Celebrating Oliver Sacks’ romantic science and a life now ending

Sacks’ works have introduced readers to the marvellous complexities of the mind. Mars Hill Church Seattle/Flickr

In the preface to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1998), popular neurologist Oliver Sacks outlines the rationale behind his brand of “romantic science”. Borrowed from friend and mentor AR Luria, the term describes a literary form operating “at the intersection of fact and fable”.

With this approach Sacks’ works have introduced readers to the marvellous complexities of the mind, proving a great example of how “the two cultures” of science and literature may be reconciled.

It is telling that Sacks’ admirers come equally from both sides of the divide, with science heavyweights Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, Stephen Jay Gould matched by literary luminaries such as W.H. Auden, Hilary Mantel, and Will Self in their effusive praise of Sacks’ oeuvre.

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Sacks revealed in February, in a frank but poignant op-ed, that he had only a short time to live. As such it’s hard not to get caught by an undercurrent of sadness when reading his recently-released memoir, On the Move: A Life (2015).

The book is an affecting read, revealing aspects of Sacks’ life not previously broached: a closeted life during a time of great hostility towards homosexuality; his otherwise loving mother calling him an “abomination” on account of his sexuality; a drunken quest to lose his virginity; unrequited and lost loves; an addiction to amphetamines; a brother living with schizophrenia during a time of little therapeutic relief; and, of course, for many suffering patients for whom Sacks could offer no respite.

What we can learn from the life of Sacks

The majority of Sacks’ adult life is marked by two distinct periods.

The first, as a young man, is characterised by its vigour: motorcycling across America, weightlifting, experimenting with drugs, and youthful lust and love.

His later life, however, is consumed by a sense of vocation. Most of Sacks’ working life comprises a 35-year period of celibacy wherein he adopted an almost monastic existence, working incessantly, eating sardines “out of the tin, standing up, in thirty seconds” and visiting the New York Botanical Garden, a favourite place he “traipsed around, alone, for more than forty years”.

Seeking communion with the world, and how we may labour for others in achieving this state is a theme that runs constantly through Sacks’ life and work. I realise this may seem vague, but suffice to say it’s an elusive phenomenon and the work of a lifetime.

Take the cover of On The Move, which features a young Sacks astride a motorcycle, almost unrecognisable from the figure we have come to know over the last few decades (often looking, in the words of Diane Sawyer, “like a stray Santa”).

When riding a motorcycle, Sacks describes feeling “a direct union of oneself”, a life-affirming extension of the self into the world. Sacks’ other great loves of swimming and music similarly point to this desire for communion.

This aspiration is found throughout his case studies, demonstrating a fervent labour to reconcile a narrative gap felt by those persons under his care, and to explain to his readers how many of those with atypical neurology achieve a different but no less rich orientation to the world.

Seeking the self

Sacks showed a particular fondness for such cases, for persons who devoted themselves – sometimes ascetically, sometimes ecstatically – to an endeavour in which they both lost and found themselves.

Oliver Sacks discusses Williams syndrome (2009).

Examples include Temple Grandin (an esteemed animal welfare academic), Steven Wiltshire (an artist with extraordinary memory retention), and Carl Bennett (the pseudonym of a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome whose tics are quelled when he is operating).

Or those with Charles Bonnet syndrome (characterised by persistent hallucinations, usually following the degeneration of sight in old age), who can often live comfortably with their odd visions if they are simply reassured of their sanity. Or indeed those with Williams syndrome, who display such an openness to the pleasures of life:

Many more examples could be given across Sacks’ incredibly wide-ranging work.

We should, however, avoid sentimentalising neurological difference. Many of Sacks’ subjects suffered greatly, finding themselves languishing between worlds in a lonely, purgatorial existence. The 1973 book Awakenings provides perhaps the most compelling examples here.

The late Robin Williams on Christopher Reeve and Oliver Sacks (2007).

Still, amid the frustrations of mysterious ailments of the mind there is some solace to be found, if only in the relief of knowing how elusive we are.

Though one may suspect this to be Sacks’ final book, a footnote mentions a forthcoming title, likely to consist of journals of his travels. If there is one piece of advice I would give to new readers of Sacks it would be “Don’t skip the footnotes!”, as Sacks frequently squirrels away pithy insights in these little asides.

Sacks adopts a style of generous, gentle instruction through a focus on narrative – infused with enthusiasm and urgency – to communicate what might seem inexpressible. These case studies are never about a condition somehow neatly cleaved from the subject and held up to view, but rather seek a “thick description” of the context and contingency of how neurological difference manifests itself.

The late Robin Williams – who played a fictionalised version of Sacks in the film adaptation of Awakenings (1990) – was a great admirer and friend. It is heartening to see the affection with which Williams speaks of Sacks, and then proceeds to reduce Charlie Rose to a giggling schoolboy.

The typical Sacks reading as a gathering of “the brain’s greatest hits” speaks to the community that Sacks has fostered. Much of his correspondence with those seeking advice or offering their own experiences makes its way into his books, generating a sense of collective labour towards shared goals.

Much will be lost when we can no longer eagerly await the next gift from this dearly loved, stray Santa.

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