Losing memory, finding meaning

A devastating case of amnesia prompts one writer's spiritual quest

Memoir

October 23, 2005|By TROY PATTERSON | TROY PATTERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ON THE SEA OF MEMORY

Jonathan Cott

Random House / 218 pages

ONE SPRING DAY IN MANHATTAN in 1998, the esteemed journalist Jonathan Cott woke up to a depression so severe that he instantly landed in the hospital. Over the next two years, desperate for relief, he underwent a course of electroconvulsive therapy treatments. That is, Cott, then in his mid-50s, received a series of split-second blasts of 200-volt current through the frontal lobes of his brain.

Electroshock is still controversial. Although its supporters promise that serious side effects are rare, its fiercest critics say that nearly all patients suffer persistent amnesia.Whatever the statistics, Cott was one of the patients who wound up a victim. A long stretch of hismemory vanished.

A writer could be forgiven for answering such vast damage with a simple tale of woe, but Cott, a biographer known for his skillful interviews with such figures as John Lennon and Glenn Gould, chose to combine cool inquiry with passionate discovery and turned out an odd, and oddly beautiful, book.

"Having recently and permanently lost fifteen defining years of my life, from 1985 to 2000," he writes in the preface, "I began ... to think seriously about memory and its loss and decided to undertake a journey into the worlds of forgetting and remembering." The result has to be classified as a memoir of amnesia. Such a description makes the book sound contradictory at its core, which, intriguingly, it is. On the Sea of Memory is slight but weighty, meandering but tightly focused, devoted to science yet enchanted with religious mysticism.

One of the paradoxes that define the book is a matter of style. Cott's first-person material is all themore affecting because of his restrained delivery. His story would seem maudlin if he were explicitly emotional in describing his loss.

Instead, he keeps a matter-of-fact tone and leans on apt quotations-letting, for instance, the narrator of one of Paul Auster's existential mystery novels convey his own sense of dislocation: "If I am able to say anything about this period at all, it is only because I have certain documentary evidence to help me. ... I encounter images ofmyself in various places, but only at a distance, as though I were watching someone else."

With no recollection of the books Cott had written or the places he'd been or the friends he'd made, he had become a stranger to himself.

The body of On the Sea of Memory is a series of dialogues with experts who lucidly address their memory-related work and gamely entertain philosophical questions. Neurobiologist James L. McGaugh discusses the brain science of post-traumatic stress disorder and sorts through the science-fiction scenarios of Philip K. Dick to put the processes of the mind in layman's terms. From David Shenk, an expert on Alzheimer's disease, Cott elicits a haunting definition of that illness' poignancy: It's people watching "their own awareness of themselves and of everything else, fade away - and fade away so slowly that for a while they're actually able to see it fade away." Other scientists and professors talk shop in ways that range from the pragmatic to the poetic.

You don't have to be an aficionado of popular science to get excited by the sparks of fact and strings of argument herein; you need only be slightly curious about what's between your own ears. And yet your engagement will be tempered by frustration: The material is diffuse, and the author seems uninterested in drawing connections among the various interviews. The book only reveals its shape once Cott turns from scientific ideas about memory to cultural ones.

Thus, we meet an expert on tribal African storytellers who believes that "the only thing that makes mortality tolerable is [the] sense of inheritance and continuity," and we hear the actress Ellen Burstyn give a thoughtful explanation of the "emotional memory" Method actors call on to inspire soulful performances. Then, confusingly at first, it's on to the soul itself - to memory as regarded by experts in the Jewish, Buddhist and Sufi traditions. "Remembrance," says a Sufi spiritual guide, "is to get in touch with that divine spark that God has placed within each human being."

It's only here that the author begins to suggest what he's been up to. On the Sea of Memory is a quest story in which Cott starts out trying to understand exactly what he has lost and winds up seeking clues about how, having lost it, he should live. The book is an object for meditation. You put it together yourself, mixing and matching its disparate bits of bright thought, discovering a hundred little riddles about the mysterious spot where the present touches the past.

Troy Patterson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times Book Review and Slate.

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