Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, Knopf, 326 pages ($26.95). You couldn’t expect to say that W.H. Auden “discovered” Oliver Sacks. What is undeniably true, though, is that the most scientific-minded of 20th century poetic titans reviewed Sacks’ “Migraine” in the New York Review of Books and awakened a wide and general literary world to a neurologist who would become a singular figure in contemporary literature. Sacks, at the time, was one of the most readable and graceful physician/writers actively engaged in eliminating the barriers that separated C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (a tradition that probably began with Lewis Thomas’ “Lives of a Cell”).
Sacks’ situation now, at the age of 79, has long since made such barriers a crashing irrelevance. His books have been turned into an opera by the great minimalist composer Michael Nyman (“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”) and, most famously, into an Oscar-celebrated Penny Marshall film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams (“Awakenings”). Quite predictably, charges of exploitation have followed him in some places, all of which seem to have been mooted, if not annihilated, by his frequent use of his own medical conditions – in “A Leg to Stand On,” for instance, and “The Mind’s Eye.” Sacks himself has freely discussed his facial blindness, a condition he shares with artist Chuck Close, whose typically Sacksian answer to his condition was to become known as an artist specializing in massive, photographically detailed faces.
The good doctor’s newest book is about one of humankind’s ancient conditions and pursuits. To quote his favorite definition – from William James – “a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if there were a real object there. The object happens not to be there, that is all.” We learn, among other things, that novelist Amy Tan’s epilepsy (which “may have been caused by Lyme disease”) frequently involves something she calls the “Illuminated Spinning Odometer … what you might see on the dash of your car at night … except the numbers keep spinning more and more rapidly, like a gas pump giving you a running tally on the cost of gas.” His work heals ignorance AND witlessness.
– Jeff Simon