Letter from Hans Theys to Max Pinckers and Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras

Text by Hans Theys
First published in Scotomia, Hans Theys, Tornado Editions, 2019

Dutch version
French version

Monday 29 July 2019

Dear Max and Victoria,

I’d like to add something to our adventure in California, some two years ago now. You crossed America by car, camping along the route, because you wanted to make a photographic portrait of the country, like many photographers had done before you. The first six weeks weren’t a success because you couldn’t get past the usual clichés. Until you had the idea of making documentary portraits of people who’d become famous for all the wrong reasons, which were connected to how they presented themselves or with the image that was conjured up of them in the media.

Then I remembered Oliver Sacks’ autobiography and how he’d taken photographs as a newcomer to the US, but that he’d stashed most of the prints in a suitcase that he’d subsequently lost. Maybe we could travel to California together and try to retake his pictures?

I now wonder if there wasn’t perhaps a deeper reason for my proposal to do something around Oliver Sacks. Did something inside me produce a thought without my permission? It’s true that Oliver Sacks taught me a great deal about how to look at art and artists, without him ever having written about the visual arts himself. Amazing, in fact, for a man who was well-versed in literature (he was a friend of W.H. Auden), played the piano and was interested in the development of almost all the natural sciences.

Could this have subconsciously compelled me to introduce his work to you? The desire to investigate why someone who had never written a word about the visual arts had taken so many photographs? And why did he stop? And had he actually taken photographs? Or was he trying to map out the world? When Kate and Bill subsequently showed you the dozen black-and-white photographs that had survived, you noticed that they often contained text. I thought this might be due to his reluctance to photograph young men, and that he’d recorded his private encounters by capturing whatever they were standing next to. But perhaps he was looking for something else in those landscapes and texts? But if so, what? What urge was he trying to satisfy? What did he desire to make visible, if only for himself? Why was he travelling alone on his bike, with a heavy tripod and a multi-lens Nikon F or 4 x 5 Linhof? This is a young neurologist, a weightlifter and lover of asexual self-propagating ferns, who left his family behind in order to build a new life in the New World. Or didn’t he leave his family behind? Perhaps he still carried it with him, like an inexplicable and elusive burden that drove him into the desert every Friday night, looking for answers?

I’d like to try and answer these questions introducing the concept of ‘cultural scotoma’, a term that Sacks coined for the strange phenomenon whereby medical doctors can suffer a decades-long ‘blindness’ towards the existence of certain ailments. The best-known example is Tourette’s syndrome, which Sacks ‘rediscov­ered’. He has often described how, immediately after his encounter with a man who described himself as Witty Ticcy Ray, he noticed three people with exactly the same symptoms on the streets of New York and another two the following day.

Sacks called this phenomenon a ‘scotoma’ (instead of ‘selective blindness’) because it reminded him of a genuine syndrome whereby the brain ‘forgets’ the existence of a certain body part (or even that it’s needed) if it does not receive neural signals from this limb for a prolonged period of time. This is why people who undergo an amputation nowadays are immediately measured for a prosthesis, which they should use straight away. Sacks became aware of this condition when, after an accident, he found himself lying in a hospital bed and couldn’t comprehend what the strange hairy thing under the blanket was. It reminded him of how he’d once found a young patient next to his bed on Christmas Eve, who’d been trying to push a strange hairy object out of it. Other forms of scotoma include the condition whereby people cannot perceive certain parts of reality, such as the left-hand side of a meal on a plate. They can only finish their food by training themselves to give their plate a turn if they believe it to be empty.

These extreme examples are vital, even if they seem highly improbable, because they explain how people belonging to certain cultures can be utterly ‘blind’ to certain aspects of reality. And I’m not just talking about the Chinese, or the Muslims and the Kwakiutl Indians, but also of the sinologist Jean-François Billeter, the so-called Muslim specialists, the ethnographer Franz Boas and all the analysts, experts, scientists, philosophers and art critics who try to map out and understand phenomena.

Is it possible to think beyond your scotoma? Is that what Nietzsche did?

I’d like to take Oliver Sacks himself as an example. You will recall that his mother, a surgeon, called him an abomination because he was gay. This seemed strange to me, because she certainly wasn’t a fool. Until I remembered that in Uncle Tungsten. A Chemical Boyhood Sacks recounts that she drove a car and enjoyed repairing clocks and leaky faucets. At first, I thought this might indicate that she had suppressed homosexual tendencies of her own, hence her irrational reaction to her son’s sexuality. But I’ve since formulated another hypothesis.

But before I divulge it, there’s something else you need to know about Sacks. I regard him as an incredibly important author, because as a medical doctor and writer he has shown how we can arrive at new insights (and help people) by immersing ourselves in what is concrete. Throughout his lifetime, he listened to his patients’ stories because he felt it would always enable him to find a solution that would alleviate their suffering. A fine example of this approach concerns a patient who always stared out the window. Sacks couldn’t fathom why, but asked permission to take the patient outside, in this case to the botanical garden, where he often worked. And this was how he discovered that the man knew a lot about plants, and it was where he felt most at home.

Viewed in this way, this story resembles a challenge for all doctors, scientists or art critics who, without realising it, approach reality from paradigms that steer and limit their gaze.

But we can also switch things around and ask ourselves why Sacks didn’t want to think like everyone else. Why did he find it so imperative to deviate from the norms? Why couldn’t he just act blind like most of the others?

An obvious explanation (although Sacks himself never mentions it) is linked to his younger brother, who was mentally ill. Although his parents and all his brothers were doctors, no one could help him. Could this (unconsciously) have aroused a suspicion of conventional medicine, a distrust that forced Sacks into an eternal quest? We don’t know. But what if we apply Sacks’ method to the case of his own brother? What if we study his story? In Uncle Tungsten, Sacks explains that as a child he sometimes had stroboscopic perceptions of reality (migraine attacks), which were very upsetting. When he told his mother, she reassured him by saying that she sometimes experienced the very same thing. But did his brother also confide in their mother? Or, conversely, did the mother also reassure her youngest son, or did she forget?

Now, when we return to her reprehensible reaction towards her son’s homosexuality and link it back to her habit of repairing clocks and fixing the plumbing, we are reminded of another strange biographical fact. Again, in Uncle Tungsten we read that she made her fourteen-year-old son Oliver dissect the leg of a girl of the same age. (‘I did not know,’ he writes, ‘if I would ever be able to love the warm, quick bodies of the living after facing, smelling, cutting the formalin-reeking corpse of a girl my own age.’) How could a mother who wants her son to grow-up loving women allow such a thing to happen or, worse still, organise it herself? Only a mother, I think, who looks at other people in a somewhat deviant way, a mother who is fascinated by the mechanism of a clock and by the pipes that turn a house into a seemingly living being: a woman who can cut into people because she sees them as mecanisms containing pipes. Behold a scotoma, I’d say.

My mother, who just underwent surgery and has difficulty walking at the moment, doesn’t just make shopping lists for my youngest brother. She always writes an extensive guide, planned according to the way you have to walk, one aisle after the next, in which she also describes the articles that she doesn’t need because she thinks the additional information will help my brother pinpoint exactly the right product. For my mother, the world is a labyrinth that forces her to not only remember all the birthdays of everyone she knows (just as the anthropologist Franz Boas), but also every conceivable route to a particular destination. She is passionate about water management within her home but also knows how the water supply and drainage of the entire street is organised. I once saw her repair a photocopier, during which she used one foot to keep a door open at just the right distance for a certain manoeuvre that required both hands. She used to know the entire corpus of financial legislation by heart. But she doesn’t know that her fifty-four-year-old son can find a pot of yoghurt without a detailed itinerary.

What would be the evolutionary advantage of such mothers? Sacks’ mother was a gynaecologist, a learned midwife. Don’t midwives sometimes have to make tough decisions? Don’t we need calculated, vigorous women every now and then? And my mother, isn’t she really a tracker? Someone who knows where mushrooms grew last year or where there’s quicksand? And wouldn’t that explain why some sons never stop looking for clues?

I don’t like people who cling to rules and so-called truths. Sacks’ attention to the concrete moves me. But how did his endless quest begin? Because he wanted to help his brother, because he never understood his mother or simply because he is a wandering descendant of a family of trackers?

And how about you, Max? Your intention to make documentary photos that disclose their subjectivity is wonderful. But the way you find a fresh form for each new reportage is extraordinary. It seems as if you succeed time and time again in pushing the boundaries of what is possible, in breaking through the walls of our blindness and in reaching and depicting the actual people beyond all the nonsense. Always ad hoc, ad rem and ad fundum. Long live the trackers! And to the devil with schoolmasters! (A few days ago, 1,400 people were arrested in Russia for demonstrating against the Great Leader. The terror never stops, or so it would seem. But we continue to breathe.)

Warmest wishes (and kisses for Vigo),