"The President's Speech" from
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
by Oliver Sacks, 1985:
What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia
ward, just as the President's speech was coming on, and they had all
been so eager to hear the President speaking...
There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his
histrionisms, his emotional appeal - and all the patients were convulsed with
laughter. Well, not all: some looked bewildered, some looked outraged, one or
two looked apprehensive, but most looked amused. The President was, as always,
moving - but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. What could
they be thinking? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps,
understand him all too well?
It was often said of these patients, who though intelligent had the severest
receptive or global aphasia, rendering them incapable of understanding words
as such, that they none the less understood most of what was said to them.
Their friends, their relatives, the nurses who knew them well, could hardly
believe, sometimes, that they were aphasic.
This was because, when addressed naturally, they grasped some or most
of the meaning. And one does speak 'naturally', naturally.
Thus, to demonstrate their aphasia, one had to go to extraordinary
lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove
all the extraverbal cues - tone of voice, intonation, suggestive
emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one's expressions,
one's gestures, one's entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire
and posture): one had to remove all of this (which might involve total
concealment of one's person, and total depersonalisation of one's voice,
even to using a computerised voice synthesiser) in order to reduce speech
to pure words, speech totally devoid of what Frege called 'tone-colour'
(Klangenfarben) or 'evocation'. With the most sensitive
patients, it was only with such a grossly artificial, mechanical
speech - somewhat like that of the computers in Star Trek -
that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia.
Why all this? Because speech - natural speech - does not
consist of words alone, nor (as Hughlings Jackson thought) 'propositions'
alone. It consists of utterance - an uttering-forth of one's
whole meaning with one's whole being - the understanding of which involves
infinitely more than mere word-recognition. And this was the clue to
aphasiacs' understanding, even when they might be wholly uncomprehending
of words as such. For though the words, the verbal constructions,
per se, might convey nothing, spoken language is normally
suffused with 'tone', embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the
verbal - and it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various,
so complex, so subtle, which is perfectly preserved in aphasia, though
understanding of words be destroyed. Preserved - and often more:
This too becomes clear - often in the most striking, or comic, or dramatic
way - to all those who work or live closely with aphasiacs: their families
or friends or nurses or doctors. At first, perhaps, we see nothing much the
matter; and then we see that there has been a great change, almost an
inversion, in their understanding of speech. Something has gone, has been
devastated, it is true - but something has come, in its stead, has been
immensely enhanced, so that - at least with emotionally-laden utterance -
the meaning may be fully grasped even when every word is missed. This, in
our species Homo loquens, seems almost an inversion of the usual order
of things: an inversion, and perhaps a reversion too, to something more
primitive and elemental. And this perhaps is why Hughlings Jackson compared
aphasiacs to dogs (a comparison that might outrage both!) though when he did
this he was chiefly thinking of their linguistic incompetences, rather than
their remarkable, and almost infallible, sensitivity to 'tone' and feeling.
Henry Head, more sensitive in this regard, speaks of 'feeling-tone' in his
(1926) treatise on aphasia, and stresses how it is preserved, and often
enhanced, in aphasiacs.*
* 'Feeling-tone' is a favourite term of Head's, which he uses in regard not
only to aphasia but to the affective quality of sensation, as it may be
altered by thalmic or peripheral disorders. Our impression, indeed, is that
Head is continually half-unconsciously drawn towards the exploration of
'feeling-tone' - towards, so to speak, a neurology of feeling-tone, in
contrast or complementarity to a classical neurology of proposition and
process. It is, incidentally, a common term in the U.S.A., at least among
blacks in the South: a common, earthy and indispensable term. 'You see,
there's such a thing as a feeling tone...And if you don't have this, baby,
you've had it' (cited by Studs Terkel as epigraph to his 1967 oral history
Division Street: America).
Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with
aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your
words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with
infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the
words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never
be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily...
We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose - to pick
up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be
trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we - so susceptible to
words - cannot trust our own instincts.
And what dogs can do here, aphasiacs do too, and at a human and immeasurably
superior level. 'One can lie with the mouth,' Nietzsche writes, 'but with
the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.' To such a grimace,
to any falsity or impropriety in bodily appearance or posture, aphasiacs are
preternaturally sensitive. And if they cannot see one - this is especially
true of our blind aphasiacs - they have an infallible ear for every vocal
nuance, the tone, the rhythm, the cadences, the music, the subtlest
modulations, inflections, intonations, which can give - or remove -
verisimilitude to or from a man's voice.
In this, then, lies their power of understanding - understanding, without
words, what is authentic or inauthentic. Thus it was the grimaces, the
histrionisms, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and
cadences of the voice, which rang false for these wordless but immensely
sensitive patients. It was to these (for them) most glaring, even grotesque,
incongruities and improprieties that my aphasic patients responded,
undeceived and undeceivable by words.
This is why they laughed at the President's speech.
If one cannot lie to an aphasiac, in view of his special sensitivity to
expression and 'tone', how is it, we might ask, with patients - if there
are such - who lack any sense of expression and 'tone',
while preserving, unchanged, their comprehension for words: patients
of an exactly opposite kind? We have a number of such patients, also
on the aphasia ward, although, technically, they do not have aphasia,
but, instead, a form of agnosia, in particular a so-called
'tonal' agnosia. For such patients, typically, the expressive qualities
of voices disappear - their tone, their timbre, their feeling, their
entire character - while words (and grammatical constructions) are
perfectly understood. Such tonal agnosias (or 'atonias') are associated
with disorders of the right temporal lobe of the brain,
whereas the aphasias go with disorders of the left temporal
Among the patients with tonal agnosia on our aphasia ward who also listened
to the President's speech was Emily D. , with a glioma in her right temporal
lobe. A former English teacher, and poetess of some repute, with an exceptional
feeling for language, and strong powers of analysis and expression, Emily D.
was able to articulate the opposite situation - how the President's speech
sounded to someone with tonal agnosia. Emily D. could no longer tell if a
voice was angry, cheerful, sad - whatever. Since voices now lacked expression,
she had to look at people's faces, their postures and movements when they
talked, and found herself doing so with a care, an intensity , she had never
shown before. But this, it so happened, was also limited, because she had a
malignant glaucoma, and was rapidly losing her sight too.
What she then found she had to do was to pay extreme attention to
exactness of words and word use, and to insist that those around her
did just the same. She could less and less follow loose speech or
slang - speech of an allusive or emotional kind - and more and more
required of her interlocutors that they speak prose -
'proper words in proper places'. Prose, she found, might compensate,
in some degree; for lack of perceived tone or feeling.
In this way she was able to preserve, even enhance, the use of 'expressive'
speech - in which the meaning was wholly given by the apt choice and reference
of words - despite being more and more lost with 'evocative' speech (where
meaning is wholly given in the use and sense of tone).
Emily D. also listened, stony-faced, to the President's speech, bringing to
it a strange mixture of enhanced and defective perceptions - precisely the
opposite mixture to those of our aphasiacs. It did not move her - no speech
now moved her - and all that was evocative, genuine or false completely
passed her by. Deprived of emotional reaction, was she then (like the rest
of us) transported or taken in? By no means. 'He is not cogent,' she said.
'He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-
damaged, or he has something to conceal.' Thus the President's speech did
not work for Emily D. either, due to her enhanced sense of formal language
use, propriety as prose, any more than it worked for our aphasiacs, with
their word-deafness but enhanced sense of tone.
Here then was the paradox of the President's speech. We normals - aided,
doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled
('Populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur'). And so cunningly
was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the
brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.