Sunday, May 01, 2011
It's been ages since I read Sacks: I guess An Anthropologist on Mars was the last time. I like his portraits of people whose symptoms exhibit the mystifying and inexplicably complex functioning of the brain. His most recent volume focuses on sight and seeing and visualization and imagery. When the good doctor himself suffers a melanoma in his right eye, causing an initally temporary loss of stereoscopic vision, and thence a final complete loss, he begins to keep a journal of his experience, said journal becoming the largest essay in this book. It's amusing to note his paranoia upon hearing the melanoma diagnosis: it took me back to my own dance with the big M in 1994. Sacks and I see eye to eye!
The variety of symptoms which afflect people who lose sight, or who have neural difficulties translating their vision into perception, or who become partially blind, losing color vision or peripheral vision or fragments of their sight--is quite interesting. The ability to visualize internally or to think with imagery after blindness sets in is also fascinating: some lose it completely, some become better. Sacks tackles all these characters and their cranial riddles with the keen vision of a novelist.
Every time I read Sacks I think of a regular customer at Borders, a young woman who was involved in a terrible car accident which damaged her amygdala. She was rational and logically sound, she retained most of her mobility, and she lost not a bit of her linguistic capabilities--but she was totally unable to read social cues. Any knowledge of etiquette or delicacy or subtletly was gone. The kinds of thoughts we might have and quickly repress she verbalized immediately. She'd stroll up to the information counter and announce loudly "I don't know why that young cashier won't fuck me. I could really please him. Your shirt is wrinkled and I think you need to learn how to iron it. That woman over there is terribly ugly. How can she come out in public? I'd hide from shame! God, I'm horny. I took the most disgusting dump this morning..." You get the idea. At first I'd try to use social cues to calm her down or shut her up but despite staring directly at my face she could not "see" discomfort or embarrassment. Nor could she understand those concepts when explained to her. After dealing with her for almost two years I started simply taking her by the elbow and steering her to the Mystery Section where she could talk herself silly and disrupt fewer customers or staff. But I always felt for her, and tried to treat her with compassion, and I think reading Sacks, and thinking of his example, helped me act this way over the years.