The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This book is divided into four sections: “Losses,” “Excesses,” “Transports,” and “The World of the Simple.” In each section, Dr. Sacks tells a number of clinical tales which particularize the behavioral consequences of various physiological disorders. In the “Losses” section, for example, the reader meets a man with amnesia which goes back to 1945; a woman with no sense of body integrity; a man who tilts ominously through life like the Leaning Tower of Pisa; and the title patient, “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.” In the “Excesses” section, Dr. Sacks introduces Witty Ticcy Ray, whose uncontrollable tics were both a social hindrance and a creative necessity; Mrs. K, who in her nineties, suddenly feels extraordinarily well, and uninhibited, as a result of a long-latent cerebral syphilis; and Mrs. B., to whom nothing means anything. In each section, the reader is introduced to bizarre symptoms, exotic diseases, and unusual compensations.

Sacks has several significant underlying concerns which save this book from being a mere compendium of grotesqueries. First, he is seriously questioning the prevailing neurological establishment, which he believes has become increasingly mechanistic and out of touch with humanistic values. Second, he is trying to revitalize the historically important psychiatric tradition of rich, narrative case histories, begun by Hippocrates in Greece and reaching a high point in the nineteenth century. This tradition would encourage physicians to listen, with professional interest, to their patients’ accounts of their illnesses, and to focus, not only on “deficits,” but on patients as total human beings.