Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Little showers of flats and sharps"

A particularly wonderful interview with Oliver Sacks at the TED blog (link courtesy of the excellent Dave Lull). The conversation wanders far afield, but returns periodically to Sacks' own loss of vision in one eye following surgery for a melanoma. Here are two bits that particularly captivated me:
I had a tumor in the right eye, which has been irradiated and lasered, and I hope laid to rest. But that has taken most of the retina with it on that side and so I’ve only got a little sliver of peripheral vision and the rest is a great black area of scotoma, which changes its appearance as soon as I look up at the ceiling -- then it camouflages and turns white, or turns blue if I look at the sky. And it tends to be full of tiny things, of tiny letters and numbers, which look rather like incised hieroglyphics to me, along with a few other simple things like chessboards and spirals and spiders’ webs. So I’m just having fairly simple geometrical hallucinations. I’m not having faces or anything like this, and don’t expect to have them.

But they’re very easy to separate from reality?

Um, yes. Mostly. Although occasionally, I confess, certainly in the early days, when I would perhaps go in to someone’s apartment, I might think, “What an interesting … what a curious stippled wallpaper.” And I’d mention this. And the person would say, “What do you mean stippled? It’s not stippled.” So, now I realize the stippling comes from me, from the visual areas of my brain which area trying to fill in this rather large blind spot.


But still, I was absolutely terrified with this melanoma at first. I didn’t even know one could have ocular melanomas, let alone that they were much more benign than other sorts. When it was diagnosed, the surgeon brought out a model of an eye and he put in it something that looked like a little, shriveled, black cauliflower. And my immediate thought was that, in England, when a judge is going to pass a death sentence, he puts on a black cap and I saw this thing as the equivalent. I thought, “It’s my death sentence.”
(I would like to go and see the lemur colony in North Carolina!)

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