Thursday, 4 August 2016

The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Up until this week, I knew Oliver Sacks' book "The man who mistook his wife for a hat" only as an excellent option when playing charades (book, 9 ( NINE!) words in the title, first word... ).

Turns out it's outstanding, certainly the best thing that I've read in some months. Sacks is/ was a professor of clinical neurology, and the book is nothing more than a collection of short descriptions of, and reflections on, a selection of Sacks' patients. What makes this collection so interesting is that:

(a) Sacks writes beautifully -- vigorous, visceral prose with an abundance of rich allusion and literary reference (but not to the point that his prodigious learning gets on your tits -- I'm thinking of you, Saul Bellow). More importantly, Sacks' writing is warm. It has a very human quality that speaks to the deep empathy that the author feels for his subjects; in this regard, it reminds me of how it feels to read Tolstoy.

(b) Sacks' patients are to a (wo)man deeply interesting and his discussion of their situations is moving and profound.... And has implications for the way all of us of our lives.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence: all of the patients in this book have a deeply unusual sense of reality -- in different ways, each patient has a "pathology" that affects a particular connection to the outside world in an extreme way. In studying this pathology, Sacks sheds light on aspects of our human condition that are so fundamental, we don't even realise they are there.

We all, for instance, occasionally make mistakes in our visual categorisation of the objects around us (is that object arse or elbow?), but now imagine if virtually all of your visual categorisations are wrong (as in the case of the eponymous hero of this book)? How do you relate to the world if you, LITERALLY, have been known to mistake your wife for a hat?

In trying to respond CLINICALLY to the travails of his patients, Sacks quickly finds himself needing to respond philosophically -- to contemplate, for instance, what it is about visual categorisation that is so vital in our lives, and how we might cope if we find ourselves without it. (Note: the patient in question has perfect vision, but is unable to effectively process the images that he receives....)

The story that most struck a chord with me (and I use that phrase deliberately) is a discussion of two twins who, though deeply mentally retarded, were able to perform certain prodigious feats of mathematics through mere contemplation (like finding 12 digit primes for instance). You should think "Rain man" (and, indeed, one of the incidents that Sacks relates involving the twins clearly inspired the matchbox incident in that movie)... but I must admit that that movie left me a little cold, whereas Sacks' discussion is truly profound.

In particular, as a mathematician, I was greatly moved by the twins' emotional relationship with numbers, with their activities as contemplators of numbers in some absolute way. On a shallow level, the twins' feats of computation are extraordinary.... but fundamentally rather robotic and unenlightening. Much more interesting is the way that, as Sacks describes, the twins see very profound beauty in (for instance) prime numbers, and they move a "landscape of number" that connects profoundly to their essential humanity (a humanity that is, by some measures, deeply broken).

In the course of Sacks' discussion, there are two particularly interesting passages. The first, below, is a quote from another author on the place of music in humanity's search for meaning. Sacks uses this as a departure point for a similar reflection on the place of number in that search -- and the second quote is from this reflection.

`Whoever is harmonically composed,' writes Sir Thomas Brown, `delights in harmony... and a profound contemplation of the First Composer. There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers; it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed Lesson of the whole World... a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ears of God... The soul... is harmonical, and hath its nearest sympathy unto Music.' (p. 204)
Quote 2:

('The philosopher seeks to hear within himself the echoes of the world symphony,' writes Nietzsche, `and to re-project them in the form of concepts.') The twins, though morons, hear the world symphony, I conjecture, but hear it entirely in the form of numbers.
    The soul is 'harmonical' whatever one's IQ and for some, like physical scientists and mathematicians, the sense of harmony, perhaps is chiefly intellectual. And yet I cannot think of anything intellectual that is not, in some way, also sensible -- indeed the very word `sense' always has this double connotation. 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 twins, I believe, have not just a strange `faculty' -- but a sensibility, a harmonic sensibility, perhaps allied to that of music. One might speak of it, very naturally, as a `Pythagorean' sensibility -- and what is odd is not its existence, but that it is apparently so rare. One's soul is `harmonical' whatever one's IQ, and perhaps the need to find or feel some ultimate harmony or order is a universal of the mind, whatever its powers, and whatever form it takes. Mathematics has always been called the `queen of sciences', and mathematicians have always felt number as the great mystery, and the world as organised, mysteriously, by the power of number. This is beautifully expressed in the prologue to Bertrand Russell's Autobiography:
       With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.

These two quotes point towards an existential impulse behind the process of mathematics, and it is one that I find deeply reassuring in my day-job as a pure mathematician. I am frequently assailed with questions of the "why am I doing this?" sort.... pure mathematics can seem a deeply self-indulgent, rather pointless way to spend one's life... and yet perhaps it is also one of the most fundamental activities any human can undertake.

If I were a musician, would I be assailed with the same doubts? Perhaps, but I think it is more generally accepted that the making of music has a place in our struggle as humans to make sense of our existential condition... It is pleasing for me to hear Sacks asserting, too, the place of mathematics in this struggle.

And it is deeply moving that this affirmation emerges out of a contemplation of two deeply "broken" human beings; two human beings in possession of intellects that lack many of the basic functions we take for granted and yet that , in a very beautiful and dramatic way, shed great light on our place as humans in the universe.