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Extraordinary; a work of genius
on August 19, 2001
These are true tales from a clinical neurologist's notebook, but this isn't just any neurologist. Oliver Sacks, author of the justly celebrated, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1986) and Awakenings (1973), which was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, and other works, is a gifted writer with a fine sense of story and an even finer sense of humanity. He has a style, how shall I say, both affecting and fascinating, yet studiously objective, a style laced with footnotes and clinical observations, historical comparisons and wisdom. Part of the power of these tales, and of all of Sacks's work, is his ability to be totally engaged and to identify with the subject while part of him is off to the side observing with scientific impartiality. This makes for a compelling read. If you've never read Sacks before, you are in for a very special treat.
These tales are paradoxical because "Defects, disorders, diseases" can bring out "latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen or even be imaginable, in their absence." It is this "<creative> potential, that forms the central theme of this book" (from Sacks's Preface, page xvi).
The first tale, "The Case of the Colorblind Painter" is about a successful artist who worked in color all his life only to became colorblind at age sixty-five, and the effect this had on his life and work. The second, "The Last Hippie" is about an amnesiac man with a frontal lobe tumor that left him stranded in the sixties. Sacks tells this sad, pathetic story with vivid detail, and characteristically ends it with a footnote, a footnote of such warmth and genuine identification that we are moved to tears. (Don't skip the footnotes!)
The third tale, "A Surgeon's Life," is an amazing account of a Canadian surgeon with Tourette's syndrome. It is here that we begin to see the central theme of this book in brilliant illumination. Dr. Carl Bennett, riddled with the bizarre tics characteristic of the disorder, compulsions that cause him to throw things, to touch things again and again in a ritualistic manner, to flail, jump and jerk about, nonetheless became a very successful (and beloved) doctor of surgery. Sacks scrubs up with Dr. Bennett and goes into surgery with him, during which, miraculously, the tics disappear for however long it takes to complete the surgery. Sacks visits him at home and meets his wife and two children, sees the dents in the refrigerator and on the walls, and comes away with a sense of how astounding the human potential to overcome adversity can be.
The fourth tale, "To See and Not See," is about partially restored sight and how it was not a blessing. This sad story illustrates how sight is learned from infancy and is largely a constructive and interpretive function of the brain. This tale also lets us see how the world of the sightless can be rich and fulfilling beyond our imagination.
In the fifth tale, "The Landscape of His Dreams, we meet a gifted artist, Franco Magnani, who from memory alone recreates his home town of Pontito, Italy through his paintings. He has a nearly photographic, three-dimensional memory, but because of a strange illness that befell him when he was thirty-one, he cares only to re-create his Pontito, not the people or events, but the houses, the masonry, the stones, and he does so continually with microscopic and affecting detail.
The chapter "Prodigies," focuses on an autistic artist, Stephen Wiltshire, whom Sacks is determined to befriend and understand. In this tale, and the concluding tale, "An Anthropologist on Mars," Sacks helps us to penetrate the world of the autistic and see it (at least in my interpretation) as an alternate view of reality, a view with its own strengths and weaknesses, a world that is just as true and valid as the "normal" one. Of course severe autism is debilitating in the extreme, and even modest autism can permanently scar and alienate the autistic from society. Yet, perhaps that is society's loss. I even got the sense, in reading these concluding stories about autism, that perhaps theirs is an evolutionary "strategy" trying to emerge, that is, a different way of seeing and dealing with the world that also might work. I would not be shocked to discover some day that the autistic, with their sometimes extraordinary gifts of memory and concentration, are melded more completely and seamlessly into our usual consciousness, and that humankind is the better for it. Incidentally, the last tale about Temple Grandin, who is a professor of animal studies at Colorado State University, is remarkable because it is about an autistic who is completely integrated into the society, yet remains autistic. She is the one who says she sometimes feels, because of her different perspective, like "an anthropologist on Mars" when she views "normal" people. Sacks allows us to see why.
Bottom line: this is an extraordinary book of insight and scholarship about the human condition, written with grace and a deep sense of humanity, not to be missed.