AN ANTHROPOLOGIST ON MARS

CLASSIC NONFICTION BY OLIVER SACKS

Vintage Books (February 1996);
ISBN: 0679756973

It’s rightly said that nature’s imagination is richer than ours. But we ought to make an effort, an attempt that’s essentially noble. To draw an example: the study of disease.
        The idea of illness for the physician in conventional or integrative medicine demands the acquisition of identity—the inner worlds that patients under the spell of illness often create. More importantly, it may also often be surmised that the exploration of deeply altered selves and worlds is not one that can be fully made in the consulting room. Which only explains why the problem for the neurologist is doubly formidable—primarily because neurological patients often travel into the unimaginable.
        Neurologist and writer par excellence Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars is a veritable fount of wisdom. It encompasses in-depth, absorbing portraits of metamorphosis brought about by neurological chance. Dr. Sacks’ gem details the struggles of a surgeon consumed by the compulsive tics of Tourette syndrome [TS]—an illness characterised by convulsive movements, repetition of others’ words or actions, and the involuntary utterance of obscenities—unless he is operating; of an artist who loses all sense of colour in a car crash, but finds a new sensitivity and creative power in black and white; and of an autistic professor who cannot fathom the simplest social exchange or conversation betwixt fellow human beings, but has, nevertheless, built a remarkable career out of her intuitive entente of animal behaviour, receptivity, and form.
        Dr. Sacks, who has been at the cutting edge of hospital practice for over three decades, took off his white coat to explore his subjects’ lives. In the process, he also found his nirvana—a naturalist examining rare forms of life, “in part,” as he puts it, “like an anthropologist, a neuroanthropologist, in the field—but, most of all like a physician, called here and there, to make house calls at the far borders of human experience.”
        Neurological diseases cannot “conduct” one to other modes of being, howsoever disoriented they may be to our own way of thinking—even if they develop virtues and beauties of their own, whatever the specific type. Dr. Sacks’ profound examination, therefore, highlights a sound perspective on the way our brains construct our individual worlds. It not only provokes a novel sense of awe at who we are, but also instructs a compelling reconstruction of the mental acts we so often take for granted.
        Dr. Sacks’ work is meticulous. It traces the historical paradigms of TS from the time of Aretaeus of Cappadocia, who recorded the condition two thousand years ago, to Gilles de la Tourette, a young French neurologist, protégé of Jean Charcot, and friend of Sigmund Freud, who delineated the disorder in 1885. Any disease, writes Dr. Sacks, introduces a duality into life—an “it” with its own needs, demands, and limitations. With TS, the “it” takes the form of explicit compulsions, a multitude of impulsions, and inclinations, where one is driven to do this or that against one’s will or in deference to the alien will of “it.” In so doing, Sacks quotes Foucault, on what must be regarded as an inter-subjective approach, aside from the employment of the objective malady:

“…[into] the interior of morbid consciousness, [trying] to see the pathological world with the eyes of the patient himself.”

        Contends Dr. Sacks:

“Sickness implies contraction of life, but such contractions do not have to occur… Nearly all my patients, so it seems to me, whatever their problems, reach out of life—and, not only despite their conditions, but often because of them, and even with [their] aid.”

That persons with such radical adaptations co-operate is nothing short of a miracle.
        In Dr. Sacks’ words:

“… [The] brain’s remarkable plasticity, its capacity for the most striking adaptations, not least in the special [and, often desperate] circumstances of neural and sensory mishap has come to dominate my own perception of patients and their lives.”

        His is, therefore, a valid riposte. It is de rigueur for us to redefine the very concepts of “health” and “disease,” thanks to the ability of the organism to create a new organisation and order—one that fits into its special, altered disposition and needs, rather than any rigidly defined “norm.” In other words, it is a connotation beyond what we perceive as “black” and “white.”
        An Anthropologist on Mars is a spellbinding book. It is recommended reading for everyone—with or without a smattering of medical lexicon; being not “distinctly” human, in general phraseology, is also tantamount to being human.

Rajgopal Nidamboor is a Mumbai-based writer-editor. Visit him at www.wordoscope.com.