The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was the first book by Oliver Sacks I ever read, and what a beauty it was with its elegant text and touching content. I was an instant fan, and then, as now, I become deeply irritated when a few reviewers accuse him of exploiting his patients for his own literary gain. Because Sacks’ patients are not just oddly afflicted, they are deeply human. The author‘s respect for them and their humanity is the warp and woof of every essay he writes at the same time as the text helps illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory, individuality, and in his latest book—The Mind’s Eye—language.
The book, reviewed by Mehan Crist in the November 14 Los Angeles Times, is about our subjective experience of the world and the ways in which we try to describe it.
While most scientists will describe a neurological anomaly’s biological and mechanical causes in all their complexity, they will refuse attention to what Sacks calls “its qualitative and subject aspects.” But what happens neurologically doesn’t just happen; the fact is that it is experienced. Why do we have this extra dimension? Why do we experience anything at all? Some scientists will argue that unless what we’re interested in is objective, measurable truth, it isn’t science at all. But Sacks believes that if we don’t ask it about the subjective experience of it, we’re missing something of great importance, and possibly even what’s central.
We must try to imagine our way into minds unlike our own.
The Times reviewer describes a conversation Sacks has with Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who has turned her autism into extraordinary insights into nonhuman behavior. “When he admits to her, who “thinks entirely in terms of literal images she has seen before, that he cannot summon visual images at will,” she is baffled: “How do you think then?” Here lies the fundamental tension between perception and language; How do you translate mental experience into words?”
Sacks finds again and again that people who are radically different from one another seem unable to imagine the perceptions of others at the same time as he urges the reader to try, and in fact spends the book helping us to do so. Among these essays is one where he describes his own recent experience with ocular melanoma where people turned into bizarre, elongated, El Greco-like figures, tilted to the left—they made me think of the insectlike Selenites pictured in my edition of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Faces in particular would develop translucent, puffy, almost protoplasmic protuberances, like a Francis Bacon portrait.
Certainly, Sacks’ description of his own condition is powerful.
Writes the reviewer: The Mind’s Eye expresses a stubborn hope that rests on language, “that most human invention,” which Sacks says can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.
And if that’s true, then the writer is not just one more possible purveyor of truth, he or she is essential to our understanding of ourselves and each other.