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

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Perhaps back in the day when this book was published, unusual cases related to mental conditions and neuroscience were largely unheard of – which accounts for the immense popularity of this book. Now knowledge, understanding and acceptability regarding such issues has been mainstreamed, primarily through films which did eventually wane my initial excitement of reading the book. However, I did find a myriad of supremely interesting cases in terms of their relevance to fiction and even magical surrealism. It prompted me to make mental notes of unique tics and character traits I may use in my stories and scripts later on. The fascinating case of the Twins, John and Michael, remains embedded in my memory and it is worth reading that particular chapter alone.

That being said, there was also a dire lack of diagrams or explanations for scientific, medical and technical terminologies which might have made it easier to comprehend the beautiful intricacies of a human’s physical, spiritual and mental psyche. I can’t help but think how much more enjoyable the reading experience must have been for the medical community or even for the relatives of those who suffered from such acute mental conditions.

An interesting takeaway from this book has been of the perennial question of nature of reality. Is there an objective reality compounded by multiple subjective realities? Do the Twins in their deeply eccentric and solitary understanding of numbers stand to concoct a reality that is true only to their own existence? Or are they comprehending an invisible layer of reality that enshrouds us all but only they, in their keen and unique frame of mind, are able to recognize and play around with.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Interesting Cases

The Man Who Only Saw the Particular

  • His eyes would dart from one thing to another, picking up tiny features, individual features, as they had done with my face. A striking brightness, a colour, a shape would arrest his attention and elicit comment—but in no case did he get the scene-as-a-whole. He failed to see the whole, seeing only details, which he spotted like blips on a radar screen.

The Complex World of Jimmie

  • If Jimmie was briefly ‘held’ by a task or puzzle or game or calculation, held in the purely mental challenge of these, he would fall apart as soon as they were done, into the abyss of his nothingness, his amnesia. But if he was held in emotional and spiritual attention—in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel—the attention, its ‘mood’, its quietude, would persist for a while, and there would be in him a pensiveness and peace we rarely, if ever, saw during the rest of his life at the Home.
  • In effect, he lost thirty years of his life—though, fortunately, for only a few hours. Recovery from such attacks is prompt and complete—yet they are, in a sense, the most horrifying of ‘little strokes’ in their power absolutely to annul or obliterate decades of richly lived, richly achieving, richly memoried life.

The Woman Who Lost the Use of Her Hands

  • Can it be that they are functionless—‘useless’—because she had never used them? Had being ‘protected’, ‘looked after’, ‘babied’ since birth prevented her from the normal exploratory use of the hands which all infants learn in the first months of life? Had she been carried about, had everything done for her, in a manner that had prevented her from developing a normal pair of hands? And if this was the case—it seemed far-fetched, but was the only hypothesis I could think of—could she now, in her sixtieth year, acquire what she should have acquired in the first weeks and months of life?
  • Now she needed to explore the human face and figure, at rest and in motion. To be ‘felt’ by Madeleine was a remarkable experience. Her hands, only such a little while ago inert, doughy, now seemed charged with a preternatural animation and sensibility. One was not merely being recognised, being scrutinised, in a way more intense and searching than any visual scrutiny, but being ‘tasted’ and appreciated meditatively, imaginatively and aesthetically, by a born (a newborn) artist. They were, one felt, not just the hands of a blind woman exploring, but of a blind artist, a meditative and creative mind, just opened to the full sensuous and spiritual reality of the world.

Sight and Reality

  • It was evident on closer questioning that what he experienced was not vertigo at all, but a flutter of ever-changing positional illusions—suddenly the floor seemed further, then suddenly nearer, it pitched, it jerked, it tilted—in his own words ‘like a ship in heavy seas’. In consequence he found himself lurching and pitching, unless he looked down at his feet. Vision was necessary to show him the true position of his feet and the floor—feel had become grossly unstable and misleading—but sometimes even vision was overwhelmed by feel, so that the floor and his feet looked frightening and shifting.

The Storyteller

  • Deprived of continuity, of a quiet, continuous, inner narrative, he is driven to a sort of narrational frenzy—hence his ceaseless tales, his confabulations, his mythomania. Unable to maintain a genuine narrative or continuity, unable to maintain a genuine inner world, he is driven to the proliferation of pseudo-narratives, in a pseudo-continuity, pseudo-worlds peopled by pseudo-people, phantoms.

The Sniffer

  • Intellectual before, and inclined to reflection and abstraction, he now found thought, abstraction and categorisation, somewhat difficult and unreal, in view of the compelling immediacy of each experience.

The Visions of Hildegard

  • Invested with this sense of ecstasy, burning with profound theophorous and philosophical significance, Hildegard’s visions were instrumental in directing her towards a life of holiness and mysticism. They provide a unique example of the manner in which a physiological event, banal, hateful or meaningless to the vast majority of people, can become, in a privileged consciousness, the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration. One must go to Dostoyevsky, who experienced on occasion ecstatic epileptic auras to which he attached momentous significance, to find an adequate historical parallel.

The Most Intriguing Set of Twins

  • John made a gesture with two outstretched fingers and his thumb, which seemed to suggest that they had spontaneously trisected the number, or that it ‘came apart’ of its own accord, into these three equal parts, by a sort of spontaneous, numerical ‘fission’. They seemed surprised at my surprise—as if I were somehow blind; and John’s gesture conveyed an extraordinary sense of immediate, felt reality. Is it possible, I said to myself, that they can somehow ‘see’ the properties, not in a conceptual, abstract way, but as qualities, felt, sensuous, in some immediate, concrete way?
  • They summon up, they dwell among, strange scenes of numbers; they wander freely in great landscapes of numbers; they create, dramaturgically, a whole world made of numbers. They have, I believe, a most singular imagination—and not the least of its singularities is that it can imagine only numbers. They do not seem to ‘operate’ with numbers, non-iconically, like a calculator; they ‘see’ them, directly, as a vast natural scene.

The Autist Artist

  • He had a very quick eye for plant forms and colours, rapidly saw and picked a rare white clover, and found a still rarer four-leaved one. He found seven different types of grass, no less, seemed to recognise, to greet, each one as a friend. He was delighted most of all by the great yellow dandelions, open, all their florets flung open to the sun. This was his plant—it was how he felt, and to show his feeling he would draw it. The need to draw, to pay graphic reverence, was immediate and strong: he knelt down, placed his clipboard on the ground, and, holding the dandelion, drew it.

Points to Contemplate

  • Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
  • In some sense, he had been reduced to a ‘Humean’ being—I could not help thinking how fascinated Hume would have been at seeing in Jimmie his own philosophical ‘chimaera’ incarnate, a gruesome reduction of a man to mere disconnected, incoherent flux and change.
  • It seems clear that intelligence, as such, plays no part in the matter—that the sole and essential thing is use.
  • You ‘normals’, who have the right transmitters in the right places at the right times in your brains, have all feelings, all styles, available all the time—gravity, levity, whatever is appropriate. We Touretters don’t: we are forced into levity by our Tourette’s and forced into gravity when we take Haldol. You are free, you have a natural balance: we must make the best of an artificial balance.
  • He has achieved what Nietzsche liked to call ‘The Great Health’—rare humour, valour, and resilience of spirit.
  • The power of music, narrative and drama is of the greatest practical and theoretical importance.
  • Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic.
  • Sensible, and in some sense ‘personal’ as well, for one cannot feel anything, find anything ‘sensible’, unless it is, in some way, related or relatable to oneself.
  • The autistic, by their nature, are seldom open to influence. It is their ‘fate’ to be isolated, and thus original. Their ‘vision’, if it can be glimpsed, comes from within and appears aboriginal. They seem to me, as I see more of them, to be a strange species in our midst, odd, original, wholly inwardly directed, unlike others.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • What a paradox, what a cruelty, what an irony, there is here—that inner life and imagination may lie dull and dormant unless released, awakened, by an intoxication or disease!
  • The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing—and he must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yawns continually beneath him.
  • There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…

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