JUNE 4, 2015
FOR MOST OF HIS LIFE, Oliver Sacks’s great subject has been revealment and concealment: most directly in regard to what his patients, with their conditions of exceptional severity, hide, or rather what is hidden in them that we cannot see because of our prejudicial focus on their tics, or antics, or unnerving stillness. Sometimes the deep humanity of the neurologically ill who go through part or all of their lives fighting the greatest of battles can be unlocked by medication. Hence, and most dramatically, the stunning if short-lived “miracle” — victims of an encephalitis epidemic who appeared terminally catatonic and were “brought to life” by L-dopa — documented in his book Awakenings. At other times, painstaking work and attention to detail, the logged results of engaging with patients for hours on end (Sacks’s life’s writing includes more than a thousand notebooks) secure the reveal: the “crucial and perhaps unexpected aspects of the organization and workings of the brain” that he then makes available to us via his narratives, case histories disguised, like Freud’s, as useful fictions. As Sacks’s great friend, doctor and theater director Jonathan Miller, once wrote to him, “Our love of science is utterly literary.”
And what about Sacks himself? Here too the unexpected: the doctor removes his white coat and beneath it, as the striking cover photo of On the Move corroborates, sits one helluva handsome biker astride his favorite BMW hog (think Brando, The Wild One, 1953). I would guess that there have not been that many biker-enthusiast neurologists (that particular profession is generally well-attuned to the danger of head injuries), and even fewer who have spent a year hanging (although not riding) with the Hells Angels, as Sacks did in 1961, when he acted as part-time PCP for a San Francisco chapter with which he had connected.
Among the Angels and the other bikers with whom he bombed around California on weekends in the ’60s, Sacks was known by his middle name, Wolf; the rest of the time, at work and at play, he was Oliver, or Dr. Sacks. The bifurcation spools neatly into other areas of his life: the “Wolf” and lone wolf in him thought nothing of speeding five hundred miles down Route 66 from LA to the Grand Canyon, hurtling through the night in order to arrive at his destination as the sun rose. This “Wolf” was also an amphetamine addict for four years, a significant dabbler in hallucinogens and speed-doped marijuana, a long-distance solo ocean swimmer, a companionless wanderer on dangerous terrain — all in all a young man who, as he acknowledges, “play[ed] with death.” A lot. Well into middle age, Sacks continued to be fond of a go-round with Lady Luck, and once, swimming far out from his home on New York’s City Island and into a shipping lane, he was almost cut in two by a boat near the Throgs Neck Bridge.
“Oliver,” on the other hand, was a brilliant, bookish, Oxford graduate, one of those rare, stunningly impressive figures who straddles the worlds of art and science with equal confidence and flair, and exhibits an encyclopedic frame of reference. “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far,” wrote a teacher on 12-year-old Oliver’s report card. It would seem to carry the weight of a powerful insight; but of course Sacks went far precisely because he went “too far.” Without Wolf, there is no Oliver.
A little more than three months ago Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He reflected on his condition in a short, beautifully modulated, and utterly moving essay in The New York Times. At one point, after paying homage to David Hume, whom Sacks greatly admires, he contrasts his own personality with that of the self-effacing 18th-century philosopher, and describes himself as “a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” On the Move, his valedictory memoir, is not only a record of his life-affirming characterological extravagance but also a meditation on what it is to be human in an age of medical arrogance and the numbing clout of technology.
Oliver Sacks grew up in Willesden in Northwest London in an observantly Jewish and prodigiously clever family. His parents were both doctors: his father, Samuel, an endearing and empathetic general practitioner and a great diagnostician who continued his house calls until he was in his 90s (my mother, for a few years before World War II, newly wed and new to the neighborhood, was one of Dr. Sacks’s many satisfied patients); his mother, Muriel Elsie, a renowned anatomist and one of the first woman surgeons in Great Britain. Marcus and David, two of Oliver’s three brothers, went into the medical profession, only his brother Michael did not. Michael was schizophrenic, and this salient, sad fact, which stubbornly presents itself throughout the memoir, was a catalyst for Oliver’s own scientific explorations.
In 1951, when he was 18, Oliver revealed his homosexuality to his parents. His mother, with whom he shared a deep bond throughout her life, reacted with Levitical horror, “You are an abomination, I wish you had never been born.” She followed up by giving Oliver the silent treatment for a few days, but thereafter subsided into something like a warm truce with her son. His homosexuality was not to be mentioned, but almost everything else was on the table for discussion, and Muriel was both the prime audience and sometime editor for Oliver’s voluminous writing, including the long, vivid descriptions of his cross-country bike excursions that he mailed home from America. Still, the damage had been done: “Her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.” How major only becomes apparent at the midpoint of the memoir. In celebration of his 40th birthday, Sacks takes a dip in a favorite pond on London’s Hampstead Heath. There he meets a young man, one underwater grope leads to another, and the lovers go on to enjoy a pleasant weeklong affair. Then, almost as an aside, Sacks adds “after that sweet birthday fling I was to have no sex for the next thirty-five years.” As no further explanation is offered in the book, all we can do is cherchez la Mom.
Sacks’s sublimation (if that’s what it was) helped to generate eight books between 1973 and 2008, when his love life took a turn for the better. His 1983 crossover hit The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, 24 case histories that foreground his characteristic empathy, insight, and gift for storytelling, spawned an opera, a play, and a rock album, and catapulted him into the public sphere. By and large solitary and shy, Sacks has nevertheless enjoyed the high regard with which he is held in the literary world perhaps even more than the esteem, sometimes grudging, he has earned among his colleagues. “You’re no theoretician,” the Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman once told him, to which Sacks replied, “I know, […] but I am a fieldworker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
All his life, Sacks has loved to talk science (we know this from his earlier memoir Uncle Tungsten), and one of the pleasures of this book is his recall of conversations with great thinkers in his and other scientific fields, Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Crick among them. Yet, equally, he has been drawn to poetry: early friendships, in San Francisco with Thom Gunn and later in New York and Oxford with W. H. Auden, suggest the centrality of the form not only to Sacks’s own writing but also to his “double” life. Gunn’s poem “On the Move,” which celebrates, in Futurist fashion, the speed and contained Eros of a biker gang, provides, of course, the title for Sacks’s memoir, while it is no accident that Sacks’s favorite of Gunn’s early poems was “The Allegory of the Wolf Boy,” from which he quotes approvingly: “At tennis and at tea / Upon the gentle lawn, he is not ours, / But plays us in a sad duplicity.”
It seems that for most of his life Sacks enjoyed a gay milieu if not a gay life. One of the most endearing anecdotes in On the Move finds Sacks on the outside looking through the windows of a gay bar in his neighborhood: he is not, however, checking out the patrons, but rather peering through a pocket spectroscope, enchanted by the “range of colored lights within.” When the denizens of the bar notice him and imagine that they have a voyeur on their hands, he strides boldly in and announces, “Stop talking about sex, everyone! Have a look at something really interesting.” A short science lesson ensues, the class is suitably wowed by the varied spectral lines, and the spectroscope is returned to its owner, at which point “they all resumed talking about sex again.”
Balzac on his deathbed is reported to have cried out for his characters; and close to the end of his life W. B. Yeats gathered a number of his poetic creations in one poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in order to assess his own achievement. On the Move too collects and recollects Sacks’s favorites from among his family, patients, friends, and lovers. Though these are not fictional, they feel imbued with imaginative power and live for us as if they were: what Sacks’s says of Darwin in On the Move — he has “a gift of writing akin to that of a novelist” — is equally true of himself. It is not only character, but also place that he evokes with apparent ease. Here he is at 28, filling his notebook at an Alabama truck stop:
At 4:20 the dawn appeared, dim and indecisive in the east. One trucker woke up and walked towards the bunkhouse to take a leak. Returning to his truck he checked over his cargo, pulled himself into the cab, and slammed the door. He started his engine with a roar, and slowly lumbered out. The other trucks remained silent and sleeping. By five o’clock the stillborn dawn had been replaced by a fine and drizzling rain. One of the ragged cockerels was kicking up a din, and the twitter of insects had started in the grass.
Fiction writers, eat your hearts out!
Sacks’s parents were both strong “medical storytellers,” and so too the writer who served as an exemplar for everything he has written, the great Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, whose work induced such an anxiety of influence in Sacks that he tore his book The Mind of a Mnemonist in two after reading it.
It is, perhaps, greedy to want more stories from Oliver Sacks. In addition to the riveting case histories, he has already given us a cornucopia: opened our eyes to the island of the color blind; brought us to the ferns, mescal, and chocolate of Oaxaca; meditated on music and chemistry. But Sacks is nothing if not a graphomaniac (he has been known to drive his editors nuts with serial footnotes and emendations), writing, like Nietzsche, even through the concerts that he attends. Indeed, his friend the journalist Lawrence Weschler reports in this month’s Vanity Fair that since learning of his terminal cancer, Sacks has been “pouring himself back into his writing with redoubled intensity,” and there are, according to Weschler, at least two more books that Sacks hopes to complete in the months ahead.
In 1961, a regular on Venice’s Muscle Beach and an avid weightlifter, Sacks broke the California state record for the full squat at 600 lbs. This remarkable man lifts us all.