(Note: This post is utterly unrelated to the one below it.)

Somewhere in Silas Weir Mitchell’s voluminous correspondence on the brain damage of Civil War veterans—my notes are in California, I’m now in Texas—is an account of a Confederate soldier whose bullet-struck head recoiled into a dry-stone wall and performed a fortuitous auto-trepanation.  The insult to his brain had been mitigated by the hole in head, but Mitchell feared the soldier would never regain normal cognitive function.  As time tripped over nothing, cursed in tongues, begged passersby for aid and, roundly rebuffed, stumbled on, the soldier slowly found himself again.  Eventually he could move, see, speak, form new memories and remember the old ones.  He was as he’d been before the war, but for the brutal fact he saw in still life:

The dog is across the room curled before the fire.

Blink.

The dog is on its hind legs staring out the window.

Blink.

The dog is in the middle of the room facing him.

Blink.

The dog is sinking its wet nose into the crook of his arm.

Blink.

The dog is across the room curled before the fire.

The soldier suffered what we now call akinetopsia or motion blindess.*  The effect represented by crude blinks above is better, if more crudely, represented about 5 minutes and 14 seconds into this clip, which captures the fear and paranoia Mitchell assumed would accompany akinetopsia.  Items like fans would be particularly disturbing because they produced a constant impression upon the skin by a process undetectable to the patient, for whom the blades would jump—jump—jump instead of spinning.  But Mitchell was less concerned with akinetopsia itself than one of its side-effects: the ghostly motion trails produced by items in motion.

Stand835899759_3a33e04c05_b before a motion-blind person, do a jumping jack, and he will describe two scenes: a first in which your arms are at your sides, and a second in which your arms stand solid above your head, but are followed by a faint trace of the space they traveled, like the long exposure photograph on the right (original) only far less pronounced.  Mitchell believed these traces might be related to what would have been his crowning achievement were it not for Charlotte Perkins Gilman: phantom limb syndrome.

Normal brains need not speculate as to how your arm moved from Point A to Point B because it registered Points A.001 up through A.999; that is, it receives sequential sense impressions of your arm as it travels from hips to head.**  A motion-blind brain only receives sensory impressions from Points A and B, but because it knows arms must move through space, it compensates for what it can’t perceive by drawing diaphanous snow-angels in the air.  It does so, Mitchell believed, because even damaged brains know how they ought to behave.  They know what stimuli they should be receiving and, in their absence, choose to receive them anyway.  For Mitchell, the brain is but a forlorn lover refusing to acknowledge its loss: lop off an arm at the elbow and it will insist on clenching former fingers in an invisible fist; chop off a leg above the knee and unreal calves will burn with the exertion of a marathon completed.

The ghostly trails seen by the motion-blind are simply a different manifestation of the same stubborn insistence Nothing has Changed and Everything is Under Control.  The brain insists on stasis while compensating madly, all the while praying the mind never notices its frenzied machinations.

Sometimes it does.

Every time it steps into the city it does.  Imagine being motion-blind on a bustling street corner with hundreds of vehicles teleporting blocks, their trails overlapping and intermingling with those of trucks turning left, cabs turning right, pedestrians hustling, pigeons scattering, garbage flying, dust rising, wind whipping, rain falling.  The mind becomes exhausted by the brain’s exertions.  Put differently:

The brain finds it difficult to confabulate in real time when presented with minimal stimuli.  Offer it a highly trafficked Philadelphia street corner and it performs like a self-taught cook in a trendy restaurant: the first few orders trickle in and go out fine, but as more people arrive and more orders come in, less time is spent preparing more food until what little goes out tastes of shit.  Given foreknowledge of what would be ordered by whom when, our home-schooled chef might could prep himself into something resembling competent; that is, if presented with a narrative, an adequately prepared amateur might survive evening service by remembering the broad strokes.

Because for Mitchell, narrative is all that stands between us and tastes of shit.  The historian is kin to our overwhelmed chef, our motion-blind pedestrian, our auto-trepanned soldier attempting to relate what happened without the benefit of an overarching narrative.  The historian not only tries to document Points A.001 through A.999, he interleaves a marching causality of the insignificant and irrelevant until the Real Reasons and True Character of historical actors are swamped by waves as pointless as they are ceaseless.  What does a person learn from such history?

If it looks and sounds like a horse, it’s probably a zebra.

The only way to be sure people recognize a horse when they see one is to tattoo the concept on their brain in stirring historical romances of crystalline moral intent and transparent moral purpose.  The historian who subdivides unto infinity produces a history equivalent to the blurred image of the motion-blind.  Why recreate in prose the muddle of a brain insulted?  To try and replicate the exertions of a healthy brain is to court inevitable failure.

Better to replicate the brain-smoothed illusion of movement lost to the motion-blind via a historical romance about How Great George Washington Was.***


*Current medical literature focuses on “L.M.,” whose infamous daily horror is knowing when to stop pouring liquids.  She sees (1) a full pitcher, (2) the pitcher titled over a cup, an icicle suspended from its lip, (3) an empty pitcher, an overfull cup, and a table covered in quiet puddles.  I didn’t say it was infamous because it was particularly compelling.  Because it isn’t.  (Even though everyone cites it as if it were.)

**I know A.0011, A.0012, A.oo13 and their infinite kin prevent turtles from ever crossing finish lines, Achilleses from ever overtaking turtles, puppies from ever escaping alligators or whichever mammalian-reptilian mathematical NASCAR you fancy, but bear with me.

***Before you berate me for my conclusions not following my premises; my science being applied here in this way, there in that; or my nonsensical application of early neuroscientific theories of mind to judgments concerning the relative merits of history proper and historical romance—before you cudgel me for all that, remember Mitchell was a gentleman given to public pontification, not Hegel.