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A Writer Without Words

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 8, 2010 09:31 AM

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How much of you - your mind, your personality, your soul, your self - is made up of the words you use? Would you be the same you if you couldn't use words? This sounds like a question for philosophers (and it is), but it's also a very practical question for Tom Lubbock, a prolific art critic and journalist in Britain who is losing his language to a brain tumor. Over the past two years, the tumor has robbed him of the ability to use words. He's written about the experience in a brave, moving, and absolutely fascinating article for The Observer.

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As a writer, Lubbock has practical concerns about losing his facility with words. Despite being ill, he still has to meet deadlines for newspaper articles (like this one on Giotto's Vices), and he finds that, even though he can't use words during the day, they reappear after midnight. But he has existential concerns, too. He wonders what kind of mind he'll have when he can't even use words privately, in his thoughts. Will he still be able to think? Will he still be there, in his own head? Or will it turn out, as he concludes at one point, that "[m]ind means talking to oneself"?

The article starts in August of 2008 and moves up the present. Lubbock's report from this October:

My language to describe things in the world is very small, limited.

My thoughts when I look at the world are vast, limitless and normal, same as they ever were.

My experience of the world is not made less by lack of language but is essentially unchanged.

This is curious.

Lubbock's experiences echo those of Frigyes Karinthy, a distinguished Hungarian writer and translator (he wrote novels, poems, and plays, and translated Winnie-the-Pooh into Magyar):

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In his book A Journey Round My Skull, Karinthy recalls his own struggle with a brain tumor and eventual brain surgery. Helmut Dubiel's book Deep in the Brain: Living with Parkinson's Disease tells a similar story. Dubiel, a successful philosophy professor, is stricken with Parkinson's and eventually must rely upon deep brain stimulation to keep his symptoms under control. These men, all skilled writers, powerfully describe what it's like to live inside a changing mind. And Lubbock's story of is also reminiscent of Susan Schaller's classic A Man Without Words. Schaller tells the opposite story: as an ASL teacher, she befriends a deaf man who has never learned to speak or sign, and teaches him, at the age of 27, the first words he's ever known. Once he can speak, the man explains what it's like to live without language. You can hear Schaller tell the story in the Radiolab episode "Words."

All of these stories approach, from different angles, the same question: how much of me doesn't have to be thought or spoken? For most of us, this is a question we can only ask in the abstract. It's a question these people have lived through.

Lubbock is pictured the day before his first surgery; photo from The Guardian.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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