In the second act of Verdi's Otello, the malevolent Iago begins to weave the net of jealousy and deception in which he will capture the soul of his noble, passionate, gullible general. He insinuates that the Moor's young wife, Desdemona, is involved with Otello's lieutenant, Cassio. From this point on, every innocent act or statement by Desdemona to Cassio serves only to confirm Otello's growing conviction that his wife has been unfaithful. The opera commences its ineluctable drive toward its tragic outcome: murder, suicide, the destruction of a happy marriage, the disastrous conclusion of a glorious career.
When the San Diego Opera put on the first performance of their recent production of Otello, many members of the audience were conscious of a second level of dramatic action. The lead tenor, Giuseppe Giacomini, had been ailing with a respiratory infection, and although he had heroically determined to sing that Saturday night, no one could be certain whether he would get through the role. Would we witness another tragedy of a sort different from that intended by Shakespeare, Boito (the librettist), and Verdi?
But while all this was going on, no one but me knew that a third drama was taking place in the Civic Theatre and that it too was potentially tragic. No one knew it because the setting of that drama was the interior of my own skull. The critic, by the nature of his profession, stands outside of drama, observing, analyzing, empathizing, but not taking part. In this instance, both Otello's actions and Giacomini's had assume for me the status of plays within a play, subordinate dramas reflecting a more important drama: silently, relentlessly, unobserved by the audience intent on the state, something monstrous was happening to me.
To make this interior drama intelligible, I must go back a bit in time and supply some necessary background information, of the sort one might find in program notes outlining the antecedents of a complicated plot. Two weeks before that evening, I had returned home after a long and rewarding day (writing, teaching, an invigorating run on the beach, a fascinating evening seminar on the unconscious) and had climbed into bed with the latest copy of the British journal Gramophone, to do some light reading before going to sleep. I read on for a while, feeling comfortable, mildly interested, and generally soothed, until in the middle of a review of Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony (a work that asserts the power of the life force over nihilism and despair) I found myself reading the same sentence over and over again, without quite registering what the writer was trying to say. This happens not infrequently when one is tired or distracted, so I concentrated my attention and reread the sentence slowly and carefully. What I read was something like this: "The opening has an imposing immediately further repetition as it does from impeccable." Gramophone is excellently edited and proofread, so that such a sentence seemed to indicate some terrible breakdown in the journal's usual procedures. I tried it again: "The opghni hms in rbposbni dmmlately gruhtre...." This was no good; what was happening? I screwed up my eyes and focused with the most intense sharpness on one of the words. But by this time, I could not even perceive the little black strokes on the page as letters representing sounds; they looked like arbitrary marks meaning nothing at all.
Laying the journal down, I considered the situation and evaluated it as highly undesirable. Evidently the wise thing to do would be to get help. The telephone is next to my bed. I lifted the receiver with the intention of calling B., a close friend who lives about a mile away down the coast. But in spite of the fact that I ordinarily know his number by heart, I found that at that moment I could not remember it. Indeed, I could not even remember his name. With the receiver suspended in my hand, I tried to think of someone else to call, but I could not remember the name of a single person I knew. After pondering a moment or two, I decided to look in my address book, expecting that the names there would jog my unaccountably recalcitrant memory. I soon was reminded that I was no longer able to read; all the names and phone numbers appeared as mere gibberish.
These impairments of language were familiar to me from the condition of a friend's elderly father and from Arthur Kopit's play Wings. I supposed I must be having a stroke. However, I could not retrieve the word "stroke" — or, for that matter, any word at all. I was now thinking (so far as I could perceive it) without words. My thought processes seemed inordinately slow, as though, having been deprived of my usual swift medium of thinking, I had to make do with something heavier, more unwieldy, more primitive. But the thoughts themselves, sluggish as they were, seemed cogent. "If I can't phone B.," I thought (except that I thought it without the use of language), "I can get up....drive to this house....I know where he lives...." But if my reading ability and my memory were so terribly impaired, I thought, I might also discover that I had forgotten how to drive or that I could not distinguish between a red light and a green one. The safest thing to do, I wordlessly concluded, was to stay where I was and do nothing until either my consciousness (and perhaps my life) was snuffed out altogether or I regained enough of my faculties to take some useful action. So I lay there and waited.
After a while, I noticed that things were starting to change — fortunately in the direction of recovery. I still could not remember B.'s name, but his phone number came back to me. I called him. The moment I heard his voice, I remembered his first name — though not the last one. I searched for words to describe my condition and managed to dredge up a simple vocabulary and to use it in short sentences. As we talked, and with occasional promptings from him, I recovered more and more of my memory. Soon I was thinking and speaking normally; a glance at the discarded Gramophone proved I could once again read. The entire episode, as I found out by consulting the bedside clock, had occupied twenty minutes.