It could be said that Oliver Sacks put neuropathology on the literary map. His first book Awakenings, about the stunning effects of the drug L-Dopa on patients afflicted with a form of Parkinsonism, attracted considerable critical acclaim from the literary world, and 'inspired' Harold Pinter's rather ponderous play A Kind of Alaska. Sack's second book A Leg to Stand On was similarly well-received. He has published a number of short pieces in this journal, as well as in its elder American sibling, several of which are reprinted in the present collection, along with 12 previously unpublished pieces. (His book Migraine seems to have excited rather less popular interest, no doubt because it is a less popular kind of book.) Yet the scientists of the nervous system do not seem to have been similarly impressed. When I asked a colleague in neuro-anatomy what he thought of Sack's work he said he had never heard of him, and the neuroscientists I consulted who had heard of him were not inclined to attach any scientific importance to his writings. Unanimity between the two cultures is not perhaps to be expected, but in the present case the reason for this asymmetry of esteem lies deeper than mere difference of interest. The problem is that it is quite unclear what Sacks is doing. For whom is he writing? What kind of writing is it? Is it intended as sober science or fanciful fiction? What is its relation to an orthodox text of neuropathology? Can it really be taken seriously? Literary people seem tolerant of such uncertainties, but those concerned to discover the literal truth will want them clarified.
LRB 23 January 1986 | PDF Download