An Anthropologist on Mars (Magill Book Reviews)
Oliver Sacks, who is a practicing neurologist and academic, is also the author of five collections of case studies so empathetically presented and coherently written that they have appeared in such outlets as THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and THE NEW YORKER. To be sure, these case studies—in reality, essays—contain a good bit of scientific analysis, but Sacks’s footnotes are as likely to make literary references as they are to refer to scientific treatises.
“An Anthropologist on Mars” is the seventh, and last, essay in Sacks’s collection. Each of the seven is devoted to a single individual, each of whom is suffering from a different neurological malady. Perhaps none of them has made as complete a transition into the everyday world as Temple Grandin, a successful academic and businesswoman who is also autistic, but Sacks demonstrates how each has used his or her disorder to advantage. As Sacks’s subtitle indicates, these are paradoxical tales. The conundrum presented by such extreme cases as Temple Grandin becomes, in Sacks’s adept rendering, a parable of the whole human condition. In order to realize fully the common humanity he shares with the victims of neurological chance who are his subjects, Sacks has himself sometimes attempted through physical means to enter their worlds. Sacks’s efforts to bridge the gap between the normal and the abnormal and between himself and his subjects is not new. Few, however, have been able to marshall the compassion and deep understanding Sacks conveys in writing about the extraordinariness—even the advantages—inherent in the lives of those distinguished by disorders of the mind.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, January 15, 1995, p. 867.
Boston Globe. February 26, 1995, p. B15.
Chicago Tribune. March 5, 1995, p. F6.
Denver Post. March 12, 1995, p. E8.
The Lancet. CCCXV, June 24, 1995, p. 1622.
Library Journal. CXX, February 15, 1995, p. 172.
Los Angeles Times. February 16, 1995, p. E6.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, February 17, 1995, p. 40.
The New York Times Book Review. C, February 19, 1995, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, January 16, 1995, p. 449.
San Francisco Chronicle. February 16, 1995, p. E5.
Time. CXLV, March 20, 1995, p. 68.
The Wall Street Journal. March 2, 1995, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, March 5, 1995, p. 2.
Whole Earth Review. Summer, 1995, p. 94.
An Anthropologist on Mars (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Oliver Sacks, who has lived in the United States for more than half his life and who teaches clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, is also the author of several collections of case studies so empathically presented and coherently written that they have appeared in such venues as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. To be sure, these case studies—in reality, essays—contain a good bit of scientific analysis: for example, “The Case of the Colorblind Painter,” the first essay in An Anthropologist on Mars, features numerous lengthy footnotes detailing previous reports of similar neurological disorders. But Sacks’s footnotes are almost as likely to make literary analogies as they are to refer to scientific treatises (one note cites Homer’s use of such phrases as “the wine-dark sea” to illustrate the proposition that different cultures see colors dissimilarly).
By such means Sacks manages to fashion bridges between his extraordinary subjects and his lay readers. Although personages such as the Tourettic surgeon and the autistic savant certainly exhibit some bizarre symptoms as a result of their respective maladies, Sacks is careful to point out that the behavior of certain luminaries indicates that they, too, may have suffered from similar neurological problems: Samuel Johnson may have had Tourette’s, and Béla Bartók may have been autistic. Sacks’s most significant method of making his subjects accessible, however, is to make himself a participant in his own narratives. Thus readers meet Carl Bennett when Sacks meets him, and with Sacks they have the novel—and scary—experience of flying in a single-engine plane piloted by “the world’s only flying Touretter-surgeon,” as Bennett calls himself. Sacks does more than clinically describe Bennett’s twitching and compulsive vocalizing; he is an active participant in discovering the person behind the mannerisms.
Perhaps Sacks’s most successful exercise in empathy in An Anthropologist on Mars occurs in his essay on Temple Grandin, the woman who gave him the title for his book. Like Sacks, Grandin is a much-published, successful scientist and academic. Lacking affect and a fully developed ability to intuit and identify with others, she is able to transform her autistic perceptions into a simulacrum of normal human behavior only by acting in the role of an scientist who first studies and then mimics her subjects. The similarities between her endeavor and Sacks’s are manifest. Like him, she is highly motivated to enter as fully as possible into the world of individuals whose neurological processes are foreign. Like him, she is willing to risk much to break through barriers that would prevent her from experiencing life as it is experienced by the other. Her dedication to this pursuit is nowhere more movingly illustrated than in her demonstration for Sacks of the “squeeze machine” she invented so that she (like most autistics, Grandin cannot tolerate human contact) can know the sensation of being hugged and, she says, acquire a feeling for others. When she and Sacks part company, Sacks hugs her, and, he reports, he thinks that she returns the gesture.
“An Anthropologist on Mars” is the seventh, and last, essay in Sacks’s collection. Each of the seven is devoted to a single individual, each of whom is suffering from a different neurological malady. (Often these disorders are closely related but manifestly different, as are “high functioning” autistic Temple Grandin and autistic savant Stephen Wiltshire. As one of Sacks’s epigraphs states, “Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has.”) Perhaps none of the others has made as successful a transition into the everyday world as Temple Grandin, but Sacks demonstrates how each has used his or her disorder to advantage. Sometimes the success of the adaptation is conspicuous, as in “The Case...
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