importantly, Sacks' writing is warm. It has a very human quality that speaks to the deep empathy that the author feels for his subjects; in this regard, it reminds me of how it feels to read Tolstoy.

(b) Sacks' patients are to a (wo)man deeply interesting and his discussion of their situations is moving and profound.... And has implications for the way all of us of our lives.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence: all of the patients in this book have a deeply unusual sense of reality -- in different ways, each patient has a "pathology" that affects a particular connection to the outside world in an extreme way. In studying this pathology, Sacks sheds light on aspects of our human condition that are so fundamental, we don't even realise they are there.

We all, for instance, occasionally make mistakes in our visual categorisation of the objects around us (is that object arse or elbow?), but now imagine if virtually all of your visual categorisations are wrong (as in the case of the eponymous hero of this book)? How do you relate to the world if you, LITERALLY, have been known to mistake your wife for a hat?

In trying to respond CLINICALLY to the travails of his patients, Sacks quickly finds himself needing to respond philosophically -- to contemplate, for instance, what it is about visual categorisation that is so vital in our lives, and how we might cope if we find ourselves without it. (Note: the patient in question has perfect vision, but is unable to effectively process the images that he receives....)

The story that most struck a chord with me (and I use that phrase deliberately) is a discussion of two twins who, though deeply mentally retarded, were able to perform certain prodigious feats of mathematics through mere contemplation (like finding 12 digit primes for instance). You should think "Rain man" (and, indeed, one of the incidents that Sacks relates involving the twins clearly inspired the matchbox incident in that movie)... but I must admit that that movie left me a little cold, whereas Sacks' discussion is truly profound.

In particular, as a mathematician, I was greatly moved by the twins' emotional relationship with numbers, with their activities as contemplators of numbers in some absolute way. On a shallow level, the twins' feats of computation are extraordinary.... but fundamentally rather robotic and unenlightening. Much more interesting is the way that, as Sacks describes, the twins see very profound beauty in (for instance) prime numbers, and they move a "landscape of number" that connects profoundly to their essential humanity (a humanity that is, by some measures, deeply broken).

In the course of Sacks' discussion, there are two particularly interesting passages. The first, below, is a quote from another author on the place of music in humanity's search for meaning. Sacks uses this as a departure point for a similar reflection on the place of number in that search -- and the second quote is from this reflection.

`Whoever is harmonically composed,' writes Sir Thomas Brown, `delights in harmony... and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed Lesson of the whole World... a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God... The soul... is harmonical, and hath its nearest sympathy unto Music.' (p. 204)
Quote 2:

('The philosopher seeks to hear within himself the echoes of the world symphony,' writes Nietzsche, `and to re-project them in the form of concepts.') The twins, though morons, hear the world symphony, I conjecture, but hear it entirely in the form of numbers.
    The soul is 'harmonical' whatever one's IQ and for some, like physical scientists and mathematicians, the sense of harmony, perhaps is chiefly intellectual. And yet I cannot think of anything intellectual that is not, in some way, also sensible -- indeed the very word `sense' always has this double connotation. Sensible, and in some sense `personal' as well, for one cannot feel anything, find anything `sensible', unless it is, in some way, related or relatable to oneself...
    The twins, I believe, have not just a strange `faculty' -- but a sensibility, a harmonic sensibility, perhaps allied to that of music. One might speak of it, very naturally, as a `Pythagorean' sensibility -- and what is odd is not its existence, but that it is apparently so rare. One's soul is `harmonical' whatever one's IQ, and perhaps the need to find or feel some ultimate harmony or order is a universal of the mind, whatever its powers, and whatever form it takes. Mathematics has always been called the `queen of sciences', and mathematicians have always felt number as the great mystery, and the world as organised, mysteriously, by the power of number. This is beautifully expressed in the prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography:
       With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.

These two quotes point towards an existential impulse behind the process of mathematics, and it is one that I find deeply reassuring in my day-job as a pure mathematician. I am frequently assailed with questions of the "why am I doing this?" sort.... pure mathematics can seem a deeply self-indulgent, rather pointless way to spend one's life... and yet perhaps it is also one of the most fundamental activities any human can undertake.

If I were a musician, would I be assailed with the same doubts? Perhaps, but I think it is more generally accepted that the making of music has a place in our struggle as humans to make sense of our existential condition... It is pleasing for me to hear Sacks asserting, too, the place of mathematics in this struggle.

And it is deeply moving that this affirmation emerges out of a contemplation of two deeply "broken" human beings; two human beings in possession of intellects that lack many of the basic functions we take for granted and yet that , in a very beautiful and dramatic way, shed great light on our place as humans in the universe.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Needy Dad?

I am in Nepal teaching maths for two weeks. I caught the train to Heathrow at lunchtime on the Saturday and by the time I arrived I was already missing my boys...

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with one of my students. We were walking home together from one of the classes that I had given, and we got to chatting about our respective lives. It turns out that he also has two children, and they are exactly the same age. We laughed when we found that out -- it was striking for both of us to meet someone from so far away, and with whom we shared something so much at the centre of our lives.

As we continued talking though, I realised that our parenting experiences are fantastically different -- Suresh is studying in Kathmandu, while his children stay at home with his wife in the village where he comes from. He used to go home every second week-end, but the journey is too taxing and he is currently going home only one week-end every month.

My first reaction to this was to reflect on how tough that would be -- to see one's children so infrequently, and to be constantly dealing with the sense of isolation that that brings. I have found these few days away from my children very trying and would hate to have to do this routinely...

As I mused more through that evening, though, another response arose inside me. I remembered a couple of incidents that had happened back in Wales in the month or so before I left: in the first I'd become furiously, insanely, completely irrationally angry when Anton had decided to go off with Katie one Saturday, after I'd been planning an activity for me and him and had organised my week-end around it... My anger scared and shocked him, and he said sorry later for going off with his Mum -- of course, he had nothing to say sorry for, while I had a LOT!

And then there's Joseph, who is struggling at the moment when asked what activity he wants to do of a week-end, or in the evening. This is particularly acute when he feels that by expressing a preference, he's giving priority to one person over another -- especially when those people are his parents. He's only seven, and he worries about hurting our feelings! I've told him numerous times that I don't mind at all if he'd rather do something with his Mum one evening, but I think he sees deeper than the words and knows that, in some sense, I do mind, of course I do...

What has brought us to this? I've always taken as a given that it's a good thing for a Dad to be hands on, to be involved and close to his children. I still believe this, but my discussion with Suresh and these reflections have given me pause: am I creating a situation where I seek affirmation from my children, where I am imposing a kind of guilt on them if they seek space from me?

This, clearly, must be avoided: all children need to find independence from their parents and this need will only grow greater for them as they grow older. I must not, even accidentally, derail their pursuit of independence; I must not saddle them with guilt for seeking what is essential.

Katie and I have talked many times about the need for us to be independent within our relationship: we cannot be all things to each other no matter how we try, and we need to be deliberate in seeking meaning apart from each other. That word "affirmation" crops up again -- if all of our self-affirmation comes from one place, we're heading for trouble: we can usually tell when we've got the balance wrong, because there's a rise in the narky conversations, the lingering pissed-off-ness, the resentment...

Well, now I realise (8 years in) that a similar principle needs to be honoured in my parenting. I cannot rely on my children for my entire meaning-making structure in life, and I need to be deliberate in finding separateness from my children, and letting them find separateness from me.

I'm going to end this reflection with a line from Khalil Gibran that Katie and I have reflected on many times in the context of our relationship. It seems that the wisdom therein is something that I need to attend to as a parent also -- I'm in a priviled first-world position where I get to spend more than a week-end every month with my children. Now I have to make sure that this time contains enough space for all of us to grow -- together, but also apart, and in love.

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow." From The Prophet by Khalil Gibran