Life, Death and the Whole Damn Thing

Jenny Diski

  • An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
    Picador, 336 pp, £6.99, January 1995, ISBN 0 330 34347 5
  • The Island of the Colour-Blind by Oliver Sacks
    Picador, 336 pp, £16.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 330 35081 1

Oliver Sacks seeks for meaning in the chaos of neurological deficit. He has that in common with his patient Mr Thompson, one of two Korsakov amnesiacs described in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, who, says Sacks, ‘must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yawns continually beneath him’. Mr Thompson invents personal narratives over and over again with endless variation, but, according to Sacks, they fail to work ‘because they are confabulations, fictions, which cannot do service for reality while also failing to correspond with reality’.

Oliver Sacks does not trust fiction. Borges’s fictions, dripping with parables of memory and identity, are much admired by Sacks, but are not trusted to serve reality without a basis in documentary fact. ‘I have often wondered whether Borges’s Funes, so uncannily similar to Luria’s Mnemonist, may have been based on a personal encounter with such a mnemonist’, he muses in a footnote to Mr Thompson’s story. ‘Funes the Memorious’ is the story of someone inexplicable and astounding: ‘A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, lozenge – all these are forms we can fully and intuitively grasp; Ireneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a pony, with a herd of cattle on a hill, with the changing fire and its innumerable ashes, with the many faces of a dead man throughout a long wake.’

Oliver Sacks and the narrator of ‘Funes’ are in the same business of delineating the extraordinary, outlining the nearly unthinkable. The difference lies not only in the prose and the overtly fictional form in which Funes is presented, but in the moral tone of the narrator. Borges allows us to judge Funes’s tragedy for ourselves, presenting his case without pronouncing a final verdict on the condition of his soul. In the case-history which Dr Sacks provides of his patient Mr Thompson, he does not hold back from pronouncing him damned. Jimmie, the other Korsakov sufferer in the book, is granted a soul because he achieves short periods of concentration and repose during the hospital Mass: Mr Thompson is deemed ‘de-souled’ by his incapacity for quietness and fellow-feeling. Jimmie – with his occasional capacity for ‘genuine emotional relation’ – ‘can be redeemed’; he has the possibility of ‘salvation’ because he ‘is in despair’. There is, however, nothing redeeming in Mr Thompson, who is all ‘brilliant and brassy surface’, which may, Sacks acknowledges, obscure desperation, but only ‘a desperation he does not feel’.

Dr P., who mistakes his wife’s head for his hat, is compared to Zazetsky, the subject of Luria’s other great case, The Man with a Shattered World, and found wanting for his inability to recognise and despair over his visual errors. Dr P. ‘was not fighting, did not know what was lost, did not indeed know that anything was lost. But who was the more tragic, or who was more damned – the man who knew it, or the man who did not?’ Some of us, forced into such a formulation, might conclude the former, but it is Dr P. who is Sacks’ choice. This is not just a personal response on Sacks’s part, a private revulsion against the emotionally gutted condition of his patients: it is a judgment embedded in the philosophical soil of Nietzsche’s belief that ‘only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit.’ Will ordinary pain not do?

It’s one thing to know, because you are a neurologist, that Mr Thompson is suffering from Korsakov’s psychosis and that Dr P. has a massive tumour or degenerative process in the visual parts of his brain: it is, I think, quite another to speculate on the condition of their souls. But that is the contradiction which Sacks fails to resolve, and it is, of course, largely for that reason that he is so read and admired in the literary world. Perhaps it is also the reason his books are almost invariably reviewed by writers and intellectuals rather than his fellow neurologists. He writes with the authority of a medical doctor not just of symptoms and diagnoses, but of intimations of immortality, and of the spiritual significance of remembrance of things past. He is read as a guru who can authenticate neurologically the art of Proust and the visions of Hildegard of Bingen, confirm the veridical aspects of Borges’s imagination, and reinforce our belief that salvation can be ours provided our brains are able to connect in the Forsterian way. He acts as the non-fictional conscience of imaginative art. The moral and spiritual diagnoses of his patients serve to reaffirm our metaphysical hankerings in much the same way that a recent television advertisement for medical insurance assured viewers, with a recital of the marvellous complexity of the human body and what it can do, that ‘you are amazing.’ Something about Sacks’s work similarly flatters his readers. (My God, we are extraordinary, look how interestingly wrong we can go.) After a thorough examination of the works of Oliver Sacks, you come away with the oldish thought that identity matters, as well as a new conviction that, along with good social relations, the purchase of a hard hat might be a useful hedge against soul death.

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