Sunday, November 18, 2007

Powers And Ethics

(I posted this last night, but when I came back to check things today it was gone! Or maybe for some reason it's not showing up on my computer, so forgive me if I post it twice, I just want to make sure it's on here!)

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what it was that troubled me about the second part of Richard Power’s novel “The Echo Maker” until I read Madeline’s post below. I’ve been sort-of rushing through the book, and so it’s left me with vague impressions rather then completely formed thoughts; I recognize that there are broader implications and themes represented within the complexly woven plot, but I’d be hard pressed to put a name or a label on some of those ideas.
Thus Madeline’s post really helped me process my own conflicting feelings about the Sacks character presented in Power’s novel, and allowed me to actually solidify my reactions into an actual opinion:
Like Madeline, while reading I found myself confronted with similar questions about the moral implications of, and possible motives behind, Sack’s work. As she so astutely points out, Power’s depiction of a man who makes a living doing exactly what Sacks does not come off as particularly positive.
And, as Madeline points out, calling Sack’s work into question also called into question my understanding of my own motives, even for taking this class. Why is it that I found myself so engrossed in these narratives? Why is it that Sack’s work is so broadly read, that his newest work has so quickly become a NYT Best-seller? Why is it that whenever I describe my reading assignments to friends and family they are fascinated and want to hear more? I recently read “Don Quixote” for another class, and let me tell you, I never found myself in a conversation where someone said, “Really you’re reading Cervantes? Tell me more…”
What is it that draws us to these stories? Is it, as Madeline wonders, some kind of sick, sideshow fascination we all have? Are Sack’s books the written equivalent to a circus freak-show? Are the case-studies simply a more socially acceptable version of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”?
I want to believe there’s more to it then that. For one thing, the stories we hear from people like Sacks and Luria are inherently dramatized. They allow us to stretch our imagination in all kinds of ways, and they make for fascinating tellings and re-tellings. (When I first read about the results of Mark’s brain trauma all I could think was; “This is just like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers!’) I have a feeling that these stories would be told with or without Sack’s writing, simply because they often lend themselves to being told.
But even beyond the basic draw of the dramatic, I think there’s something personal about the narratives we’ve read which allows us the opportunity to be more then mere voyeurs into the misfortune’s of others. I think Sacks recognizes something deeply personal in these stories. He grapples with a scientific and spiritual understanding of the self, and tries to come to grips with how we understand the human soul in relation to the human physiology. To some extent one could argue that Sacks capitalizes on the tragedy that befalls others and the fears of people like you and me (since we’re all pretty terrified by the idea of losing our very selves due to some unpreventable brain damage.) But would Sack’s work be half as successful as it is if it lacked the kind of deep empathetic tone and philosophical searching which characterizes his work? If it were grossly sensationalized or paired down to a simple grocery-list of terrible symptoms I doubt it would be so widely read. It requires that human element, and I believe it's that same human element which saves it.
Part of how I can justify both Sack’s impressive body of work and my own interest in the field is my hope that on some level these narrative efforts are still about an emotional connection between people. As readers of Sacks we may in fact be pulled in by the strange and bizarre complications of brain damage, but we are also asked to sympathize, to attempt to understand and to theoretically place ourselves in a similar position. We ask ourselves: what would this be like? How would I experience something as profound as Dr. P or Mark? Could I withstand this? And I think in the end we arrive at the question: now that I know, what can I do?


Molly said...

I enjoy the posts from this week and took especially interest in the thoughts brought up in Madeline's and Kiley's.

It's kind of funny that we decide to blank out the part that Powers does say in his interview on NPR that Sack's is not the complete inspiration for Weber. If Weber is doing sketchy things it doesn't necessarily mean that is exactly what Sack's has done. I think we should give him much more credit than that.
People enjoy hearing about people, in whatever shape or form, especially when it is on a subject that they can't relate to; they might learn something. What is the real difference between the chapters in 'Brain Fiction' and the chapters in 'Anthropologist on Mars' besides the names and style? The same information told in a different way. We can find these comparisons everyone. Exploitation is a big word when it comes to someone's career. What is the difference between Ricky Lake and Oprah? The tabloids or the New York Times?
I don't think we should read Weber as Sacks, moreso as we should read Weber with certain personality traits and professional interests. How many times has the blonde bimbo been written in?The wise ass lawyer with only greed on his mind? The timid boy with glass who only reads and studies; the nerd with no friends? Why not write about the man with a salt and pepper beard who writes fiction about neurology?
If Weber is completely Sacks, then are we not discrediting Powers as a writer? What a cop out to rely on the already famous description and personality of someone people are aware of! Deliberate or not, I don't think it was meant be an insult. What is the difference between Sacks and Powers?

Media is a source of information for a population of people. If personal experiences or examples of personal experiences can't be shared for people to know they are not alone on certain subjects, what are we left with? Why do we have conversations if relating is not a common goal?
I think we should keep enjoying the 'Echo Maker' remembering that though Capgras is a real disorder the book is still marketed as fiction.This may bring up another interesting question- what is easier to relate to- the fiction of Weber or the reality of Sacks?

Stephanie said...

I think you hit on such a key point here: empathy. I noticed that people seem to only change their political beliefs from conservative to progressive when an issue affects them personally. But once it does, they are able to broaden their understanding and imagine themselves as other people, and little by little, they end up arguing for human rights instead of uninhibited capitalism or whatever.

I think the ability to empathize is really important in making the world a better place. It sounds so goofy and simple, but I honestly think it's true. And Sacks pushes this idea so much. He nearly forces you to step into someone else's shoes, to think of what it would be like to be them for a day, and then to identify all the ways in which you're similar. I think that leads to a greater tolerance, understanding, and support for people in general, especially people who need it the most. And that, I think, is the opposite of exploitation.

Patrick said...

This week’s readings, coupled with the posts here, have made me really question what I think about Sacks. It's true, as Molly said, that Weber is not entirely Sacks. But Weber's quick arrival and departure, his sort of blowing in an out of town, reminded me of Sacks in many ways. Sacks often gives us these little blasts of insight, then tells us that he was only there for a few days and never saw the patient again.

I feel that the work he does IS important, because it DOES bring us these stories of incredible people who have lived through a lot, learned to live with such strange quirks to their life. They ARE insightful, and they make us question ourselves as a species, bringing us closer to the realization that normality is not at all a reality. But the entire purpose of using narrative to describe a case study is to bring across what a clinical analysis often leaves out: the human element. Sacks, however, does not befriend these people. Some of them happened to be in his old clinic, so he worked with them on a more regular basis, but he never expanded any of his relationships with them. And it is to the extent that I now am asking myself: who is he to tell me about the human element?

There's really not a RIGHT way to do what he is doing, I suppose. It is a question of what you believe is philosophically more valuable. Do you go across the country, seeing every person who seems remotely interesting, spending a day or so on each? Or do you devote your time to five or six people and never explore anyone else's life? Do you devote your attention and kinship to a small group, neglecting the larger picture? Or do you see the world and lose sight of the individual?