A critique of Sacks’ Musicophilia

A piece by Kevin Burger in Salon asks if Sacks has struck the wrong note:

Unfortunately, Wearing’s story is the only great song on “Musicophilia,” which exposes the sentimentality and cursory science that unforgiving critics have always seen in Sacks’ writing.

Some biologists have never been comfortable with that soft core in Sacks’ articles. Sacks, they say, is the Ripley of neurology. Believe it or not, a man with visual agnosia mistook his wife for a hat! Believe it or not, a man with musical synesthesia sees blue whenever he hears music in D major! In a similarly sarcastic vein, Tom Shakespeare, a British disability-rights advocate, once labeled Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” Richard Powers has a good time with that in his novel “The Echo Maker,” in which he sends a character based on Sacks spiraling into an identity crisis by the fear that he has exploited his handicapped patients in his popular articles.

When it comes to understand how music enters ours ears and lights up our emotions, the outright enjoyable “This Is Your Brain on Music,” published in 2006 by musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, reduces “Musicophilia” to permanent second billing.

By the way, Powers might have had a good time with his character based on Sacks; but, that is one among the many things that made reading Echo Maker not fun for me.

UpdatePaul Elie at Slate has similar complaints too:

 The material has the distinctive Sacks touch: at once earnest, tender, and slightly amused. But the anecdotes about music and the neurological disorders associated with it—which are what the “tales” really amount to—reveal surprisingly little about music or about the brain, other than that the mystery and vitality of music are useful correlatives to the brain’s mystery and vitality. In recounting the circumstances of individual patients, Sacks doesn’t evoke the sound of music or the ways sound takes shape as music in the brain. The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it.

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