Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Making sense of the world: stories vs. TS Eliot

To generalise hugely, with no small sense of irony, it seems that people are far too keen on oversimplifications. Whether it be on a specific issue, like seeking a comprehensible trigger for a school shooting, or on a more general topic like dismissing those on benefits as skivers (or, in the interests of impartiality, dismissing the wealthiest in society as "the 1%"), we like to make sense of the world with explanations and categorisations that cannot do justice to reality.

Of course, it makes sense for us to do this. I don't know if I'm alone in being willing to confess that I rarely understand even my own motivations, but it's clear enough that across the world we often struggle to understand our closest friends and relations, never mind the vast majority of the other seven billion people in the world, or the still more complicated array of natural processes. In such a confusing and tumultuous world, any progress or decision depends on us finding shortcuts towards understanding.

It's clear, from the very very beginning, that literature and language have helped in this process. Foundational myths helped make sense of the most challenging natural phenomena, giving our ancestors a framework to understand what they were, where they came from and why they were here. Indeed even before that point the development of language marks the first step in our ordering of the universe - words work by designating multiple objects as being essentially the same - once you have a word for 'apple' you no longer have the daily challenge of understanding the round red thing in your hand which is slightly different to what you ate yesterday. 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

(via ravithekavi)
Oliver Sacks states that he wants to return the narrative to medical science – an ideal dubbed 'romantic science'. His famous 1985 pop-science book attempts to do just that. Sacks offers a series of case histories, or, if you prefer, short stories, or character sketches, or maybe even prose poems. The case histories detail a variety of bizarre, unbelievable and fascinating neurological disorders (although, as Sacks would argue, disorder itself may be too pejorative a word). The book is prefaced with this epigram: “To talk of diseases is a sort of Arabian Nights entertainment.” We shall return to it in a moment.

Unfortunately, Sacks is not that effective at returning narrative to medicine. Perhaps trying to do so is foolhardy. Human life, and especially the life of the long term neurological patients described here, does not lend itself to the cleanness and clarity of narrative. Indeed, the very issues suffered by the patients – memory loss and alogia in particular – preclude narrative by their very nature. The problem Sacks constantly runs into, as a storyteller, is the fact that his patients' stories do not, and cannot end. All that is available for a chronic and incurable patient, with an untreatable, barely comprehensible condition, is death. There can be no closure here, no moment of epiphany. Many of the patients are not even capable of investing emotionally. How can you love someone if you can't remember who they are, or who you are?

Emotion, then, is usually infused into the stories my Sacks himself, as a retrospective narrator. In a sense, he is very good at this, and comes across as a profoundly empathic man and excellently caring doctor. But he is not good enough to fully humanise his subjects (note how easily they are referred to as subjects – there can be few more damning indictments!). They remain, terribly, grotesques.
An Arabian Nights' grotesque (via heritage-history.com)

Part of the problem here is the very impenetrability of the patients' mental states. How can a reader hope to comprehend, or a writer hope to describe, how the world looks to these suffers? How can we even speculate, when, fundamentally, we don't really understand what is going on in their brains?

Sacks's books is a noble attempt to address this problem warmly, without resorting to cold, clinical intellectualism. It is noble, but it is a failure. And, indeed, it suffers in trying to avoid such analysis. The reader is left desperately wanting to understand more about these people, and about the neuroscience behind their problems.

Sacks makes very little effort to describe his case histories from a scientific perspective – a strange decision for a pop-science book, and a strange decision for a doctor. He tries instead to write stories from a position of pathos. And we feel pathos. But the very strangeness of the illnesses, their fundamental incompatibility with everyday human experience, makes Sacks's case histories very alienating. And, by avoiding any attempt at contextualising their experience, Sacks makes them more alien, more grotesque, more like the fabulous case histories of the Arabian Nights.