Oliver Sacks — His Life & His Times

The first time I learned about Oliver Sacks was via the only blog of its kind Brain Pickings. Maria Popova‘s (founder and author at Brain Pickings) wonderful article — Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen — arrested my senses and I was introduced to, the person who will become a major inspiration for me to read and to write, Oliver Sacks. And, the very moment I finished reading this insightful article, I made a mental note: I’m going to read all of Oliver’s works.

Before reading his autobiography On the Move: A Life, little did I knew about the magnificence of this great neurologist. He was a voracious reader and a celebrated author. But after reading this book, I learned that he was, perhaps is or so far in the twenty-first century, at least for me, one of the most original thinkers. His books, I feel have been pigeonholed as ‘Medical Literature’, which is tragic; they are a genuine attempt at meditation on life itself and we should all read them to make sense of life.

Who was Oliver Sacks?

One of the celebrated neurologists, a naturalist and an author. A doctor who paid exceptional attention to his patients; a reader of history of natural sciences; and a writer who never used ‘Computer’ to document his works and used fountain pen instead to write manuscripts.

Sacks was someone who never disclosed his sexuality ‘out in the open’ for he never wanted to become ‘Gay Oliver Sacks’ and his actions judged only by his sexuality. 

He was someone who made notes, literally, everywhere. For him documenting thoughts was an extremely personal and productive exercise. And, perhaps, it is because of this habit that he successfully integrated and assimilated all the important incidents which shaped his life, and such reflections have been a great learning experience for his readers, including me. Whatever he has chronicled in this book is a long and deterred life which needs to be celebrated. His writings, his works, and his autobiography are a treasured resource for humankind. And I second each one of you, the reader, to give this book a read!

Let us take a look at what to expect from this book as we go through exciting anecdotes from his life.

A portrait of my date with Sacks’ book in a cafe in New Delhi | Image Courtesy: Author (Saurabh Sharma)

Oliver Sacks writes with that nostalgia, a child in his old-age revisiting his boyhood — almost like writings of Tagore about his mother, who died when he’s so young to even recognize his mother. Sacks was a very imaginative child but after having sent away at boarding school he felt that his wings were cut-off, there was a lack of warmth in the school’s premises, and he felt, documented in his own words, “had a sense of imprisonment and powerlessness.” Most of these experiences also made him an ‘indoor’ or ‘shy’ kid. A lifelong insomniac, Sacks loved reading and writing; and also in his autobiography, he mentions, “Most of all, I loved motorbikes.” That was the joy for him — our doctor was high on life from boyhood!

‘This is the End’ With Bud

Besides presenting a collection of pleasant memories, Sacks didn’t shy away from including the unpleasant ‘error of judgments’ in his life. In the beginning of the book, he tells us about his relationship with Bud — his motorcycle buddy or as he best described him as a ‘bed buddy’.

Sacks realized early on that he is attracted to men but he confessed that he often failed to acknowledge or confess the same. And the consequence was borne by poor Bud. Sacks was leaving England for Canada to pursue his professional career and as a way of communicating ‘this is the end’ to Bud in addition to sending his wishes to Bud on his birthday, 9th July, he wrote a letter to him only to learn that he has broken Bud’s heart.

He writes, “I did not think this would affect him very much; we had been motorcycle buddies and bed buddies but, I thought, nothing more. We never spoke about my feelings for each other. But Bud sent me a passionate, painful letter in reply; he felt desolate, he said, had sobbed when he received my letter. I felt stricken when I received his letter and realized, too late, that he must have fallen in love with me and that now I had broken his heart.”

Talk About Books and he’s Your Friend!

Though shy and introverted by nature, Sacks could make friends with anyone if the encounter began with a mind-stimulating conversation. Here’s one, for example:

“About Kalman Cohen: Though we were so different, we got on very well. He was attracted by my sometimes wildly associative mind, as I was by his highly focused mind. He introduced me to Hilbert and Brouwer, the giants of mathematical logic, and I introduced him to Darwin and the great nineteenth-century naturalists.”

Mother: You’re an Abomination

I learned after reading Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City that Oliver Sacks never came out, publicly or to his family, as Gay for such an act would have made him ‘Gay Oliver’ which he found distasteful. Why would he do that, you must be thinking? Even I thought the same. What is the problem with  being out when you’re gay? England or America were progressive nations unlike India — where I know what costs being a homosexual. So: why such a thought? In this book, he explains the why.

Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City is a tale of love with Sacks and New York | Image Courtesy: Author (Saurabh Sharma)

In the beginning of the book you may find the conversation between the introverted Sacks and his father; and how he went inside a shell after an incident. Here’s the incident, and the promise which his father didn’t keep and said the unsay-able to his wife.

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop. “Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted. “Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma-she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.”

And, later in the book, he mentions how this thing affected him — the hatred towards homosexuals which was internalized in her mother — that as a result, sometimes he couldn’t just openly rebel in front of her mother or rather argue about its [homosexuality’s] naturalness; he reflects, “My mother, so open and supportive in most ways, was harsh and inflexible in this area.”

Oliver’s Mother’s Letter | Image Courtesy: Author (Saurabh Sharma)
Mother’s letter was accompanied by his father’s confession that he missed everyone | Image Courtesy: Author (Saurabh Sharma)

Aftermath of Mother’s Remark and Love for Richard

(Note: Richard here refers to the Rhodes Scholar and Poet, Richard Selig.)

Sacks relives, in his memoir, the time he was absolutely stumped by Richard’s beauty, he writes, “I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return. I was not, I think, the only one to fall in love with him; there were others, both men and women—his great beauty, his great gifts, his vitality and love of life, ensured this.”

But it was her mother’s remark which echoed when he realized that he’s falling for Richard. That word ‘abomination’ its burden was so heavy that he feared articulating his feelings for Richard. But when he finally expressed his feelings to Richard, he feared Richard’s reaction. But Richard surprised him by hugging hugged him. He said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.”

However, this relationship couldn’t last the way Sacks wanted to. He was contended in the way he was receiving love and affection from Richard but one fateful day everything changed. Richard stopped any and every communication with Sacks when the latter informed Richard that there’s is something of a size-of-an-egg in his brain. Soon Richard was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma and died in the year 1957 at the young age of 28. Richard never spoke to Sacks after this as he considered him as a messenger or symbol of death.

“What’s going on inside there? I wish I could see your brain.” — Insomniac City, Billy Hayes

Lost and Never Found

Sacks lost his suitcase, on his way to New York; we could never tell what we have missed out. Read this:

Whether or not I could have written such a book, a montage of descriptions and verbal portraits interlarded with photographs, I do not know. When I left UCLA, I packed all my photographs, everything I had taken between 1962 and 1965, along with my sketches and notes, in a large suitcase. The suitcase never married in New York; no one seemed to know what had happened to it at UCLA, nor could I get an answer from post offices in L.A. or New York. So I lost almost all the photographs I had taken in my three years near the beach; only a dozen or so somehow survived. I like to imagine that the suitcase still exists and that it may turn up one day.

When he Thought: This Is the End

Sacks was hit by a bull in Norway. And, he was in the middle of completing the manuscript for his next book and the thought that he had written a good book. But no sooner he thought of this, he realized that he’s using a past tense to describe himself. And at that very moment he recalls that a line from a poem by Auden popped up in his mind. “Let your last thinks all be thanks.”  I wonder even at such a moment when one is not certain about his life and death, the person is recalling some classic poets, their poems; how wonderful and lovely that mind had been! It knew of only the great gifts of life and one among them was literature.

(Note: 'A Leg to Stand On' is about this incident.)

About Little Sisters in London

Religion is central but not mandatory; there is no preachiness, no evangelism, no religious pressure of any sort. Not all the residents are believers, though there is a great religious devotion among the Sisters, and it is difficult to imagine such a level of care without such a deep dedication.

Footnote: Not infrequently dilemmas of an unusual sort arise, and here the Little Sisters show a moral breadth and clarity of mind. One of their residents, Flora D., a parkinsonian woman, was greatly helped by L-dopa but concerned by the extremely vivid dreams she started to get. It is not uncommon to have erotic dreams or nightmares on L-dopa, but Flora had incestuous dreams, of intercourse with her father. She felt guilty and extremely anxious about this until she described the dreams to one of the nuns, who said, “You are not responsible for the dreams you have at night. It would be quite different if these were daydreams.” This was a clear moral distinction consonant with a clear physiological distinction.

(Note: This section's contents are taken verbatim from the book.)

Never Bitten but Always Shy

Sacks was someone who had no idea how popular he was. Sometimes, he found it amusing and sometimes he felt the burden of the same. You can sense the uneasiness of being popular by this statement:

With the sudden popularity of Hat, though, I had entered the public sphere, whether I wanted it or not.

And there were some paragraphs in this book which are a treat to the eyes. What they do to your imagination is something mysterious. For example, this:

I had found myself thinking of time—time and perception, time and consciousness, time and memory, time and music, time and movement. I had returned, in particular, to the question of whether the apparently continuous passage of time and movement given to us by our eyes was an illusion-whether in fact our visual experience consisted of a series of timeless “moments” which were then welded together by some higher mechanism in the brain. I found myself referring again to the “cinematographic” sequences of stills described to me by migraine patients and which I myself had on occasion experienced. (I had also experienced it very strikingly with other perceptual disorders when I got intoxicated by sakau in Micronesia.)

And, this:

Where perception of objects is concerned, Edelman likes to say, the world is not “labeled”; it does not come “already parsed into objects.” We must make our perceptions through our own categorizations. “Every perception is an act of creation,” as Edelman says. As we move about, our sense organs take samplings of the world, and from these, maps are created in the brain. There then occurs with experience a selective strengthening of those mappings that correspond to successful perceptions-successful in that they prove the most useful and powerful for the building of “reality.”

Edelman speaks here of a further, integrative activity peculiar to more complex nervous systems; this he calls “re-entrant signaling.”

Such correlation and synchronization of neuronal firing in widely separated areas of the brain is made possible by very rich connections between the brain’s maps-connections which are reciprocal and may contain millions of fibers. Stimuli from, say, touching a chair may affect one set of maps; stimuli from seeing it may affect another set. Re-entrant signaling takes place between these sets of maps as part of the process of perceiving a chair.

(Learn about Ralph and Edelman.)

Even in his autobiography he seems to have spilled his love for the history of natural sciences. 

And in its broadest sense, neural Darwinism implies that we are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life.

Sacks’ home? England, his birthplace? America, which put him on the global map? His body, his sexuality or his experiences? One of the central themes of literature has been belonging. And, Sacks’ own life addresses this conundrum. Where he belonged? Where was his home? We all have different definitions of ‘home’. It maybe a place, our body or our lover — Bill Hayes for Sacks.

In the chapter Home, Sacks is observed attempting to address this: It was as if she [The Queen of England], when Sacks was honored — and England — were saying, “You have done useful, honorable work. Come home. All is forgiven.”

Billy Is in! His Home? 

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was.

Final Thoughts

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough, it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

Sometimes I wonder how books and reading happened to me and I also give it a thought: how did I learn about Oliver Sacks? I had no relation with medical literature altogether; I wasn’t part of any bibliophile group back-then where I would have been advised to read Sacks. How did it happen? And, when I think of it, I am reminded of this from his book:

We think of science as discovery, art as invention, but is there a “third world” of mathematics, which is somehow, mysteriously, both? Do numbers-primes, for example-exist in some eternal Platonic realm?

It’s weird. But that’s how it is. Books, or for that matter a writer to the likes of Sacks, comes to you when you develop the understanding of appreciating the irregularities of life; when you tend to see life at a granular level; when you tend to feel attracted to its immensity. In all that clutter, you tend to make sense of things and you fall in love with life.

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