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“To Speak of Tales and Fables": The Imposition of Narrative in Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other C

Hannah Silverblank's picture

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In the Preface to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks likens his “clinical tales” to “classical fables,” as he remarks, “fables have archetypal figures – heroes, victims, martyrs, warriors. Neurobiological patients are all of these – and in the strange tales told here they are also something more” (1). Thus approaching his patients as characters and imposing analytical methodology upon their conditions, Sacks produces often eloquent explications of literary and metaphysical concerns; yet it seems that this poeticization of disease often occurs at the expense of his neurophysiological analysis, as Sacks designates his patients as within the realm of metaphor and character rather than condition and treatment.


Dividing the book into four sections – “Losses,” “Excesses,” “Transports,” and “The World of the Simple” – Sacks investigates categories of alternative perceptions of reality and different degrees of ability within his patients. The sections within The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat act as themes in which Sacks’ patients serve as anecdotes, examples, and even quotes that support Sacks’ exploration of these four realms of experience. In addition to treating his patients as text, he also inscribes himself within this narrative, as he conducts his own odyssey toward an attempt at understanding the organization of the brain and its status as normal through the lens of abnormality. Because Sacks translates the experiences of his patients into narrative, he necessarily communicates his own literary philosophies and assumptions, which I often found excessively traditional and distracting from the integrity of his findings.


These ‘literary assumptions’ which I address articulate themselves in manners more significant than do simple poetic devices: Sacks’ entire treatment and understanding of his patients, according to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, is guided by certain core beliefs. For example, Sacks charts dissolutions and fragmentations of reality in each chapter, but he compromises his analysis in the chapter entitled “A Matter of Identity”: here, and in many other places, Sacks suggests that there is an accessible, singular reality which can be read and interpreted by ‘normally functioning’ minds: he acknowledges, on the one hand, that “We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative – whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a ‘narrative,’ and that this narrative is us, our identities” (1). He acknowledges his status as a witness to the necessary construction of identity, but still seems to believe genuinity of identity is also a possibility. The condition of Mr. Thompson – Sacks’ patient whose parietal lobe damage has caused the severing of connectivity of memory and therefore of a continuous self – is described thus: “The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he 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” (1). For Sacks, this construction of identity is a result of his altered cognitive experience, as if for ‘the rest of us,’ a real, authentic, and unconstructed concept of meaning serves as a possibility. Mr. Thompson furthermore “fail[s] to correspond with reality” as a result of the fictionality of his sense of self: but where is this ‘real reality’ which Sacks imposes upon the rest of us?


The story of William Thompson, as Sacks’ chapter closes, results in a failure of “efforts to ‘re-connect William’… [and] even increase his confabulatory pressure” (1). Sacks concludes that the only possibility for progression from Thompson’s state exists within “offering )(beneath, or beyond, all merely human identities and relations) a deep wordless communion with Nature itself, and with this the restored sense of being in the world, being real” (1). This chapter conclusion offers no comfort or remedy for William, but rather allows Sacks to assuage his acute concerns about a meaningless and artificial sense of self: he ascribes the constructed self to William while acknowledging, for the rest of us, a narrative still, but one which chronicles a “restored sense of … being real” (1).


Later, in Rebecca’s eponymous chapter, Sacks concludes her narrative with a sense of action in her remedy: he notes, “We removed Rebecca from the workshop she hated, and managed to enroll her in a special theatre group. She loved this – it composed her; she did amazingly well: she became a complete person, poised, fluent, with style, in each role. And now if one sees Rebecca on stage… one would never even guess that she was mentally defective” (1). Rebecca, whom Sacks portrays as a Chekovian character “seen against the backdrop of a Chekovian cherry orchard, is thought of by Sacks as a “complete and intact as ‘narrative’ being, in conditions which allowed her to organise [sic] herself in a narrative way.” Yet Sacks continues to construct her himself: he situates her within a narrative, imagines her as an “idiot Ecclesiastes,” and suggests that it is his treatment that “composes” her. His final representation of his experience with Rebecca is to cast her within an archetypal frame and to mend her fragmentation through his own imagination and narration.


In “The Possessed,” Sacks describes a woman with severe Tourettes Syndrome and characterizes her activity as an “instantaneous, automatic and convulsive mirroring of every face and figure,” as she “not only took on, and took in, the features of countless people, she took them off” (1). Her imitative behavior, for Sacks, ruptures her identity into that of all of her personae and therefore nothing: “This woman who, becoming everybody, lost her own self, became nobody. This woman with a thousand faces, masks, personae – how must it be for her in this whirlwind of identities?” (1). Sacks therefore treats his patient just as I treat Odysseus in my exploration of constructions of identity and kleos in the Odyssey:


“In the ninth book of the Odyssey, Odysseus constructs what I regard as the disguise which serves as a metonym for his ‘real’ identity: that of Οὖτις . In his essay “Odyssey 9: Symmetry and Paradox in Outis,” Michael Simpson investigates the patterning of the name Οὖτις in Odyssey 9 and unpacks the consequences of a pseudonym like Οὖτις. Simpson walks through the paradox presented by the name: he argues that Outis is fitting because, “Once the giant… has discovered Odysseus, he is as good as dead. Potentially, then, he does not exist, is no one.” But it is this admission of nonexistence that ultimately saves Odysseus, and which makes him some one again:


[I]f the name the hero gives himself is descriptive of his situation in the cave, it also deceives the other Cyclopes and so prevents his otherwise certain death. The paradox is that Odysseus, in articulating his condition by means of a verbal symbol, delivers himself it. The word which describes him in his situation, when spoken as his name, saves him from that situation. The symbol expressed deprives the symbol of its meaning.[ii]


“Simpson proceeds to argue that, through the force of Οὖτις and the restructuring of events that emerges from a single word, we can see that, in the Odyssey, “Language… has the ultimate power to create reality.”[iii] As Simpson supports the notion that Odysseus’ imagined selves and false identities do become ‘real’ characters through linguistic expression, he also helps us realize the full metonymic span of Οὖτις. Though Odysseus eventually unweaves nearly as much identity-fabric as he weaves, he constructs so many selves that he actually becomes Οὖτις: he is no longer one single man, but rather many, and therefore No Man.


But Odysseus is a mythological figure, and Sacks mythologizes the figures whom he treats. He rejects the Humean notion – for “normal people” – that “we are nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations, succeeding one another with inconceivable rapidity, and in a perpetual flux and movement” (1). He writes that the notion of “personal identity [as] fiction” applies only to those with similar cognitive impairments, and “This is clearly not the case with a normal human being” (1). And so Sacks develops the characters of these “[ab]normal human beings” because they are incapable of congealing their own fragmented identities, and because the “normal” psyche is able to contain the multiplicity of narrativization of self and the sparagmos we all undergo in the process of contemplating self and self-narration.