AS THE author of books called Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and now An Anthropologist On Mars, and of case-histories with such arresting names as "The Lost Mariner", "The Case of the Colour-Blind Painter" or "The Last Hippie", Oliver Sacks might be described as "The Scientist With an Eye for a Title". His artful titles suggest an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes, Borges and Magritte rather than the work of a specialist neurologist. And so does his writing. As a self-conscious mediator between artistic and scientific knowledge and popular and specialist audiences, Sacks is unashamedly happy to court such aesthetic analogies. With an eye towards Kafka, he describes the seven stories in this book as "tales ofmetamorphosis, brought about by neurological chance", "metamorphoses into alternative states of being" which are "not less human for being different". Two of the stories are about painters, and all of them are littered with references to art and fictionas well as the literature of neurology and psychology. As a scientist Sacks is committed to investigating the connections between neurology and identity, but he exhibits his case-studies with the flair of a showman. Even though most of his subjects - autistic artists, idiots savants, amnesiacs and sufferers from Tourette's disease - are oblivious of their audience, Sacks always has a keen eye on his.
Sacks notes that many "autistic" people are attracted to science fiction (the android Data, formerly Dr Spock from Star Trek, is a particular favourite of "the anthropologist from Mars", for example) and the stories in The Anthropologist from Mars often read like science fiction rather than science. The title might suggest that the author sees himself as the Martian anthropologist, a more developed cousin of Craig Raine's postcard-writer perhaps, but in fact Sacks is eager to prove himself a winningly human ambassador to and from people whose perceptual worlds might otherwise seem as "alien" as a Martian's to us. It's not he himself who comes from the un-inhabitable planet, it's his subjects, who, for reasons which are sometimes clearly neurological but perhaps also often psychological, find it difficult to inhabit our social world. Sacks's stories report on what he calls "house-calls at the far borders of human experience". They recount in often moving and convincingly baffled detail close encounterswith lives on the limits of scientific and social intelligibility.
The book offers us a series of searching essays on perceptual anomalies and disfunctions by way of extended case-histories, but it does more than that. It evokes what it was like to meet, talk and travel with people with spectacularly different modes of being, one hospitalised but the other six living successfully in the ordinary world from an extraordinary angle. It is a fascinating series of encounters, and each subject has a life-story that is as uniquely "impossible" as an Escher print.
There is an abstract painter who adapts to becoming totally colour-blind after an accident; an emigre Italian cook in San Francisco who after a serious breakdown became an obsessive and magically accurate painter utterly dedicated to recording the detailof his Tuscan home-town, Pontito, which he hadn't seen for years; a blind physiotherapist from Oklahoma who tragically fails to adapt to seeing after an apparently successful operation on his eyes encouraged by his fiancee; a blind hippie whose memory, apparently as a result of a brain tumour, became locked in the '60s and, despite getting high on a Grateful Dead concert with Sacks in 1991, remains totally amnesiac as regards everything after that great and gaudy decade; a La Tourette's patient with impressively bizarre Tourettic symptoms (such as hooting on his way to the operating theatre) who became a successful surgeon and lecturer; the child prodigy Stephen Wiltshire who, though apparently "autistic", could from an early age reproduce buildings as complex as St Pancras Station from memory with uncanny accuracy and has now published several books of illustrations; and, perhaps most remarkably, the autistic scientist Temple Grandin who, despite her apparent handicap, became a world expert on the humane slaughter of cattle and on autism itself. …