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Like his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales brings together several of the neurologist’s most provocative case studies. Sacks’ subject is not simply pathology, but what he calls “the paradox of disease”—specifically, the brain’s extraordinary ability to compensate for debilitating structural and cognitive abnormalities. Indeed, Sacks goes so far as to argue for a new definition of disease, one that incorporates its capacity for unleashing “latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen or even be imaginable in [its] absence.”
Sacks bucks the conventional model for medical literature. Though he writes in the context of a highly specialized field, Sacks’ primary concern is telling his subjects’ stories. The neurologist’s sense of “the narrative of disease”—in both the clinical and literary sense—is evidently an inherited one. Sacks writes of his 90-year-old father, also a physician, who was urged by the family to limit his workload. “At least drop the house calls,” they argued. “No,” he replied, “I’ll keep the house calls—I’ll drop everything else instead.”
The author’s excursions into medical history and neurology are often quite technical, yet Sacks’ explanations seldom lack for telling human detail. In “The Case of the Colorblind Painter,” for example, Sacks describes an artist who, after an accident, is able to see only minimally differentiated shades of gray. So great is the painter’s desire to restore some normalcy to his life that he considers replacing his brown dog with a high-contrast black-and-white Dalmatian.
There is always the potential for works like Mars to take on a certain sideshow quality. It is to Sacks’ credit that his subjects—who include autistics, the blind, and people with brain damage and Tourette’s syndrome—evoke empathy more often than they do pity. Indeed, Sacks’ authorial voice almost disallows the “gee whiz” response. Writing of a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome (was there ever a set-up that so cried out for a punch line?) who leads a hospital staff meeting while curled on the floor with one leg jerking into the air, Sacks notes matter-of-factly that most would find “something bizarre” about the scene.
As in Sacks’ previous works, the consistently fascinating aspect of Mars is the extent to which it illuminates mental processes that are usually taken for granted—processes so integral to life that the term “taken for granted,” which implies conscious recognition and subsequent disregard, is not even appropriate. “To See and Not See,” for example, describes a man who lost his vision as a young boy and had it restored in late middle-age. One might assume that such a story would have a happy ending, but the reverse is true: Having spent a lifetime with touch as his primary perceptual mode, the patient is wholly unable to decipher the images provided by sight.
Perhaps more than any other topic raised in his book, Sacks is captivated by the philosophical issues inherent in autism. It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm, for such issues inevitably involve the age-old question of how humanity is defined. In the “Prodigies” chapter, Sacks ponders the question of whether a wondrously gifted autistic teen-ager can be an artist without having a traditionally quantifiable “self.” Though such conundrums sometimes find Sacks chasing his own tail, the neurologist finds them intellectually irresistible. Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin, a “high-functioning” autistic woman who authored the autobiography Emergence: Labeled Autistic, gave Sacks’ book its title. “I feel like an anthropologist on Mars,” Grandin says of her attempts to comprehend everyday human interaction. Coming very near the end of Sacks’ foray into the anthropology of the unfamiliar, Grandin’s neat role-reversal is a fitting coda for this remarkable work.
Oliver Sacks reads from An Anthropologist on Mars on Friday, Feb. 24, at Politics & Prose.