Oliver Sacks is always a very personal academic. He doesn’t shy away from the technical, but he’s always more interested in the human stories that illuminate and illustrate his theoretical insights.
Hallucinations, like The Mind’s Eye (review) before it, focuses on case histories and personal anecdotes — and here, as there, the most prominent subject is Sacks himself.
Sacks’s willingness, his determination, to share his own story highlights his commitment to what Siri Hustvedt in a New York Times review called his “romantic” approach to science.
A. R. Luria, the 20th-century Soviet neurologist, who was a mentor to and friend of Sacks, evoked the tension between “romantic” and “classical” science in his intellectual autobiography, “The Making of Mind.” “Romantic scholars,” he wrote, “do not follow the path of reductionism.” Instead they strive “to preserve the wealth of living reality.” Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes “murder to dissect.” Romantics may err in the other direction when their “artistic preferences and intuition” take over. Luria sought a middle ground — a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole. This is not an easy balance to achieve, but for Sacks, unlike many clinicians in his field, it remains an ideal.
Sacks “is keen to destigmatise hallucination: hearing voices and seeing what isn’t there is not necessarily a sign of schizophrenia or mental aberration but part of the grand vista of common enough human experience.”
As Hustvedt notes, “His detailed explications of a single patient‘s symptoms, his emphasis on the subjective experience of illness, his willingness to share stories from his own life and his references to medical texts from earlier centuries are not only atypical of how most neurologists work today, they defy the status quo.”
Hustvedt concludes: “In a culture that devalues fiction, continues to graduate doctors with scant knowledge of medical history and produces one crude, reductive, philosophically naïve book on ‘the brain’ after another, Oliver Sacks represents a different mode of thinking.”
The review of Hallucinations in The Guardian was written by Will Self, a writer whose major recent novel Umbrella explores the inner lives of mental patients with no trace of the crude, the reductive, or the philosophically naive. Self calls Hallucinations a “wide-ranging, compassionate and ultimately revelatory survey of the strange terrain of humans’ delusional capability.”
Certainly, once the whole panoply of the hallucinatory has been brought into plain view – from the sharp “tears” in the visual field and multicoloured swirls associated with migraine, to rare Lilliputian hallucinations in which people see tiny humanoid figures – it seems hard to resist Sacks’s contention that these phenomena have always “had an important place in our mental economy”, influencing traditional art, folklore and even – for example, in the case of the distinctive transcendent “aura” that precedes an epileptic fit – “generating our sense of the divine”.
Weslayan President Michael S. Roth (in whose upcoming online course on the modern and the postmodern I am enrolled) praised Hallucinations in his review in the Washington Post. He writes that “Sacks has turned hallucinations from something bizarre and frightening into something that seems part of what it means to be a person. His book, too, is a medical and human triumph.”
All of this is high praise, and I think that, for the most part, it is justified. Sacks is certainly an understanding and compassionate chronicler, which is probably the reason that so many of his patients and correspondents were willing to have him share their experiences in print.
It’s revealing that Sacks largely ignores the hallucinations and obsessions associated with schizophrenia and other systemic mental disorders. He seems so eager to “normalize” the experience of the seen yet unseen that he’s willing to excise the best-known and most dramatic kinds of hallucinations from his book. In effect, he say “Let’s not think about the clinical; let’s look just at the everyday. Then we’ll have the properly accepting attitude toward these experiences, and those who have them.”
Fostering such an acceptance may be a worthy goal, but I finished the book feeling that its incompleteness reduced its impact just enough to leave me intrigued but dissatisfied.