Tom Lubbock was the Chief Art Critic for the Independent newspaper in the UK. He was known to many for his weekly column where for five years he wrote with brilliance and passion about a piece of art, usually a painting.
He died in 2011, at the age of 53, of a brain tumour that struck at the speech and language part of his brain. He made his living, and his life’s meaning, from words, and it was to words he turned during the short years of his illness. Despite surgery and treatment he continued to work, also turning his intelligence and humour to his own predicament, producing a memoir called ‘Until Further Notice I am Alive’. As he gradually loses the ability to speak and even to form words into sentences in his mind he movingly charts his inner experience, with every word hard won, and increasingly ungraspable, slipping through his fingers like water.
Naturally his investigation turns to his relationship with language. He writes about the “mystery of summoning up words”.
“Where are they in the mind, in the brain? They appear to be an agency from nowhere. They exist somewhere in our ground, or in our air. They come from an unknown darkness. From a place we don’t normally think about”.
At first, he equates losing language along with the understanding of speech and writing, with the loss of his mind.
“These losses will amount to the loss of my mind. I know what this feels like and it has no insides, no internal echo. Mind means talking to oneself. There wouldn’t be any secret mind surviving in me.”
But then, as he stays with the experiences that have piqued his lively curiosity, later he continues
“I am faced practically and continually with a mystery that other people have no conception of, the mystery of the generation of speech. There is no command situation (in the mind), it goes back and back. Where the self lies at the heart of the utterance – the speaker generating the word – is always clouded. (my italics)
I think here that Tom Lubbock was hitting on the mystery of the nature of self, the lack of ‘command central’ or ‘manager in charge’. He came up close to the obscured and cloudy inner view, expecting to see something that would confirm his sense of self-identity, and was not able to do so.
This is the territory we investigate with curiosity when we recognise thoughts as thoughts and start to see their ephemeral and intangible nature. What seem so powerful and influential arise and disappear in a moment if we don’t hold on to them. Because of the damage to his brain it was more difficult for Tom to generate or hold on to thoughts, and so had a similar experience to the meditator. The sense that we are our thoughts can’t hold up to the scrutiny of awareness and the power of interest.
As Tom’s language decreased to the point where he was able to put just a handful of sentences together in his mind in a day he noticed something further; as thoughts and language were disappearing, something that I would call awareness was still there. ‘Knowing’ or ‘noticing’, ‘paying attention’ and ‘recognising’ were still on-line, and his experience was undiminished.
“But I find my brain is still busy, moving, thinking. I am surprised. 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, (the) 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!”
It is impossible to know exactly what someone else means through their words, but I resonate with Tom Lubbock’s, and his journey exploring the nature of consciousness and its relationship to thoughts and language.
I think this journey was only made possible through his curiosity, his courage and good humour and his fierce love of life. His wife, the artist Marion Coutts describes his attitude “Tom’s illness was our disaster and our adventure” and in his own words “generally, it (life) is wonderful. We are interested.”
If we can bring even a little of this attitude to our own lives, who knows what we would be able to comprehend of the nature of experience.