A world of fragmented words

The Man with a Shattered World (1972) is a short, extraordinary book about a Russian soldier, “Zasetsky”, who at 23 was shot in the head in World War II and spent the rest of his life “in a kind of fog all the time, like a heavy half-sleep”, trying to put his mind and life back together.

He suffered great pain and confusion as a result of his injury. Memory loss was severe, physical coordination and proprioception much impaired. He forgot how to gesture to a nurse for help, how to speak with doctors, how to kiss his family when he finally got home. Vision and movement were gravely problematic; thought was torturous.

In spite of these daunting difficulties, he taught himself to read and write again, and wrote a journal of his experience that grew to 3000 pages painstakingly written (and rewritten) over 25 years. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria adapted it for the aforenamed book, adding context to extracts from his patient’s notebooks.

A passage from Luria:

Intricate turns of speech that are so routine to us that we fail to notice their complexity are, in fact, codes that have taken centuries to develop. We readily employ them, because we have mastered linguistic patterns – our most basic means of communication. . . .

The man who wrote this journal no longer had the capacity for such an instantaneous grasp of intricate patterns (whether of spatial or linguistic relationships). The damage to his cerebral cortex had affected precisely those parts of the brain that enable one to evaluate what he has seen (as neurologists would say, to ‘simultaneously synthesize separate parts into a complete whole’).

All Zasetsky’s vision to the right of centre was gone; on the left were large gaps. This, coupled with aphasia and other cognitive disabilities, made reading intensely difficult. He was horrified to discover that he couldn’t understand the sign on a bathroom door, and that the text of a newspaper looked like gibberish.

But he made progress:

When I begin to read a word, even a word like golovokruzheniye [dizziness], and look at the letter k, the upper right point, I only see the letters on the left (v–o). I can’t see anything on the right of the letter k or around it. To the left of it I can see the two letters v and o but nothing further to the left. If someone were to trace the letters further to the left with a pencil, I’d see where the movement of the pencil began, but not the letters.

Writing too was onerous. It was easier for him to write automatically, so he learned to do this and would then read over, letter by letter, what he had written to see if it made sense and to work out what came next.

Sometimes he would strain over a page for a week or two, trying to find the right words for an idea and remember them long enough to fit them together and arrange them in writing.

I have some peculiar kind of forgetfulness or amnesia with almost any word, or else I’m very slow. I can’t remember a word or, if I can, I don’t know what it means. . . . If I hear the word table I can’t work out what it is right away, what it is related to. I just have a feeling the word is somewhat familiar . . .

Even a short paragraph read aloud to Zasetsky quickly broke into meaningless fragments. Hearing it repeatedly was of little help, because his sense of syntax was lost. It was a generalised problem: he had lost his understanding of what things meant and how they worked, how they fit together and related to one other: the world he experienced was shattered.

Zasetsky was tormented by his brain injury but determined to communicate it as best he could. Narrating his struggle to make sense of things became a full-time occupation – an obsession. The Man with a Shattered World is a very sad tale, but no reader can fail to feel deep admiration for its subject’s dedication to his task, and for his unfaltering humanity.

Here is Oliver Sacks speaking about Luria and the book:

8 Responses to A world of fragmented words

  1. What a truly fascinating story Stan.

  2. Jonathon says:

    Through most of the post, I was thinking, “This sounds like something from Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, so I laughed when I saw him at the bottom. It sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to put it on my to-read list.

  3. Stan says:

    Jams: It really is. Zasetsky (also Zazetsky; a pseudonym either way, I think) wrote of his condition with great insight, which becomes more and more amazing as you learn how damaged his mind was.

    Jonathon: I think Sacks wrote about The Man with a Shattered World, though I don’t recall where (it’s a long time since I read a flurry of Sacks’s books). It seems to have had a considerable influence on him, as did Luria’s other work.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Incredible what we all take so very much for granted, Stan, and his persistence in writing his experience awes me beyond words. I must read.

  5. Stan says:

    That’s very true, WWW. His distress upon realising he could no longer do the most basic acts — like reading, speaking, remembering, getting around — was extremely sad, and vividly portrayed; and his efforts to describe what he was going through were heroic. I imagine his journal-keeping brought him some solace by enabling him to reconnect substantially with people and make his devastated inner life comprehensible to them.

  6. Grace Carpenter says:

    I had a stroke 19 months ago. I had severe aphasia (and other disabilities), and I’m crawling back to fluency. Thank you for the interesting post. It sounds like there are some similarities between the Luria book and Diane Ackerman’s new book about her husband’s stroke and resulting aphasia.


  7. Stan says:

    Thank you for your visit and comment, Grace, and for the link to My Happy Stroke — it’s a very interesting blog. I haven’t read Diane Ackerman, but there do seem to be significant similarities between Zasetsky’s experience and that of people who have suffered a stroke. “Intellectual aphasia” and a loss of “speech memory” are among the descriptions he applied to it.

  8. […] might also be interested in my earlier post on Alexander Luria’s The Man with a Shattered World; it includes a short video of Oliver Sacks talking about Luria’s work and its influence on Sacks […]

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