If I were to generalize about Oliver Sacks’s collection of essays entitled, An Anthropologist on Mars, I suppose I would say it confronts the astonishing range of human phenomena that are considered abnormal...but may not be.
Most people experience some form of obsessional thinking or compulsive behavior at some point in their lives; most people are inexplicably “good” at certain things and “bad” at others; most people have emotional blind spots and insensitivities; and most people think they see with their eyes, not their brains.
Taken to extremes and concentrated in unique ways these qualities generate what Sacks and others call idiot savants, prodigies, autistic individuals and individuals who “suffer” from Tourette’s Syndrome.
This is what Sacks writes about: extremes. Multiply your uncle’s quirky way of repeating what you say to him 100 times and you have someone who is manifesting echolalia. Think back on how many times you have returned to check on a door you know you’ve locked...imagine yourself doing this 100 times... and you’ve got compulsivity (the same thing goes with hand-washing, or certain phobias, or other species of irrational psycho-physical behavior).
One figure in this book can look at a cityscape for five seconds, go to his apartment, sit down and draw all the buildings he’s seen in that fast glimpse with astonishing accuracy. What he can’t do is engage in something that shows up in many of Sacks’s case studies: relate his subjective self to your subjective self. He is alone with his perceptions more than with his feelings.
Another figure in the book obsessively paints, in excruciating detail, the village in Italy where he grew up 25 years ago. He sees that village in 3-D while working in his garage in California, and he’s got to record it from every angle and perspective, catching all the structural features and the way every stone “used to look.” When he revisits the village, the stones don’t look that way anymore and the village is just about dead. That’s hard on him. But after ten days shock, he returns to his old task: recreating the images of his childhood again and again and again.
What are we to make of this? Again, I’d submit there’s some of it in all of us, and it’s fascinating. A surgeon with Tourette’s Syndrome crying out weird noises and tapping his head and clicking his heels and making funny faces...who becomes utterly focused and expert in the operating room? Not possible? Yes, possible...and interesting to encounter.
Even more interesting is the implicit question Sacks’s scientific observations raise: are we, in our more “normal” feeling, subjective, integrated mode simply highly functioning animate conglomerations of matter...or is there some additive spirit or soul that pulls us together...while failing to do so for people who are autistic?
I was somewhat astonished to read that Picasso said something to the effect that artists are made rather than born. If you look at his drawings from childhood, you’d think he was a born artist, but in comparison to the artistic prodigy known as Nadia, perhaps Picasso had a point.
On the other hand, if Nadia and others could produce graphic gems at very, very early ages, wasn’t she born with this gift? And if she had the gift, don’t we all? And if we all have it, how could we summon it...or nurture it...or at least not suppress and ruin it through our conventional upbringing?
The final essay in the book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” focuses on the famous autistic scientist, Temple Grandin. What she possesses is immense technical and objective skill, an affinity for animals, and a great deal of confusion when it comes to “relating” to human beings. She doesn’t react to other people so much as try to figure them out; she does a pretty good job of it, but her emotional life appears quite constrained. For her there will be no lover, no children. There just won’t be. She knows she doesn’t get that kind of relationship, and she’s written it off.
Again, if Temple can feel strongly about cows and pigs, and design mechanisms to improve their lives as they are fattened for death, but doesn’t feel quite so strongly about human beings, does she lack something soulful? Something most of us would not care to surrender to be as smart as she is?
Sacks doesn’t have an answer for these questions other than to point out that humanity is not a homogenized, perfectly evolved unity...nor should anyone feel ostracized for possessing some gifts to such an extent, almost beyond comprehension, that they lack others.
This is a very good book, definitely worth reading. It’s about human nature. It’s about us.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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