Tuesday, November 01, 2005

oct 31 issue: in defense of Oliver Sacks

Some disability studies writers think of Sacks as exploitative and sensationalizing. Maybe. There's an essay out there that compares him to P.T. Barnum. Fair enough. But I like the fact that he makes an honest attempt to bring together medical and cultural discourses. The brief histories of disease (or disease concepts) that he often gives are great, including the history he gives of aphasia in this issue of the New Yorker.

In the case of Patricia H. (I think of him as more like Freud than Barnum, in his style and his habit of identification with the patients and his sense of humor) he comes right out and says "She was lucky [ . . . ] that her daughters fought so hard from the beginning to keep her engaged and active, and were able to afford extra aides and therapists . . " (53) This in a long string of privileges Patricia H. enjoyed. Uncharacteristic of the New Yorker to be so blunt about money, and uncharacteristic of someone within health science to be so blunt too. Aphasia is different if you're rich.

But I think the hidden modernist agenda of this issue of the New Yorker is actually here, in Sack's fascination with aphasia. This expressive speechlessness is explored as a medical condition here, and as a literary convention, in Packard's characterization of the "terse eloquence" (82) of Hemingway, and Gopnik's essay on Homer and his "richly laconic"* aesthetic. We'll call it silent modernism. Granted, that might mean that Sacks (or the New Yorker) does make these disabled figures exotic, but as long as we can watch it happen from a critical position . . . Sacks work perhaps exposes more than it obscures.

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Blogger mzn said...

What I like most about Sacks is his facility with storytelling. This is one of his more brilliantly crafted narratives, with a sentimental flourish of an ending that made me teary.

I'm not sure about the exotic point. In this article, his trick is make Pat H. into something familiar. But maybe that's always one way of approaching the exotic--by domesticating it.

10:08 AM  
Blogger zp said...

Yeah, exotic was the wrong word. I think I mean romantic, as in we've romanticized Patricia H. as a expressive creative genius of some kind. And, in my thoughts here, it's not only Sacks that does this, it's the New Yorker, placing this essay next to Packer and Gopnik . . . or it's me, reading them together in this way . . .

For a science writer, Sacks is a wonderful storyteller, for sure.

11:51 AM  

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