JULY 25, 2019
OLIVER SACKS IS best known for his collections of essays about unusual neurological case histories — e.g., Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), The Mind’s Eye (2010). A physician, author, and professor of neurology, Oliver was also a bodybuilder and weightlifter (at one time he held the California state record for squat-lifting 600 pounds), an indefatigable long-distance motorcyclist (500-mile, non-stop, all-night trips, Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon), and swimmer (when he lived on City Island in the Bronx, he routinely swam around the entire island). He was a man of many enthusiasms, about all of which he was masterfully knowledgeable: ferns, cephalopods, herring, hallucinatory drugs, music, mineralogy, language, chemistry, and much more.
In “My Late Lunch with Oliver Sacks,” I imagine a conversation with Oliver in which we celebrate the posthumous publication of his final book of essays, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (2019). I do this not only as a way of keeping him — his voice, and our friendship — alive, but also, by imagining him as an active presence in my life, as a way of keeping myself alive.
“You’re not the first,” I say.
“Not the first what?” Oliver asks.
“Not the first dead person with whom I’ve been having conversations,” I say.
Oliver and I are walking along Greenwich Avenue, and Oliver points to a sushi restaurant where, when he was alive, we often had dinner. It’s a beautiful late spring afternoon, the air crisp, the sky a cloudless pale blue. To celebrate Oliver’s recently published — and posthumous — collection of essays, Everything in Its Place, we’re on our way from Horatio Street, where Oliver lived, to the Cornelia Street Café — which, alas, after 41 years of existence, closed earlier in the year.
“My father died in December 1976, and he and I have been talking with one another several times a week for more than 40 years,” I explain. “I keep him up-to-date on what’s going on in my life, and in the lives of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’ve taken great pleasure from our conversations, for he has, in death, become the father I’d always longed for — warm, wise, confident — so much so that, especially in difficult times, I’ve come to depend on him for his counsel. And when other friends and relatives have passed away, I’ve begun ongoing conversations with them too.”
“It would never have occurred to me to imagine talking with a dead person the way you’re talking with me now,” Oliver says. “It’s why I marvel at your novels — how you can simply make things up! I’ve never understood how one does that.”
“And I’ve never understood how someone who’s a born storyteller, as you are, cannot imagine extrapolating from what–is to what-might-be.”
“Had you passed away before I did, I would remember you, and recall our times together,” Oliver says, “but I would certainly never have thought of having a conversation with you.”
We’ve turned onto Cornelia Street, which goes for a single block, from West Fourth to Bleecker, and we stop for a moment at Number 7, where Oliver’s friend, W. H. Auden, lived for many years.
“When you knew you were dying, and invited me to what would be your last birthday party, you wrote — I quote: ‘Auden used to say one should always celebrate birthdays — however one feels, and even to the least special’ — and at the party you wore a T-shirt that had the chemical element from the periodic table, number 82 — for lead, and for the number of your years on earth — emblazoned on its front.”
“I miss Auden dearly,” Oliver says.
“Because you’re here and he’s not?”
“Perhaps,” Oliver says. “But I’m only here thanks to you, so I was wondering if, perhaps, with your gift for fantasy, you might conjure him up.”
“Unfortunately, I never met him,” I say. “But perhaps, after lunch, you can have a conversation with him.”
“The way you and I are having one now?”
“What a novel idea!” Oliver exclaims. “Were the Café still here — were I still here — I could sit with you, and you, evidently, could have me talk with you and Wystan, though I would not be able to eat here.”
“Which reminds me of a favorite joke,” I say. “The son of an orthodox rebbe is making a delivery of ice to a small goyische hotel in the Catskills. He’s a strapping young man — schtarker — and he lifts a block of ice from a burlap cloth on his shoulder, puts the ice into a freezer, and then, hearing a strange moaning sound, stops. He follows the sound until, in an alcove behind the kitchen, he comes upon his father, the rebbe, trousers around his ankles, shtupping the wife of the hotel’s owner. ‘Papa!’ the young man exclaims. ‘Is that you?’ ‘Yes,’ the rebbe says. ‘But it’s all right — I don’t eat here.’”
Oliver laughs. “I used to look forward to your jokes,” he says. “Sometimes I was even able to remember one and pass it on to others. Still, I’m not quite sure how you do it — how you’re able to recall so many of them.”
“My children consider my ability to recall virtually every bad joke I’ve ever heard to be a genetic deficit,” I say. “But I don’t truly recall them the way, say, you can recall the periodic table, or the functions of various parts of our neuroanatomy. So what I do if I forget a joke, but can recall the punch line, is to invent a story to go with the punch line.”
“But I don’t know how to invent stories. All those essays some readers believe are fictional — the man who mistook his wife for a hat, the surgeon with Tourette Syndrome — are based upon actual human beings whom I knew.”
We linger for a moment in front of what was once the Cornelia Street Café. “I enjoyed eating here,” Oliver says, “and I often suggested they add herring to the menu, but they never did.”
“You have a delightful essay on herring — as well as one about gefilte fish! — in Everything in Its Place,” I say. “In your apartment, before we would go out for dinner, you often served several kinds of herring, and we’d stand in your kitchen, eating herring and drinking wine…”
“Where I am now,” Oliver says wistfully, “I’m shut of all bodily needs and physical desires, whether for food or for sex.”
“When you were invited to apply for a position at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and the interviewer said he had a personal question to ask, you immediately blurted out that you had not had sex for 35 years.”
Oliver laughs. “It turned out the man was going to ask for my social security number,” he says. “And while I did offer the information that I had not had sex for 35 years, it is also true that I do not recall, during those 35 years, missing it. That was before I fell in love with Billy, which was among the more exceptional experiences of my life — to fall madly in love when I was past the proverbial three-score-and-10.”
“Speaking of love,” I say, “that young couple across the street at the outdoor café, who, a minute ago were kissing passionately, are now sitting across from one another, each looking into a smartphone.”
“I wish you hadn’t pointed them out to me,” Oliver says.
“You write about this in the final essay of Everything in Its Place,” I say, “about not getting used to seeing ‘myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings.’ And despite the ebullient optimism that informs virtually all the essays in the book — informs all your books, for that matter — you go on to write that you are — I quote — ‘confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to their phones or other devices — jabbering, texting, playing computer games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.’”
“I considered excising that passage,” Oliver says. “I sound so irritable and curmudgeonly, which is not my usual way of being in the world. What bothered me most, and I trust this came through, was the threat to privacy, and to the desire for privacy, that this represented for me.”
“You were quite clear about this,” I say, “and in a passage that was especially moving to me, you wrote: ‘Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.’”
“Oh my,” Oliver says. “I do come on a bit stridently at times…”
“Not to me,” I say. “But now that we’re on Cornelia Street again, I’m wondering if you knew that, on the day after you died, we held a memorial service for you in the Café, at which three of us spoke.”
“Oh yes,” Oliver says. “I was still hovering around, and I was quite moved to hear myself talked about by people I knew and loved.”
“Robin Hirsch, founder and owner of the Café, and a man born in London in 1942 to a Jewish family that had emigrated from Germany in 1938, spoke first,” I say. “He talked about ‘Entertaining Science,’ an event held on the first Sunday evening of the month in the Café’s funky basement performance space, and about the talks that you gave there. And your cousin Jonathan Lynn — who, as I’ve learned since, wrote and directed many films, including My Cousin Vinny — spoke about growing up with you. He said that your writings about your mother and father were largely accurate but that, although your father was a lovely man, he was an absolutely terrible doctor.”
“And my mother, for all her virtues, especially for a Jewish woman of her generation, did not possess the virtue of tolerance.”
“Or kindness,” I say. “When, as a young man, you informed her that you had discovered you preferred men to women, she declared that you were an abomination.”
“My mother could be quite severe,” Oliver says. “Although I admired her enormously, I did fear her coldness and her rage.”
“Did you know that you were infamous among book publicists for your rages — your tantrums — and I wonder, too: do you recall that our friendship began in anger?”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Oliver says. “Clearly it did not continue in that vein. Still — I can tell you this now — despite my seemingly sublime acceptance of the natural and inevitable in the essays I wrote while I was dying — the longer I remain dead, the less gracious I become. I am, for example, royally pissed today to have become a mere figment of your imagination.”
“A moment ago, I was remembering the evening when, in the Café’s performance space, you passed around chemical elements — titanium, lead, tungsten — to the audience.”
“And I cannot touch or feel any of them now!” Oliver says. “I am without sensation, and I exist — literally and figuratively — in a place of non-sense!”
“I recall holding the bar of tungsten you passed around,” I say, “and I’m pleased to have the chance to tell you that Uncle Tungsten, your memoir about your childhood love affair with chemistry, is my favorite of your books.”
“After I told Roald Hoffmann that my infatuation with chemistry began because of an uncle whose factory manufactured tungsten filaments for light bulbs,” Oliver says, “Roald sent me a bar of tungsten. The moment I opened the package and held the tungsten, the entire book appeared to me in my mind’s eye. But you knew Roald, didn’t you?”
“Roald and I were undergraduates together at Columbia,” I say. “It was at his initiative that ‘Entertaining Science’ began, and I recall that you were its first speaker. When Robin would introduce Roald, he never failed to mention that Roald was a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and also, like you and Jonathan, an émigré.”
“Our family remained in England during the war, though I was sent away from London to the countryside,” Oliver says. “I understand that Roald’s situation was far more grave.”
I recount Roald’s story for Oliver, only part of which he knew. During the war, Roald and his family were placed in a German labor camp in Poland. His father was tortured and killed by the Germans for his involvement in a plot to arm the camp prisoners. Roald and his mother escaped and, in their village of Złoczów, were hidden in a schoolhouse attic for over a year by a Ukrainian neighbor. Roald came to the States when he was 11 years old, attended Stuyvesant High School, and then Columbia, where we became friends, and where he completed his degree in three years.
Oliver cuts me off. “You were going to tell me about my having become angry with you,” he says, “and although, by conjuring me up and alluding to my anger, you have certainly piqued my rage today, I have no recollection of ever having been angry with you.”
“At our first dinner together at the Café, we talked about our brothers, both of whom went mad and were institutionalized.”
“My brother Michael’s illness was accompanied by my fear that I too might go mad — that I might become lost, wild, and unhinged the way he did.”
“I feared the same,” I say. “During Robert’s early years of institutionalization, I often believed that, if only I could go mad and be incarcerated, he could be set free—”
“One of the prime reasons I left London and chose to remain in the States was so that I would be far from Michael, and from the madness I feared might possess me. I also wanted to be far from my mother and father. I believe I explained that as best I could in my memoir On the Move. Once again, however, our conversation wanders.”
“Our conversations have always wandered since we both — because, perhaps, of our long-term experiences in psychoanalysis? — free-associate frequently, and trust the process of free association and the trail of thoughts, images, and memories that somehow lead to what eventually become the tales we tell.”
“I’ve often noted that when I’m writing,” Oliver says, “when one thought or notion leads to another, or to many thoughts, and my thoughts diverge and then diverge again — that it’s similar to what happens when I talk to my therapist.”
“But that’s the way fiction works!” I say. “That’s the way stories come to me — an image here, a voice there, a memory or a possible memory — a screen memory? — or a word, or phrase, or dream that’s exceptionally vivid or disturbing — and I have no idea why or how things are related, or if they’re related, and I begin writing in order to see if these disparate elements are, or can be, part of a single story.”
“It was much the same for me when I was writing,” Oliver says. “And such thoughts and glimmerings of thoughts frequently occurred to me while I was swimming.”
“Do you recall when we discovered we were both swimmers, and talked about how, while swimming, entire sentences and paragraphs often floated in and out of consciousness?” I say. “Because that was the moment, I believe, when our friendship truly began.”
“What I recall is an exchange of letters we had before we met, and some unpleasantness.”
“Yes,” I say. “While my agent was submitting a book I’d written about me and Robert, I sent you the book’s opening chapter. You and I had never met or corresponded, and I sent it to you in care of the Bronx Psychiatric Center, where my brother had been a patient, and where I knew — from my brother’s psychologist at the hospital — that you were one of two neurologists on staff. I was delighted several weeks later to receive a letter from you in which you thanked me, and told me that … may I read what you wrote?”
“Please — and when was this?”
“The summer of 1994,” I say. “You wrote that my ‘immensely moving article affected [you] especially deeply because, like you, I have a schizophrenic brother who has been submitted to everything from insulin coma to “the latest” and has spent much of his life in and out of hospitals. Like your brother, his intellect and humor survive, but it has been a grim and lonely life for the most part [and] I’ve been wondering if I should send him a copy of your article.’”
“I don’t think I ever did,” Oliver says.
“When review copies of the book were available, I sent you one,” I say, “and I apologized for the fact that, without my knowledge or your permission, my publisher had, in its publicity materials, quoted from your letter. Although you thanked me for the book, you wrote that you were ‘greatly distressed, indeed outraged, at finding that what I wrote in a private letter to you has been used by your editor in this way.’”
“I had every right to be outraged,” Oliver says. Then: “Did we ever talk about this?”
“No,” I say. “Here’s what you wrote: ‘While my brother’s condition is not a “secret,” it is not something I would mention, or ever have mentioned, in the public sphere — and I regard it as a gross impropriety that my letter to you has been used in this way.’ You went on to say that I should have been aware of what was sometimes done with private letters, especially when ‘shared with greedy editors’ — that ‘editors and publishers grow more unscrupulous by the day,’ and that I was ‘asking for trouble’ when I showed your letter to my editor and did not, ‘explicitly and in writing,’ state that it could not be used without your consent. And after saying that ‘this whole atmosphere has been morally disfigured by this business,’ you graciously commented again on the excellence of my book.”
“Oh my,” Oliver says. “I do come on rather strongly sometimes, don’t I?”
“You’re a passionate man in your enthusiasms, and in your boundless curiosity about the world,” I say. “This comes through in the extraordinary range of subjects you write about, always brilliantly and always knowledgeably, in Everything in Its Place: chemistry, ferns, food, fish, music, geology, evolution, archaeology, swimming, schizophrenia, drug-induced hallucinations, and, of course, neurology and neurobiology. And in your enthusiasms and boundless curiosity, you are also, I’ve often thought, a very boyish man.”
“I’ve often thought the same of you,” Oliver says. “But tell me — how did we mend our fences?”
“I saw you at ‘Entertaining Science’ several times — we even had dinner together at the Café afterward with Roald and his guests — but you ignored me, and—”
“I don’t always recognize people,” Oliver says. “I’ve written about my face-blindness, a condition called prosopagnosia. I certainly did not mean to ignore you, but—”
“—but the good news is that what happened led you to begin writing about your brother Michael — in Uncle Tungsten, in On the Move, and in Everything in Its Place — and you might never have done so if not for my indiscretion, and—”
“If not for you,” Oliver says. “And once I began writing about Michael — once I felt free to write about him — it set something in me free.”
“I remember sending you a second letter of apology, and then, not long after that, I was invited to a party for the celebration of a movie, Twitch and Shout, about individuals with Tourette Syndrome. You appear in the movie, and it was at this party that we discovered we were both swimmers, and that we even swam the same ‘splits’ — 24, 12, and 12 lengths of a 25-yard pool — two-thirds of a mile — though in interviews you often claimed that you swam a mile a day.”
“I have a tendency to hyperbole.”
“And when you told me that many passages in your books and essays came to you while you were swimming, I said, ‘It’s the same for me.’ ‘Well,’ you said, ‘Then we are brothers.’”
We’re both silent for a few moments.
“Yes,” Oliver says, “and what I would like to think is that your publisher’s scurrilous use of my words of praise had, nevertheless, the salutary effect of helping draw some attention to your book.”
“It did,” I say.
“And, if memory serves, you have recently celebrated a birthday.”
“My 80th,” I say.
“Mercury,” Oliver says. “And there is something mercurial about you — about the way you can, in your fictions, change identities — and Mercury was also, in classical mythology, a winged messenger…”
“The message I hold to most dearly is the last one you sent me,” I say.
“When was that?”
“A month after your 82nd birthday,” I say. “I had sent you an essay by my son Eli in which he wrote that he had stopped reading my novels because he wanted to save them for when I would be gone from this world. In that way he would still have a new book by me — new to him — to read after I was gone, and would be able, as if for the first time, to hear my voice again. So here — your voice speaking to me — the words you sent me less than three weeks before you died:
I was very moved by your son’s letter to you, wondering how he will find reading and/or rereading your books when you are gone. I have similar thoughts, of course, as to how future readers may feel about my books, after they have known me personally but now just reencounter them as things-in-themselves on a bookshelf. One flows into what one writes as fully as one can and yet what one creates then has a new, independent life of its own.
You set me thinking on such matters.
I am going downhill fast now and I am not up to seeing visitors, but I want to emphasize the deep pleasure I have had from your friendship and your works over the years.
With all my love,
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 22 books, including award-winning works of both fiction and nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, The New York Times, Ploughshares, The New York Review of Books, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other venues, as well as in more than 50 anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. His most recent novel is Max Baer and the Star of David (2016).