Michael Nyman


Friday, November 8, 2013  •  8 PM

Saturday, November 9, 2013  •  8 PM

Sunday, November 10, 2013  •  2 PM

THE NOAH LIFF OPERA CENTER

Co-sponsored by Judy & Joe Barker, Jessica & Zach Liff


ARTISTS   |   SYNOPSIS  |   STUDY GUIDE


A neurologist, Dr. S, sets the scene: he seeks a neurology that places the humanity of his patients at the center instead of defining them in terms of their deficits.  Traditional case studies convey nothing of the person or his experience as he struggles to survive disease.  By deepening the case study into a narrative or tale we find a “who” as well as a “what” - real people whose essential being is very relevant in the higher reaches of neurology.


Dr. P, a professional singer and music teacher, and his wife, Mrs. P, arrive at the neurologist’s clinic.  Dr. P has been referred by an ophthalmologist because of certain silly visual mistakes he has been making, like confusing parking meters with people.  It’s probably all a joke, Mrs. P thinks. There’s really nothing the matter.  The neurologist can’t find much wrong either but does notice Dr. P’s strange way of looking at him.  As they are leaving, Dr. P reaches for his hat, but mistakes the shape of his wife for the hat stand, accidentally grabbing her head instead of his hat.  The neurologist sees that there is indeed something wrong and resolves that next time he will see Dr. P in his home, away from the cold abstraction of the clinic.


The neurologist visits Dr. P in his home.  They discover a mutual love for the music of Schumann.  Mrs. P accompanies her husband as he sings the Schumann song “Ich grolle nicht.”  The delighted neurologist joins in. He notes that Dr. P can no longer read music, but that he has a perfect ear.   His musical brain is intact.


The neurologist gives Dr. P a series of simple visual tests.  He asks him to identify a sequence of platonic solids, playing cards and caricatures.  He notes that Dr. P can identify abstract patterns and shapes.  But when it comes to showing Dr. P photographs, of his own family and even himself, it’s apparent that altogether his vision is fine, he cannot recognize even the most familiar faces.


The neurologist offers Dr. P a rose from the table.  Dr. P cannot tell what it is until he smells it. A glove is equally confusing.  The neurologist plays a game of chess with Dr. P, who, playing mentally, beats him soundly.  The neurologist concludes that P’s visual is impaired.  This is confirmed when Dr. P describes walking down a local street in detail, although he omits describing things to his left.


The apartment is full of Dr. P’s paintings.  The neurologist thinks he can detect in them a movement from the more naturalistic earlier work to later abstraction which parallels the progress of Dr. P’s illness.  This greatly upsets Mrs. P.  She is astounded that the neurologist can’t se the artistic development in her husband’s work and angrily calls him a philistine.  As the neurologist and Mrs. P argue over the painting, Dr. P is taking his afternoon tea, humming to himself as he munches his way through the spread of cakes and sandwiches.  When Mrs. P shouts “Philistine!” at the neurologist, Dr. P freezes, shocked into silence and stillness by the sudden disruption to his routine.


This incident is the key to the neurologist’s diagnosis.  It turns out that Dr. P has a profound “visual agnosia” which prevents him from relating the parts of anything he sees to a coherent whole.  Unable to make any cognitive visual judgment, the musician in Dr. P employs an inner soundtrack - hummed tunes of his favorite Schumann - to help him coordinate simple everyday visual tasks.  In this coordination, he is helped by his wife, who lays everything out - clothing, washing things, food - in a pattern they both know.  This way they get by, but if interrupted by a sudden intrusion from his routine, Dr. P’s world falls apart and comes to a complete stop.  It’s also clear that Mrs. P’s love is crucial for her husband’s compromised well-being.  Dr. P asks the neurologist what he should do.  The neurologist can offer no solution other than that he continue to give his shattered visual world coherence with music, building on what has been at the center of his life.


The neurologist sums up the case.  With this affirmation of the substitution of the musical for the visual, Dr. P continued teaching for some years, living a full life instead of merely deteriorating in the shadow of his “deficits.”


  

THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT

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