An Anthropologist on Mars
by Oliver Sacks (1996)
I expected more from this than a series of vignettes. Even the back cover says “seven paradoxical tales,” the last word implying some sort of narrative or plot structure within each section. Yet there is little narrative and no resolution, with the conclusions to each section being abrupt and consistently unsatisfying. Each story is merely a glimpse into the lives of people experiencing extraordinary circumstances — circumstances borne of what is generally thought of as illness or disease but in reality is often just an alternative neurological process that in many ways is equally as valid as what we consider “normal.”
Each of these vignettes could have easily been reduced by 75% and conveyed virtually as much information. To pad it, Sacks adds in historical details and scientific philosophy to talk about the condition of each of his patients. These details bored me and I skipped most of them, eager to return to each individual under discussion, eager because I imagined more was coming than just a blanket description of their issues and in some cases how their condition progresses over time. Sadly, I mis-imagined.
But the people are fascinating, and Sacks, when focusing his writing on them, tells their story artfully. The writing is competent (but for the conclusions) and approachable, though he does give off a subtle vibe of self-aggrandizement. The best and most informative vignettes were of Dr. Carl Bennett, a Tourettic surgeon; Virgil, the lifelong blind man who regained sight; and the titular “Anthropologist on Mars,” Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous person with autism in the world.
With Grandin in particular, you get a wonderful perspective on what it must truly be like to live life autistically. And I love how she and Sacks hint at an idea that has long seemed convincing to me: that autism is not as much a malady as it is a different way of experiencing the world. Yes it has many drawbacks attached, but having autism is not necessarily the tragedy that many people make it out to be in our culture at large.
One discussion I really liked was in Virgil’s section, where Sacks argues that human sight, which we simply assume is automatic and innate, is actually learned. It’s not inherent that we make sense of the shapes and colors around us; we have to learn how to do it and if we don’t when we’re a kid then it might be too late to ever learn. This idea fascinates me as it actually calls into question the objectivity of our visual reality. That is, if we know that some people, like Virgil, do not get the consensus output with the same input as everyone else, then it’s not too far a leap to reason that none of us is actually perceiving the same physical objects in the same way. It opens up some intriguing philosophical questions.
All in all, the book felt like a series of magazine features that was padded out to book length. It’s not the worst way to pass the time, but it offers no overarching substance or even a coherent argument (e.g., because these fascinating conditions exist, we should adopt a more flexible understanding of reality and learn greater compassion). Despite Sacks’s obvious brilliance and all of the wonderful endeavors he is pursuing, the book itself felt a little lazy.