Impressions: ‘The man who mistook his wife for a hat’, Oliver Sacks
It’s curious how different things seem to relate to each other in ways unexpected. When I read Michael K, the picture I had of the guy was one of a simpleton, an uncomplicated individual. Coetzee, of course, treats the character with a surprisingly humane sensitivity and brings out aspects of K that one would not probably appreciate if it weren’t for the author’s evocative expression of just how special Michael was. Oliver Sacks, whose bestselling book ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’ I have just finished reading, on the other hand has a neurologist’s keen eye for detail, and a thirst for explanation. In Part 4 of his book, ‘The world of the simple’, Sacks seems to me to be talking about cases very similar to Coetzee’s Michael. Of course, nothing is said in the novel about Michael suffering from any specific neurological defect or any causes thereof. All that is mentioned is that ‘his mind was slow’. However, I couldn’t help but think of Michael when I read about Rebecca (Chapter 21 of Sacks book), a girl of nineteen, ill-coordinated in her movements and with a low IQ, whose capacity for the ‘narrative’, as opposed to the ‘paradigmatic’ Sacks so well brings out. Dwelling further on this (perhaps feeble) parallel between Rebecca and Michael is not quite the idea here, though I just wanted to put it out there anyway. Sacks’ book is a delightful, touching, and insightful narrative of the travails and triumphs of his patients, a picture of how the abilities and defects of the human mind play out in the context of the ‘world’ it interacts with, and the lessons he learnt from them about neurology. The book, in my opinion (and I’m sure in the opinion of many others), is a remarkable achievement of ‘Romantic Science’ – a narrative – in which people suffering from neurological disorders are real, complicated individuals, with their own stories, in contrast with the ‘Classical Science’ in which people are reduced to ‘subjects’ with ‘charts’ or case histories whose mental abilities, or the lack thereof, are probed under test conditions.
Of the four Parts the stories in the book are categorized into – Losses, Excesses, Transports, and The World of the Simple – the most interesting one to me was the last part, ‘The World of the Simple’ which deals with stories of ‘simpletons’, people who don’t quite share the intellectual “sophistication” that the rest of us enjoy. This was in part because of the rather curious conditions described – the twins in communion, taking joy in throwing six, seven, even twelve digit primes at each other and contemplating the numbers with a secret pleasure only they knew; the case of Martin who, otherwise Parkinsonian and unable to take care of himself, found his being in music and had an amazing musical memory; that of Rebecca who, otherwise clumsy in her movements, found a composure in her poetic imagination inspired when in communion with nature, and could understand the ‘narrative’ (her fondness of stories) but not the ‘paradigmatic’ (her inability to grasp the world in terms of general abstract notions). What is more interesting and a delight to read are the insights and references to other cases sprinkled liberally in footnotes and postscripts within each chapter. The possible explanation, for example, of the twins’ remarkable ability to identify primes, and dates in the calendar, in terms of ‘modular arithmetic’ is one that quite intrigues me.
‘Transports’ deals with stories of visions, and reminiscence of a memory of people’s past, conscious or otherwise, in the sense that they can really feel it or live within it while it lasts – a somewhat deaf lady “hearing” a concert of Irish songs when none is actually playing, an Indian girl who has ‘temporal-lobe seizures’ resulting in ‘dreamy states’ that take her back to her childhood back home in India, a young man ‘on highs’ who dreams he was a dog and happens to develop an enhanced sense of smell in the real world, a guy who murders his girlfriend but has no memory of the event and how this memory comes back to haunt him much later after a head injury. In ‘Excesses’, we have folks with some overdeveloped brain functions – ‘Witty Ticcy Ray’ who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, characterized by ‘an excess of nervous energy’, antics and impulsive, involuntary actions; a woman of ninety who feels ‘extremely well’, even flirtatious; a Mr. Thompson who has no memory for people and their identities and is continually improvising and reinventing his ‘world’ to make “sense” of it. ‘Losses’ talks about the cases where people lack some specific aspect of brain function and there’s a great number of these that Sacks writes about. This is also where the case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat is first discussed. Dr P, a musician, doesn’t seem to visually recognize objects and faces. He confuses his shoe with his foot, even mistakes his wife for his hat and tries to lift off her head! He can see the details, like someone’s nose or eyes, but cannot recognize the whole – the face.
All in all I think this is a great book to read if you have a fascination for such stories, if they can engage and intrigue you, and if you enjoy reading very human accounts of scientific endeavours in a prose that evokes sympathy, wonder, and bewilderment as one reads the various stories. Though this is a book about a science, I think it is also a creative achievement of a very literary kind.
P.S. The wiki page on the book has some intriguing comments, and interesting trivia. Do read it.