A world of fragmented words

October 13, 2011

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: