The book recounts Sacks’s own experience as a patient, recovering from a severe injury to his left leg.
He describes experiencing his leg as an alien thing, little more than a pillar of chalk attached to him but unconnected to him, no longer part of his bodily experience of himself. Then, in an extraordinary ten-minute period during a physiotherapy session, his sense of his own leg began to come back to him, dramatically and, at first, erratically.
But then his therapists urge him to walk, and he simply cannot imagine how it is to be done. With some prompting, he is able to move a few steps, but only hesitantly and mechanically, relying entirely on visual cues.
. . . as if I was operating a peculiarly clumsy, and unstable, robotic contraption, an absolutely ludicrous artificial leg. I cannot convey, except in this way, how strange this pseudo-walking was – how entirely lacking in any sense, and, conversely, how overloaded with a painstaking mechanical exactitude and caution. I found it a matter of the most elaborate and exhausting and tedious computation. It was locomotion of a sort, but unanimal, unhuman (p.144.)
He began to worry that he would never get back the feel of “true walking”.
And suddenly – into the silence, the silent twittering of motionless frozen images – came music, glorious music, Mendelssohn, fortissimo! Joy, life, intoxicating movement! And, as suddenly, without thinking, without intending whatever, I found myself walking, easily-joyfully, with the music. And, as suddenly, in the moment that this inner music started, the Mendelssohn which had been summoned and hallucinated by my soul, and in the very moment that my “motor” music, my kinetic melody, my walking, came back – in this self-same moment the leg came back. Suddenly, with no warning, no transition whatever, the leg felt alive, and real, and mine, its moment of actualization precisely consonant with the spontaneous quickening, walking and music. I was just turning back from the corridor to my room – when out of the blue this miracle occurred – the music, the walking, the actualization all in one. And now, as suddenly, I was absolutely certain – I believed in my leg, I knew how to walk . . . (pp.144-5)
Reading this for the first time in many years, I am now struck by the suggestion that a kind of music is at the root of the way in which we are real to ourselves, the way in which we experience ourselves as embodied beings.