The Michigan Daily - W/u4., e4. - Thursday, April 4, 1996 -
By Elizabeth Lucas
Daily Arts Writer
The non-fiction of Oliver Sacks, an
English-born neurologist who now prac-
vices in New York, has received much
popular attention for its- intriguing and
sympathetic descriptions of patients
with unusual neurological disorders.
Two books have even been dramatized
as a movie and a play.
Few readers are likely to know as
much about the author as they do about
his work. But in an interview before
Sacks' reading at Rackham on March
26, it became apparent that the unusual
vents and phenomena Sacks describes
Wave their counterpart in his own equally
Sacks' latest book, "An Anthropolo-
gist on Mars," tells the stories of seven
patients. They range from apainter who
becomes color-blind, to a blind man
who undergoes operations to regain his
sight, to a surgeon with Tourette's syn-
drome (a disease that results in uncon-
trollable tics and muscular spasms).
The essays go far beyond mere case
istories, as Sacks integrates details of
his patients' lives and personalities. He
turns the book into a series of fascinat-
ing mini-biographies, which will likely
prove as illuminating to readers as they
were to Sacks himself.
"In a word? What word would you
use?" Sacks mused, when asked what
he'd learned from his patients.
"Survival, perhaps. On the one hand,
how terribly and in how many ways one
*an suffer. And at the same time how,
perhaps, with help, one can find re-
aposes medical, literary worlds
sources in oneself and construct a self
or a life on a quite other basis. The fact
of adaptation, in all its different forms,
so one doesn't feel that there's one way
of being or one health."
This is a fact that Sacks exemplifies,
as well. His unusual and multifaceted
life defies the notion of one way of
Few doctors, for example, would
spend as much time with their patients
as he does. In "Anthropologist," Sacks
describes inviting patients to his house,
and traveling with them to places as
diverse as Italy and Moscow.
Sacks explained the basis for this
practice. "The first time I did anything
like this, it was with great hesitation. It
was in the early '70s, with a patient with
Tourette's syndrome." Sacksjerked his
arm to the right, imitating a Tourettic
tic. "As he described to me some of the
things he'd been through, I couldn't
imagine what life was like for him un-
less he let me see it."
Sacks places great emphasis on this
understanding of patients' disorders.
"There may be some sort of overlap,
with things we would regard as accept-
ably odd or pedantic," Sacks said. "But
I think there are things of which 'nor-
mal' people have no experience. Like
color-blindness: You either are color-
blind or you're not. ... You can't under-
stand what it's like to be Parkinsonian
or color-blind ifyou're not. But coming
back to drugs and other things, you may
be enabled to understand it."
Drugs? Yes, indeed. A footnote to
one essay describes Sacks' experience
of altered visual perception after mari-
juana use, which helped him under-
stand the problems of a patient who
regained his sight.
"Did I say that?" Sacks inquired,
laughing sheepishly, when questioned
about this footnote. "Well, with a mi-
graine, you can have something called
cinematic vision. You see a series of
stills. Had I not experienced that my-
self, I would be yet unable to under-
stand it. And, yes, I sort of took drugs -
I think that was very much more recre-
ational. But I think there's a spin-off
there, in that you are introduced to other
sorts of minds and other forms of con-
Sacks is somewhat set apart from
other physicians, not only for his un-
usual perspectives, but because of his
popular writings about his patients.
However, he explained that this was not
a recent development in his life.
"I think I probably started writing
long before I saw any patients," Sacks
said, as he disappeared into an adjoin-
ing room. He returned carrying a packet
of felt-tip pens and a small notebook:
"... Because I have walked around with
pen and paper for as long as I can
remember. I always like describing
scenes of people and events. When I
saw patients, it sort of fitted into this.
The patient tells you their story, and
you compare it with other stories, and
create a story between you."
Sacks was influenced by his friend-
ship with the poet W. H. Auden. He
explained, "Although I went to his lec-
tures when he was a professor of poetry
at Oxford, in '55,I didn't meet him until
the late '60s....I think he said, basi-
cally, that you must get out of the strait-
jacket of pure case history, and try to let
every dimension enter, and somehow
keep your balance. So in a way he
guided me to be on a sort of adventure,
or to be more ambitious."
This philosophy led to Sacks' writ-
ing six books. One of these - "Awak-
enings" - was made into a movie, an
even more ambitious step. How did
Sacks react to this unexpected event?
"With horror," Sacks said dryly. "I
was first approached in the '70s. An
option was taken, but nothing happened
for 10 years and I didn't think of it very
much. And then in '87, a script arrived,
and my immediate reaction was to try
and buy the rights back."
This impulse proved unwarranted,
however. "I didn't have any sort of
formal control, but I could discuss things
and go to rehearsals.... I did my best to
give a point of departure. But mostly, I
think they went to great trouble to make it
a fair and sensitive picture."
Movie character, neurologist, writer,
Sacks has an extraordinarily full resume,
but one that makes sense to him. He
explained this with a final anecdote about
yet another surprising experience.
"My father had a motorcycle with a
sidecar -this is a common sort of thing
on the English roads," Sacks began. "I
rode motorbikes from the age of 16; I
didn't actually drive a car until I was 30.
So when I came to this country, I spent six
months on the road. There is a sort of
brotherhood or fraternity ofmotorcyclists
Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, brings his medical knowledge into his b
when describing the abnormal behavior of some of his patients.
on the road, and somehow when I was in
San Francisco, I ran into sort of the local
chapter. I gave them casual medical ad-
vice on this and that."
Unlike most readers, presumably, Sacks
has no trouble reconciling the diverse
images of physician and Hell's Angel.
"Why not? One always wears several
caps," he said.
He again went into an adjoining roon
andreturned with agreen cap. "Here'sthe
medical cap, and there's the botanica
cap, the swimming cap, the motorcycle
helmet, the yarmulke ... whether these
things are integrated or not, I don't know
But we all have sort of different selves.'
Javanese music, theather show at Hill Auditorium tonight
By Orit Greenberg
For the Daily
It is very fitting that Java native F.X.
Widaryanto carries the title of Interna-
tional Institute's Distinguished Visit-
ing Artist in Residence. Not only has he
spent this entire year teaching Javanese
court dance to University students, giv-
ing free lessons to members of the
University's Gamelan Ensemble, and
choreographing a dance drama which
included both groups, he is also sewing
some of the costumes for the show. He
is dancer, choreographer, musician and
costume designer all rolled into one.
Laughingly, he adds, "Like Sham-
poo!" But if he were bottled, he would
not be Pert Plus, he would be Pantene.
It is unusual, and so refreshing, to see
such modesty in an artist who possesses
such talent and virtuosity.
Tonight's performance is a full-
length Javanese dance-drama in
sendratari form, a 20th-century art
form which combines elements of tra-
ditional and modern Javanese dance
styles with music and theater.
"Sendratari" literally means "art,
F.X. Widaryanto stressed the fact
that this performance was a very large
endeavor. Some of the 50 performers
started rehearsing three months ago -
a very short time when compared to the
years he was trained in traditional
Javanese court dance and music before
The dance-drama, titled Nyidrasmdrd
(Stolen Love), draws on the ancient
Indian epic The Mahabarata, but its
theme is a universal one - the conflict
between love and marriage. The dance-
drama focuses on the rivalry of the two
sons of Krishna for the love of a beau-
Unlike Western orchestras whose
scores are written down, the
University's Gamelan Ensemble will
perform a rehearsed improvisation. The
30 members perform on elaborately
ornamented bronze instruments, which
include gongs, metallophones and
drums, that are specifically made to be
"I introduced (to the performers) a
new way to listen. The dancers need the
(gamelan's) dynamic, (it provides) the
softness, the loudness ... and the chang-
ing pattern of the piece affects the feel-
ing and emotion of the scene," remarked
However, probably one of the most
interesting aspects of this performance
is one that the audience will not have
the pleasure of watching. "In Java, the
ritual gathering of all the performers
the day before the performance, called
selamatan (literally meaning safe), is
very important." During the night, it i
customary "to make a special offering
usually a mountain of rice with veg.
etables and fruits, in order not to en-
counter any obstacles."
"Togetherness is very important,'
F.X. Widaryanto emphasized through-
out his interview with the Daily.I
tried to make a significant role foi
everybody ... without her or him,"the
performance would be very difficul
to put on. Moreover, the performanct
isn't the only thing that is supposed to
come together when the curtain goes
up, "The performers have to become
one entity ... one group performing ir
harmony and with inner peace."
F X. Widaryanto performs.
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