Oliver Sacks is a physician gifted in seeing the concrete, individual plights of patients and exploring his insights in medical essays that lead the reader to perceive the marvelous in the mundane, the beautiful in the twisted and suffering, the meaning in the individual rather than a disease possessing an individual. He is best known for his 1985 collection of essays entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales and for his 1973 book Awakenings, based on his work with postencephalitic patients; this volume led to a British documentary and subsequently became the basis for an American film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Sacks’ first book, Migraine (1970), foreshadows his sensitivity to patients. A scholarly study accessible to the educated public, the book explores case histories that reveal Sacks’ concern for the individual. He sees migraine as an event that is not just physical, but “emotional and symbolic” as well. He also carefully traces records of the illness and describes cases from history, such as the visions of the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen, whose drawings he reproduces to complement the text.
In Awakenings, Sacks’ “clinical tale” comes of age as he characterizes Parkinsonism and describes the pandemic of “sleeping-sickness” of 1916–17 that left thousands of patients in a Parkinsonian state of suspended animation often lasting many years. Sacks’ work in the late 1960s, administering the drug L-dopa to patients whose consciousness had often remained suspended since their youth, led to stunning “awakenings.” Some remained trapped in an earlier time, unable to realize that 40 years had passed. The patients’ responses varied, with some able to adapt and find new lives, while others regretted being brought into a strange new world, and some tragically relapsed. What sets Sacks apart as an essayist is his sensitivity to the human plight of these individuals, quoting the patients’ observations and sympathetically describing them.
Sacks’ central essay in Awakenings, “Perspectives,” exemplifies his wide reading not only in medical texts but in literature and philosophy, all of which he weaves into his commentary on the L-dopa experiment. Contending that we can fight our own maladies by inner strength, Sacks turns to everyday language, to what he calls “metaphysical” terms we use for things that are not measurable. In explaining the resources this language provides, Sacks eloquently explores the effects of metaphors on modern medicine and its patients; he notes the destructive effects of the mechanistic world view—traceable to Newton, Locke, and Descartes—that has reduced human beings to mechanisms and systems that can be measured with a misled notion of objectivity. In place of the reductionist approach of modern medicine, Sacks extols a language that includes both the individual patient and a larger view of nature, both the particular and the general.
Fragmenting human beings in order to explain, measure, and cure is, for Sacks, a form of blindness in modern medicine.
Sacks’ widely read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat describes unique patients with unexpected neurological deficits, such as that of the title character, a music professor for whom faces had become puzzles and the world a muddle of abstractions.
While he retained his musical abilities, his perceptual abilities waned so that once, searching for his hat, he placed his hand on his wife’s head as if to pick it up. In his preface, Sacks laments the decline of the clinical tale since the i^th century, comparing such tales to classical fables, for both have heroes, battles, martyrs, and archetypes. He suggests that we need to look for new symbols and myths, such as are richly represented in narratives of the sick. Here he describes himself as both “a naturalist and a physician,” “a theorist and dramatist” who is intrigued not only by science by also by the “romantic.”
Sympathetic observation and dramatization characterize Sacks’ approach to the essay, just as his wide readings in literature and in neurology characterize his style.
A Leg to Stand On (1984) is Sacks’ account of his own experience as a patient. He describes his encounters with aloof members of the medical community who refuse to accept his damaged proprioceptive sense after a fall. For Sacks, a broken leg simply ceased to be there; his existential horror is juxtaposed to his physicians’ impatience with something that cannot be “measured.” Sacks details his own turn toward a new philosophical and medical position, requiring an archetypal journey/narrative, a reading of an old volume on neurosurgery on a train ride, and an avowed determination to embrace “the ideal of a humane medicine,” a “heretical” science.
In Seeing Voices (1989) Sacks explores the world of the deaf, which he treats as a “culture” to avoid terms of “dysfunction” or “disease.” Approaching this marginalized culture, Sacks reveals not only the neurological potential among deaf people, but the equally exciting latent potential for all human beings. As he explores the visual potential of American Sign Language, Sacks investigates the possibilities for the hearing culture to expand both left-brain and right-brain capabilities through Sign. In Sign’s linguistic use of space Sacks finds a challenging extra dimension.
Finally, in An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), Sacks pursues not only clinical tales, but personal follow-ups that give insight into the individuals he describes, all of whom have experienced some inexplicable neurological condition: Tourette’s syndrome—in which the individual compulsively touches him/herself, others, or objects, and often swears unexpectedly, but can function calmly while singing, flying a plane, or performing surgery—and autism—in which the individual may be isolated from other human beings but may have a remarkable talent, as for instance a young man who can draw in minute detail buildings he saw days or even years ago.
In all his texts, Sacks’ focus is on how the anomaly affects the individual. His interest is more than clinical: it extends to the patient’s potential and relationship with the larger world, and what we can learn about ourselves from those whose neurological experiences are outside the norm. In these penetrating explorations of alternative worlds, Sacks demonstrates a concern for empathy, the role of language, and the role of the individual in the greater whole.
MARY ELLEN PITTS
Oliver Wolf Sacks. Born 9 July 1933 in London. Studied at St. Paul’s School, London;
Queen’s College, Oxford, B.A., 1954; Middlesex Hospital, London, M.A., B.M., B.Ch., 1958. Intern in medicine, surgery, and neurology, Middlesex Hospital, 1958–60; moved to the United States, 1960; rotating intern, Mt. Zion Hospital, San Francisco, 1961–62;
resident in neurology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1965-65. Fellow in neuropathology and neurochemistry, 1965–66, instructor in neurology, 1966–75, assistant professor, 1975–78, associate professor, 1978–85, and clinical professor of neurology, from 1985, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York; consultant neurologist, Bronx State Hospital, from 1966, and at the Little Sisters of the Poor, New York. Fellow, American Academy of Neurology.
Awards: Hawthornden Prize, for Awakenings, 1974; Felix Mart-Albanez Award, 1987; American Psychiatric Association Oskar Pfister Award, 1988; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1989; Harold D.Vursell Memorial Award, 1989; Odd Fellows Award, 1990; University of Southern California Scriptor Award, 1991; honorary degrees from four universities.
Essays and Related Prose
Awakenings, 1973; revised editions, 1976, 1982, 1991
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales, 1985
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, 1995
Other writings: a book on migraines (1970), A Leg to Stand On (1984), a memoir about being a patient, and Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (1989).
Comprone, Joseph, “Reading Oliver Sacks in a Writing-Across-theCurriculum Course,” Journal of Advanced Composition 8, nos. 1–2 (1988):158–66
Hawkins, Anne Hunsaker, “Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings: Reshaping Clinical Discourse,” Configurations 1, no. 2 (1993):229–45
Hawkins, Anne Hunsaker, “The Myth of Cure and the Process of Accommodation:
Reconsidering Awakenings,” Medical Humanities Review (Spring 1994):9–21 Kusnetz, Ella, “The Soul of Oliver Sacks,” Massachusetts Review 33, no. 2 (1992):175– 98
McRae, Murdo William, “Oliver Sacks’ Neurology of Identity,” in The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing, edited by Murdo William McRae, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993:97–110
Pitts, Mary Ellen, “Reflective Scientists and the Critique of Mechanistic Metaphor,” in The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing, edited by Murdo William McRae, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993:249–90
Pitts, Mary Ellen, “Toward a Dialectic of the Open End: The Scientist as Writer and the Revolution Against Measurement,” Centennial Review 38, no. 1 (1994):179–204
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