The Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, Essay Example
Oliver Sacks’ The Anthropologist on Mars describes the unusual neurological disorders of seven specific people; in this paper, the cases of a colorblind painter, an artistic savant, and a high-functioning autistic engineer are examined to illustrate the common hope of disorder. The human ability to adapt to unfavorable circumstances expresses the hidden talent for rebirth, thus, from the originality of these disorders, the indomitable human ingenuity produces innovations. To paraphrase Sacks, nature’s imagination utilizes defect and disease to unleash creative potential. (5) Each of the following case studies illustrates how the self-perceived loss of identity contributed to a restructuring which furthered survival, diversity, craft, and the expansion of the human awareness.
In “The Case of the Colorblind Painter”, Jonathan I. survives a car wreck with only a mild concussion—or so it seems. Upon closer examination, the recovering artist exhibited extremely acute vision which simply lacked color. Cerebral achromatopsia, the form of color-blindness which develops as a result of brain damage, accompanied other strange and transient signs of this trauma: headaches, confusion, and temporary amnesia. Initially, Mr. I perceived English letters to be focused but appearing as though belonging to Greek or Hebrew writings, and he received traffic tickets for running red lights which seemed indecipherable from the green lights. Believing him to be intoxicated, the police officers administered a sobriety test and, noting his confusion, recommended that he see a doctor. (9-10) Throughout centuries of research and theorization no case studies emerged which could explain- or offer treatment for- the mixed cerebral abnormalities which Mr. I’s brain trauma produced. (26-29)
Everything which had been color in his world had ceased. His past works looked glaring and dull, and he favored foods and objects which were naturally black or white. More than that, he dreamed in a colorless void and found that the visual translations which he had formerly drawn from music, tone, mood, and other objective experience became equally lackluster. However, Mr. I could sort colors according to a gray-scale that the average person needed mechanical readings to decipher, and he soon found solace in painting images of striking stark or gradated appearance, such as sunsets or abstract forms. He even sculpted for the first time. Each of his works took on a new life, one of “labyrinthine complexity, and an obsessed, haunted quality-they seemed to exhibit…the predicament he was in”. (14)
Stephen Wiltshire showed an artistic prodigy which transcended the stereotypes of the typical idiot savant. At thirteen, the autistic child produced over sixty drawings which were being published at the time. Awed by the similarities between autistic (child) artists’ complex renderings, Sacks wondered at the apt detail reproduction which certain autistic children conveyed. (144) A three-year-old Stephen worsened following the death of his father, progressing to an oblivious state of screaming and arm-flapping- typical of the most severe cases of autism. In therapy as a toddler, Stephen fixated on shadow and angle, scribbling furiously, and producing humorous caricatures by the age of five. After his father died, young Stephen’s reversion produced habits of isolated quietude and focus. Other art forms, such as mime and music, engaged his amazing memory recall throughout the years. Still, despite being able to memorize many names and faces in an instant, Stephen’s condition prevented him from engaging with people who were not habitually engaged in his routine. (146)
His periodic fixations upon various understated elements of everyday life, such as electric lamps, allowed him to expand and perfect skills in a way which ‘normal’ observers lacked the absolute focus for. (145-147) In art, perspective distinguishes one piece from another, and Stephen’s creations sprang from the autistic perceptions which schooling sought to ‘correct’. His talents of memory and rendering developed to the point of requiring only a few seconds to memorize an entire scene or landscape, and he soon developed a particular talent for drawing scenes of extreme perspective or of tragedy. (147-149) While, at first glance, Stephen’s drawings seemed to embody the stereotypes of lifeless detail obsession in autistic children, his mentor began to notice that he automatically added and removed elements from any scene, making material contributions to the artistry of a scene itself. (151) Famed psychologist Howard Gardner had popularized such theories of multiple intelligences using case studies very similar to that of Stephen—in which each savant’s abilities were transfigured according to a personal and individualized set of rules. (163) Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences rose along with the fame of Stephen Wiltshire.
Temple Grandin, on the other hand, was a high-functioning autistic child of different proclivities. At ten months’ she exhibited an aversion to even her own mother’s touch. At three, her fixations would lead to violent outbursts, risk-taking behaviors, and incidents of feces-smearing rebellion during confused states of autistic hyperawareness. She preoccupied herself with studying grains of sand for hours, relaxing under the calming sensory flow. (190) In her autobiography, Grandin wrote that “People around me were transparent, and even a sudden loud noise didn’t startle me from my world”. (195) Neurologists recommended permanent institutionalization.
Temple Grandin became a successful biologist, whose strength lay in her inability to separate specific components from one another in an effort to understand an animal as a whole. (191) Temple first analyzed her own needs and differences, connecting these observations to principles of psychology, animal behavior, and engineering. She designed farms, corrals, and systems for the humane management of animals- even those which were due to be slaughtered. (192) Grandin’s venting of her creative fixations extended to an understanding of writing and of timeless mythological themes, allowing her to translate life conflicts in the large-scale context of a world literature of belief systems and morality. (192-195) As a self-acknowledged gullible person, Temple’s business perspective evolved to incorporate these mythological situations and results into an awareness of the exploitation which others sometimes sought as a result of her condition.
Jonathan I, Stephen Wiltshire, and Temple Grandin provided extraordinary examples of the human ability to use proficiency in arts of multiple intelligences to develop a sense of identity which extends to a deeper appreciation of others’ perspectives. In the process, their ability to successfully cope against extreme odds inspires others to appreciate the normalcy of exceptionality. Despite the significant obstacles to be overcome, readers grow to appreciate the potential of abnormalities to express facets of the human experience which had formerly been neglected.
Sacks, Oliver. The Anthropologist on Mars. 1995. Web. Retrieved from < http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/2003635/oliver-sacks-an-anthropologist-on-mars-1995-pdf-june-23-2010-2-57-pm-669k>.
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