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  • Karl Thunemann

We Brothers Mull Prosopagnosia of the Soul.

by John Scarborough and Karl Thunemann

NOTE: In the preceding Keyboard, I reposted an earlier epistle about walking labyrinths as a meditative practice (reference follows). Back came this commentary from my brother, John Scarborough, whose recent silence has jeopardized his status as a “frequent contributor.” You could find his comment if you scrolled through the entire blog. But who has time for that?

John writes:

Yes but do all who enter the design (of the labyrinth) intend to go all the way to the center? Some may be happy to remain at the brink of the 5th ring. Mark Twain, who may not have attended all sessions of vacation Bible school, thought he would not enjoy the harps and angels of heaven. What if his district's angels couldn't hold a tune?

I've only walked a few labyrinths. While I always found my way to their centers, there may be some that, Sisyphean style, return you to the beginning. Or I may not recognize my labyrinth's center as such, a sort of prosopagnosia of the soul. Why do we believe—if

we are so prepared as to prime our inquiry with such sentences as "where do I need to find more clarity in my life"—that walking the labyrinth will deliver an answer we that we understand? That brings to mind a painting that I've often called to mind since first seeing it some 50 years ago. A long line of devout, focused pilgrims is trudging across a desert, eyes on the path directly before them. One man has fallen behind. He is looking, not ahead, but to the side. His face is bright, one might even say enlightened. His arms are stretched wide to welcome what he beholds.

Prosopagnosia of the soul … might look like this: I believe I have a soul, and I have often talked to it, perhaps to apologize for actions that might obscure it from my awareness, or perhaps to give thanks to it for allowing me this day …

Karl answers:

I have frequently lost my way in labyrinths, which I attribute to my tendency to pay poor attention to where I am going. (This is no doubt a factor in my tendency toward frequent falling, an outright scourge as I get older.)

John and I share many traits. One is face-blindness, the everyday term for

prosopagnosia. I had not recognized this trait until, in my early 70s, I read an article by Oliver Sacks that both named the condition and pointed out that it can run in families. That’s when John and I discovered this trait. My case is not as dire as Dr. Sacks,’ and I don’t know whether our parents or older sister—all deceased—were beset by it.

But without question, as I read about this trait I could see, yes, this is me. Soon I would come to believe that I had never seen a face I would not forget—including my own. (Although I usually remembered much about the person that went with the face.)

Portrait of the Faceless

So now, must we consider the prospect of prosopagnosia of the soul? On the one hand, we might dismiss it as a contradiction in terms. But I cannot do that! When I consider my back-and-forth connections to Buddhism and Taoism, it sometimes appears to operate like face-blindness. And Christianity, too. I was raised a Methodist, and it is Christianity that carried the spirit of the labyrinth through many centuries to be rediscovered in the 20th. I don’t know about John, but I wonder if—for some of us—such disorientation truly is rooted in our souls.

And John, with the final word:

Very kind of you to give me the last word in this exchange regarding labyrinths, Mark Twain, and face-blindness. But I’m pretty sure you would agree with me that there is no last word in anything, unless two parties in earnest conversation reach a silence so deep that neither needs to point it out to the other. That hasn’t happened yet in our conversations, and I hope it never will.

The sort of face-blindness Oliver Sachs wrote about was quite straightforward. It might look like this: I didn’t recognize the woman I met at a cocktail party last night, but she recognized me, and she remembered the heartfelt discussion we had had only a few years ago about transgender children. Had she mentioned our conversation before I failed to remember her name, I might have remembered her name, but without that, I only remembered it a few days later, emerging like a traffic light from a deep, sodden fog.

Prosopagnosia of the soul, on the other hand, might look like this: I believe I have a soul, and I have often talked to it, perhaps to apologize for actions that might obscure it from my awareness, or perhaps to give thanks to it for allowing me this day, as though my soul had special audience with the One who gives me life. I believe that my soul is what Vedanta calls Atman; and that Atman and Brahman are one. So if my soul has a face, and should speak to me, how would I possibly recognize it? And what would I recognize it as?

In this way I am caught in a non-dualistic dilemma. I am the one who says I am; I am the one who knows; I am the one who is, as the Kena Upanishad says, the Ear of the ear, the Mind of the mind. It – I -- is different from the known, and above the unknown.

I will not recognize my soul if it is other than myself, for it cannot be. I am blind to its face for it does not have one.


John Scarborough

Karl Thunemann


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