Monday, March 30, 2020

Oliver Sacks and "Rhapsodic Fiction"

Oliver Sacks was a wonderful writer and a fine neurologist. Most people who knew him say he was a deeply warm and kind human being. I believe he left the world better by passing through it. But did he tell the truth?

People who reviewed his early books said he reminded them of Chekhov, Joyce or Borges, not other doctors or scientists. When I was in graduate school and moved twice a year I had a small shelf of books I brought out wherever I happened to be, and two of them were Borges' Ficciones and Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I confess that I did not draw the obvious skeptical conclusion until recently; I mean, whose life is really like a story by Borges or Chekhov?

The writings of neurologists and psychiatrists always invite this question. They are encouraged to protect their patients' privacy by altering details, and when questioned they often admit that a certain patient in one of their books is a composite of several real people. At what point does this compositing and altering details turn the whole thing into fiction? Plus there is the problem that some psychiatrists' books are full of people they cured in a few weeks or months and sent home happy.

But Sacks was special case because of the power and beauty of his writing. After reading some of his cases I felt with a deep seriousness that I had seen the world in a new way. I carried that book around for years and still keep in on my shelf because I thought I had learned from it profound things about human life.

Lawrence Wechsler, who knew Sacks well, has now written a "biographical memoir" about his friend titled And How are You, Dr. Sacks? According the reviewers it demonstrates convincingly that much of Sacks "nonfiction" was invented. This is Scott Sherman in the TLS for 13 December 2019:
Quite often, reading Sacks, one wonders, can this be completely true? . . . Weschler quotes a remark by Alan Bennett about Bruce Chatwin who, he suggested, "like Sebald, Kapuściński, and Oliver Sacks", operates "on the borders of truth and imagination." 
In 1983, Wechsler asked Sacks about the famous case of Dr. P., the man who mistook his wife for hat. Sacks said,
I mean, perhaps it's a case that I seized on certain themes, imaginatively intensified, deepened, and generalized them. But still.
But still what? Not even Sacks, it seems, could say, at least not in a few sentences. Sherman again:
Weschler puts Sacks in the same category as Ryszard Kapuściński. For the work of both, he coins the term "Rhapsodic Nonfiction." He notes that Sacks, as a writer, was blazing his own trail: "trying to advocate for and model a different sort of medicine on behalf of chronic, often institutionally warehoused and largely abandoned patients . . . the sort of patients often referred to as 'hopeless.'"
There was also a sense, says Wechsler, in which the redemptive narratives Sacks created for some of his patients were
part of the therapy itself. Helping to turn an it back into an I . . . or maybe a patient into an agent . . . such people were privileged witnesses to and actors along the very remotest stretches of human possibility, and as such had marvelous stories to offer about such extreme vantages and experiences.
Of course only a very few crazy people have ever been able to communicate what they experienced while mad. Has Sacks spoken for them, or has he replaced their voices with his own?

I am wondering how knowing this will change my feelings about Sacks and his books over the years to come. I do not think I will forget or dismiss them. They are so powerful, and so infused with his generous spirit. Perhaps he did not really know what his patients were experiencing, but he certainly knew more about them than I ever will. He wanted, from boyhood, to somehow combine science and literature, and I think he achieved something remarkable in that direction.


JustPeachy said...

I'm not totally certain it matters. His books are so FUN! I also love the ones that are more about himself, such as Migraine, and Uncle Tungsten. Was he telling the stark honest truth in those? Who knows? Does it hurt anyone if he wasn't?

David said...

I haven't read Sacks, but I've read Kapuściński. Once I learned that Kapuściński had made a lot of it up, I didn't see any grays. His books were totally discredited in my eyes. (I heard this about Kapuściński already several years ago.)

In these matters, I'm very much an Errol Morris acolyte.

Of course, if I were really as good as my word, I'd have started a self-sacrificing quest hither and yon to determine just what Kapuściński had made up and what, just maybe, he hadn't. I didn't. But I know where my allegiances lie.

Shadow said...

"At what point does this compositing and altering details turn the whole thing into fiction?"

From the very beginning; a composite personality is a fiction. It's like cherry picking facts to support your thesis, being careful to select out those that change the narrative. Then what you have is narrative over truth (and not lies over facts as is so often stated). Some historians are very good at this. So are news organizations, particularly cable news.

David said...


I'm curious as to what you mean by distinguishing narrative over truth vs. lies over facts. I'm not saying they're the same; but what is the precise distinction? In part, I'm genuinely puzzled; in part, I'm wary. When does the advocacy of a "deeper" truth become a mask for contestable axe-grinding?

At the risk of grinding my own axe, I would point to Morris' Thin Blue Line. There, the prosecutor probably would have said he was pursuing a deeper truth with his poetic peroration about the need to protect the police, our "thin blue line." But in literal fact he was spinning pretty words (which he may have convinced himself to believe, but what of that?) to convict and execute someone who, as a matter of fact, could not have done the killing.

I suppose what I'm saying is, that facts and truth may not be the same, but facts are not lower or lesser than truth. They're very important, and can point to a truth that may not be "deeper"--not poetic or tendentiously satisfying--but better and, yes, truer.

Shadow said...


I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint you regarding deeper meanings.

I was using the word 'truth' as a collection of facts that describe an event accurately; together they tell us what happened -- what I'm calling the truth. I did not mean anything philosophical or deeper in meaning. I suppose I could say 'Narrative trumps facts' without changing meaning. But not because the narrative has a deeper meaning, but because the narrative misleads.

The outcome of a narrative can mislead without the narrative ever including lies in its argument. The narrative can be filled with facts and still mislead if facts are cherry picked to support the narrative while others are omitted because they undermine it. Narrative trumps facts because narratives control which facts are used and how they are used. Narratives are powerful rhetorical devices that hold facts hostage.

As to some deeper poetic meaning, sorry, not me.

Shadow said...

"But in literal fact he was spinning pretty words (which he may have convinced himself to believe, but what of that?) to convict and execute someone who, as a matter of fact, could not have done the killing."

Actually, having reread your post, this is what I mean. Unfortunately, those pretty little words trump facts. Did they execute him?

David said...


Thanks for your clarification. I think we are very much in sympathy.

The accused, a fellow named Randall Adams, was convicted and sentenced to death. The record of the case is complex--the Supreme Court overturned the sentence before Morris' documentary came out--but ultimately, in large part because of Morris' film, the Texas(!) governor pardoned Adams.