Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

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Before Oliver Sacks began his literary career with the publication of Migraine: The Evolution of a Common Disorder (1970), there was relatively little popular interest in the clinical narrative or case history, particularly in the field of neurology. Physicians contributed highly technical articles to medical journals, often written in a style that Sacks considers the drab and soulless productions of assembly-line medicine. Though there has been a long and honorable tradition of the physician as author, stretching back as far as Hippocrates, Sacks has a remarkable gift for the compassionate portrayal of the interior lives of his patients. Perhaps the only other neurologist with comparable gifts was the nineteenth century Philadelphia physician H. Weir Mitchell, who contributed lively and interesting case histories for popular magazines and wrote fiction as well. With the publication of Awakenings, followed by A Leg to Stand On (1984) and the great success of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985), Sacks has emerged as one of the major clinical writers of the twentieth century. A professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a private practitioner, Sacks still finds time to contribute regularly to The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and other literary publications.

What is most remarkable about Awakenings is Sacks’s ability to convey both the human and the scientific dimensions of this neurological drama. Hailed as a masterpiece when it was first published, Awakenings has served as the inspiration for a play by Harold Pinter, A Kind of Alaska, part of his trilogy Other Places (1982), in which he dramatizes the plight of one of Sacks’s patients, Rose R. While presenting the human drama, Sacks also reflects upon the underlying philosophical issues of health and illness raised by his studies. After reading Awakenings, one comes away with a chastened awareness not only of the humanity of the most deeply afflicted patients but also of the delicate and miraculous nature of the good health that many people take for granted. Sacks is a mental voyager who has returned from the hell of neurological illness with reports describing the ways in which his patients have struggled to maintain their humanness as they struggled with their afflictions. Theirs are stories of uncommon courage, heroism, and endurance. If Awakenings has taken on a life of its own, it is because, unlike the world of fiction, the world of Sacks’s patients continues. Their story has not yet ended.

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