LIFE OF A MNEMONIST
Harvard university press, 1987
... Luria's humane yet naked account - he liked to call this genre "romantic science" - is in the spirit of a Kafka or a Beckett writing of characters who are symbolically dispossesed of the power to find meaning in the world. In his way, S., Luria's patient in this book, takes his place beside Joseph K. in The Trial, or in the gallery of lost souls that Beckett has brought to life in his stories and plays. In this new dispensation, "pathology" becomes not a domain alien to human condition, but part of the human condition itself. Rather than dismissing the ill and injured as beyond the pale of human explication, we ask instead about their subjective landscape, their implicit epistemology, their presuppositions. They cease being "cases" and become human beings again. And they become part of literature as well as science.
(Foreword to the 1987 Edition, p. xi.)
At the performance, which took place on June 11, 1936, S. was given a long series to recall consisting of nonsense syllables that alternated as follows:
1. ma va na sa na va
2. na sa na ma va
3. sa na ma va na
4. va sa na va na ma
5. na va na va sa ma
6. na ma sa ma va na
7. sa ma sa va na
8. na sa ma va ma na
S. reproduced the series and four years later, at my request, retraced the method he had used. Following is the description he worte for us of the performance.
As you remember, in the spring of 1936 i gave a performance which I think is the most difficult I’ve ever had to give. You had attached a record sheet to the paper and asked that I write down what went on in my paper and asked that I write down what went on in my mind during that performance when I got through. But since circumstances didn’t permit it at the time, it’s only now, after four years, that I’ve finally gotten around to doing this. Even though it’s several years since I gave the performance, it’s all so vivid, i can see it so clearly, that it seems more like a performance of four months ago, rather than four years ago.
At the performance an assistant read the words off to me, breaking them down into syllables like this: MA VA NA SA NA VA, etc. I’d no sooner heard the first word than I found myself on a road in the forest near the little village of Malta, where my family had had a summer cottage when I was a child. To the left, on a level with my eyes, there appeared an extremely thin line, a grayish-yellow line. This had to do with the fact that all the consonants in the series were coupled with the letter a. Then lumps, splashes, blurs, bunches, all of different colors, weights, and thicknesses rapidly appeared on the line; theses represented the letters m, v, n, s, etc.
The assistant read the second word and at once I saw the same consonants as in the first word, except that they were differently arranged. So I turned left along the road in the forest and continued in a horizontal direction.
The third word. Damn it! The same consonants again, only once again the order has been changed. I asked the assistant whether there were many more words like this, and when he said: “Practically all,” I knew I was in for trouble. Realizing I would have this frequent repetition of the same four consonants to deal with, all of them linked to the same monotonous primitive form which the vowel a has, was enough to shake my usual confidence. If I was going to have to change paths in the woods for each word, to grope at, smell, and feel each spot, each splash, it might help, but it would take more time. And when you’re on stage, each second counts. I could see someone smiling in the audience, and this, too, immediately was converted into an image of a sharp spire, so that I felt as if I’d been stabbed in the heart. I decided to switch to mnemonic techniques that might help me remember the syllables.
Happier now, I asked the assistant to read the first three words again, but this time as a single unit, without breaking them down into syllables. Since the words were nonsensical, the assistant was quite tense as he read them, fearing he would slip up at some point and make a mistake. But the monotonous repetition of the vowel a in each syllable helped to create a distinct rhythm and stress, so that the lines sounded like this: MAVÁ – NASÁ – NAVÀ. From this point on, I was able to reproduce the series without pausing, and at a good pace.
This is the way I worked it out in my mind. My landlady (Mava), whose house on Slizkaya Street I stayed at while I was in Warsaw, was leaning out of a window that opened onto a courtyoard. With her left hand she was pointing inside, toward the room (NASA) [Russian: nasha, “our”]; while in her right she was making some negative gesture (NAVA) [Yiddish expression of negation] to a Jew, an old-clothes man, who was standing in the yard ...
(p. 51 ff.)