Arts Literary

Painful insights


The Mind’s Eye surprisingly personal

In a sense, famed septuagenarian Anglo-American neurologist and storyteller Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye (Knopf, $32) picks up right where his earlier Musicophelia left off: the new book's first story concerns a concert pianist who one day discovers that she can no longer read music, a puzzling handicap that represents only the first of many similar impairments related to the interpretation of symbols and objects in everyday life. These two books initially appear to be almost designed as a diptych, employing fairly similar devices of assembly: Musicophelia finds its unity in real-life stories of neurological disorders affiliated with the listening to or production of music, while The Mind's Eye ropes together its varied narratives within the theme of sight—and, most especially, the absence of sight, how those of us who know what it is to see clearly, to see in three dimensions, to be able to understand what we see, and to be able to hold visual images in our minds, cope with the loss of one or all of these abilities. We all wonder sometimes about sound and vision, and these books, written in Sacks' accessible, endlessly curious, imminently compassionate prose, feed the imagination's hunger for stories that enlighten us about the how our senses function, while somehow simultaneously making the myriad ways these senses are heightened, subverted or lost only more deliciously shrouded in mystery.

The key difference between these books is that, while nothing Sacks writes is ever less than fascinating, the earlier book benefited from feeling like a single essay with multiple facets all leading up to one or two major ideas. Musicophelia was also bound by its interrogation of the phenomenon of what is for many of us the greatest art. Music arguably plays a singular role in our lives, the one least yielding to dissection and intellectualization. The first half of this new book feels a little looser by contrast, moving through disparate case studies that are interesting—and sometimes alarming—yet don't quite build toward something especially meaty on a piece-by-piece basis. It's only in the second half of The Mind's Eye that we see emerge a truly extraordinary entry in Sacks' immense body of literary work. What makes it extraordinary is the degree to which it comes close to memoir.

Though Sacks has written memoir before, he's most famous for telling other peoples'—ie: his patients'—stories. The most satisfying parts of The Mind's Eye are very personal, very much about Oliver Sacks. He reveals firstly that he's one of many people who suffer from face-blindness, or the inability to recognize faces: he has people wear name tags to his birthday parties; he once wrote a book about his uncle and actually put a photograph of the wrong uncle on the cover; and he occasionally stops by windows to groom his beard, only to realize that it isn't his reflection he's standing before but rather some bearded dude on the other side of the window who's wondering why this weirdo is combing his beard in front of him.

Sacks also reveals that he's been suffering for several years now with ocular cancer, an ailment that's rendered this life-long lover of stereoscopic devices—he belongs to a club and everything—unable to see the world in depth, and struggling to come to terms with the potential loss of vision altogether. In the book's final essay he searches through world literature for testimonies that might grant him hope as to our endurance in the face of encroaching blindness. Yet what hope he finds lies not in any consensus as to how blindness is dealt with but just how radically different each person's coping methods are from one and other. It's diversity and particularity of experience that imbues this essay with its sense of inspiration, and it's a pleasure to find Sacks generating this particularly from personal experience, however painful it might sometimes be. V

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