Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.

The remarkable aspect I keep coming back to is what Sacks accomplished as a writer. I had always thought of him as a prodigy in this endeavor. I thought that his precise and artful diction, his periodic sentences, his narrative skills, his economical and evocative character portraits of his patients and others with unusual neurological disorders or conditions, his artful construction of his own persona, his ability to convey scientific ideas clearly: that all of these things just sort of flowed from his fingers. (The long quotes from his writing in this piece are designed to give a taste of his splendid prose.) Sacks’s recent memoir On the Move: A Life disabused me of that idea. He describes how false starts, multiple drafts, and sometimes testy editorial back-and-forths are essential to his method.

It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing. Occasionally, a piece comes out perfectly, but more often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive. I am haunted by the density of reality and try to capture this with (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) “thick description.” All this creates problems of organization. I get intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts and am too impatient to put them in the right order. But one needs a cool head, intervals of sobriety, as much as one needs that creative exuberance. 1

In the memoir, Sacks depicts himself as always devoted to words. He was called Inky as a boy, because he was always scribbling. He studied chemistry at Oxford, but outside of class he was inspired by John Maynard Keynes’s Essays in Biography. “I wanted to write my own Essays in Biography,” he says, “though with a clinical twist — essays presenting individuals with unusual weaknesses or strengths and showing the influence of these special features on their lives; they would, in short, be clinical biographies or case histories of a sort.”

That, of course, was what he eventually accomplished (with the qualifier “of a sort” removed) in such books as Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars. Inspired not only by Keynes but by the Soviet neuropsychologist A.R. Luria and such poets as Thom Gunn (a good friend) and W.H. Auden, he pioneered a new genre: case studies that read like deft and nuanced short stories.

His breakthrough was Awakenings (1973), about treating victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic with the then-new drug L-dopa. (It was made into a film in 1990 with Robin Williams — as Sacks — and Robert De Niro.) When he sent the manuscript to Gunn, the poet called it “extraordinary” and remarked that what he had seen before of Sacks’s writing was brilliant, but

so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality. … Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation. … What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied.

At the end of On the Move, Sacks writes, “I still seem to get as ink-stained as I did seventy years ago.” He continued to fill up journals (he had completed more than a thousand of them by the end) and write letters and clinical reports. The book concludes with this:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse. I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day. Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

A rare storyteller, indeed.

1. The residue of his tangentiality is the sequence of slightly off-topic, but almost always interesting, footnotes in his books that constitute a sort of counternarrative to the main text.

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