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Oliver Sacks succeeded brilliantly at many endeavors, but when he tried his hand at pessimism, he failed miserably.
Everything in Its Place, the new posthumous collection of Sacks’s unpublished and uncollected essays, features on its dust jacket a photo taken by Bill Hayes, the man who taught a 76-year-old Oliver to kiss and provided six years of follow-up lessons. We see Sacks in profile, silhouetted against a softly clouded sky, with a handheld device close to his face. His hunched, hyper-alert posture could give a casual observer the impression that the world-renowned neurologist is texting a friend concerning some urgent matter.
But Mr. Hayes has assured us that the device in his lover’s hands is a magnifying glass, a tool that Sacks, blind in one eye and with cataracts, often employed when examining fine details of the natural world he loved. Which comes as a relief, considering the book’s final chapter, “Life Continues,” in which Sacks expresses concern for the future of humanity because of the isolation he perceives when people are engaged with their handheld electronic devices and not with one another.
Before his death nearly four years ago, Sacks published 15 books, most of them bestsellers that remain in print today. Some were translated into dozens of languages. He enjoyed the luxury of a superlatively resourceful mind and he seems never to have experienced boredom, even during six-mile swims. He probably never played a video game, but he may have been good at crossword puzzles: several details from his work, including the movie Awakenings, based on his 1973 book of the same title, have served as crossword clues.
I read the “Life Continues” chapter while being crushed by humanity on a subway train during the morning rush. Around me I saw young people, about whose well-being Sacks was most anxious because they never had the chance to develop “immunity to the seductions of digital life.” Many were playing video games, including crossword apps and, you bet, cruising Grindr. Anyone who rides a crowded subway every day can be forgiven for at least occasionally avoiding engagement with others, though Sacks provided an inspiring role model for human connection. With his profound empathy, one hopes, he might have understood that people may retreat into their devices merely because this is the only solitude they get in an overcrowded world, not in order to shun the sustenance of human contact. But point taken: whatever the motivation or the means, many of us are isolated while surrounded by other people, starving in the midst of plenty.
Sacks wrote extensively about people who experience the often terrifying symptoms associated with neurological disorders. Book titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The Island of the Colorblind, Hallucinations, Migraine, Musicophilia, and Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf hint at the range of his interests. He quarried the science involved: the genetics, the brain chemistry, the body mechanics. But importantly to his readers, he maintained focus on the people experiencing the phenomena. As Steve Silberman, author of the landmark 2015 autism book NeuroTribes, wrote in Wired shortly after Sacks’s death, “Sacks made patients the heroes of his case studies, rescuing the clinical anecdote from the margins of medical practice.”
In 2017, Knopf released The River of Consciousness, a collection of ten of Sacks’s essays, most of which had appeared previously in The New York Review of Books. River was fresh because of the connections it highlighted—between Darwin and Freud, between the consciousness of the earthworm and the learning strategies of the octopus, between blind spots in scientific research and the cruel deceptions of human memory.
Everything in Its Place, this second and final posthumous collection, was worth waiting for. Here we have 33 essays, six of which have not been available until now, curated by a team including Kate Edgar, Sacks’s 30-year collaborator, who directs the Oliver Sacks Foundation, and Bill Hayes, his partner in love from that first kiss until the end of Oliver’s life.
The previously published essays, like Sacks’s books, are enormously readable and erudite. We are familiar with Sacks the meticulous researcher and eloquent explicator of science for the layperson, but new to us are the meditations, prose poems, and ponderings offered here, some in chapters as brief as two pages. From the possible organization of life on distant planets to the thoughts of a nursing mother orangutan who places her hand against the glass of her zoo enclosure to mirror Sacks’s hand, he invites us to ponder with him, and thus, incidentally, to understand a bit more about his mind than we may have grasped before.
Readers of Sacks have learned to expect surprises swirled in with his human insights and clinical reportage. In this book of relaxed and intimate essays, we learn the cultural and religious context in which the ancient mysteries of alchemy gave way to the innovative scientific rigor of chemistry, but also how the mystical element phlogiston persisted in scientists’ thinking even after 1774, when Joseph Priestly isolated oxygen, which he called “dephlogisticated air.” Sacks reminds us that a man named Alessandro Volta engineered the first battery, in 1800, far earlier than we might have recalled, giving his name to voltage. A superbly poetic two-page chapter praises the ginkgo tree, unchanged for 200 million years, a beautiful anomaly that unlike other trees drops all of its leaves in a single night. We read of the heroic young scientist who in 1957 worked with a tribe of cannibals in New Guinea, and how his studies contributed, two decades later, to an understanding of the causes of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” and related forms of human brain deterioration. We encounter a rather comprehensive history of herring—or, more accurately, a comprehensive study of the people around the world who celebrate the annual festival of Clupeus, the god of herring. Sacks, who liked to call himself “an old Jewish atheist,” grew up in a family that seems to have eaten herring at every meal. So leave it to him to inform us that the deity Clupeus enjoys a burgeoning crowd of worshippers around the world, and that he is among the devotees. There’s even a charming chapter on gefilte fish, which treats us to the science of the nutritive density of fish jelly.
Tantalizingly, Sacks illuminates paths for research not yet conducted. The chapter “Neurological Dreams” explores the dream-lives of people experiencing various neural disorders. At the time he was writing the essay in the late 1980s, the topic had received no attention in medical literature, although the dreams of people with migraine, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, and stroke sometimes seem to predict symptomology that has not yet manifested, or even to signal a forthcoming relief of symptoms. The reader imagines that no clinician before Sacks had bothered to ask neurology patients about their dreams. After the publication of the original version of the essay in MD in 1991, and its development in Harvard psychologist Dierdre Barrett’s 1996 book Trauma and Dreams, this became one of Sacks’s many trails of research that someone else pursued, with his blessing. At the time of his death, he was anticipating advances in the understanding and prevention of disorders including spinal cord degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease—possibly related to the deadly prions causing mad cow disease.
High school students learn the names of the chemist Humphry Davy and his assistant Michael Faraday, the latter best remembered for his electromagnetic-induction discoveries in the early 19th century that led to the invention of the electric motor. What we certainly didn’t learn about in my high school was the emotional intensity of their relationship, and Sacks opens this door:
Faraday, then in his early twenties, had followed Davy’s lectures raptly, and wooed Davy by presenting him with a brilliantly transcribed and annotated version of them . . . . There was between the two men an affection and an intellectual intimacy that never fully deserted them. Both men being shy and somewhat formal in utterance, it is impossible to do more than guess at the inner history of their relationship.
Reading this, I wondered, How many readers over the decades guessed, as I tried to do, at Sacks’s inner history?
An emotionally stunning chapter concerns Sacks’s friendship with the photojournalist Lowell Handler, who lives with a severe form of Tourette’s syndrome. Unlike many of the people Sacks profiled over the decades, Handler appears without a pseudonym. “Travels With Lowell” tells the story of their drive across the United States to meet a dozen people with Tourette’s, of their getting stoned in Amsterdam after appearing together in a Dutch television interview about Tourette’s, and of their visit to a remote northern Canadian Mennonite village in which members of the large, extended Janzen family have for at least six generations exhibited the howling and grunting, forceful twitches, sometimes obscene exclamations, and other symptoms of Tourette’s. The Janzens had long accepted and shared their neighbors’ conviction that “God must be punishing the family for something.” A few years before Sacks and Handler visited, a Canadian neurologist had enlightened David Janzen, the youngest member of the family to experience symptoms: This is a clinical condition experienced by many people around the world; it has a name, treatments are available, and you and your family are not cursed. Sacks’s special contribution was to bring his friend and “Touretter” Lowell Handler to the Mennonite village in order to cultivate fellowship.
Sacks wrote the foreword to a revolutionary 1992 book of essays by 14 people with Tourette’s, Don’t Think About Monkeys, which exemplifies his gift for empathizing with people who have felt, and have been treated, like freaks. In his 1998 memoir, Twitch and Shout, Handler told his side of the story of his travels with Sacks. He wrote that early in their association, “I wondered why he was so fascinated by people with Tourette . . . . Were we really friends or was I simply another specimen for the doctor to observe?” During their expeditions, Handler learned that Sacks was fascinated by many people’s experiences, and that the doctor indeed cared for him as a friend, not as a specimen. In 2017, Blind Dog Films released a short-short documentary, My Travels With Oliver, which Handler narrated, featuring photographs that he took during their journeys in the late 1980s. Included is a shot of Sacks with his 92-year-old father, then still practicing medicine in the family home in London.
Lowell Handler seems to hold an important key to understanding Sacks, whom the world knew as an enormously capable physician, writer, and public speaker. But in close quarters Sacks could be painfully shy. He had difficulty making decisions about mundane matters, and struck some people as a rather peculiar character. Handler describes his traveling companion requiring 15 minutes to fasten his seat belt in an automobile, and chuckling at his own ineptitude. A picture emerges of a man fascinated by others’ oddities perhaps in part because he felt odd himself. Instead of hiding from others, as the socially awkward often do, Sacks did his best to connect with people, including many whose feelings of freakishness he empathized with. At the end of the film Handler says, “Oliver’s legacy is showing us things about ourselves that we didn’t know and that we can now not only accept but embrace.” This would be a major achievement for any psychotherapist, and is even more impressive as the work of a physician whose specialty was patients’ neurons, not their self-affirmation.
Celibate for 35 years, after having resolved that he was not temperamentally cut out for romance, Sacks at 76 did his diligent best to experience with Bill Hayes what he had been missing. The story of his awakening into amorous and sexual love is beautifully told in Hayes’s 2017 memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me. With his own popular 2015 memoir, On the Move, Sacks clarified for anyone guessing at his inner history that before his long celibacy, his passionate loves had been with men.
Still, he posthumously teases us a bit. In the opening paragraph of the chapter “First Love,” he seems ready to offer a peek at his early romantic life when he begins to describe an experience he had at age twelve in his school’s library: “I was hidden in a corner, reading . . . when a shadow fell across the page. I looked up and saw an astonishingly tall, gangling boy with a very mobile face, brilliant, impish eyes, and an exuberant mop of reddish hair. We got talking together, and”—
And? Sounds a bit like love at first sight, doesn’t it?
—“have been close friends ever since.” The tall boy with the impish eyes was Jonathan Miller, who, like Sacks, grew up to be a neurologist, but later became a celebrated London theatre director and opera conductor. A lighthearted photo of Miller with Sacks is among the pictures Lowell Handler took in the late 1980s. As boyhood mates, Oliver and Jonathan, with their friend Eric, accompanied a beloved teacher on early-morning nature explorations, collecting specimens of animal, vegetable and mineral, then went on to be lifelong friends. On their adventures, we learn, the adolescent Oliver exhibited a surplus of enthusiasm. His accounts are sure to delight readers, but we don’t get to hear from Jonathan Miller’s parents, whose summer beach house Sacks rendered uninhabitable when the numerous glass jars holding his inadequately preserved collection of gelatinous, putrefied cuttlefish exploded all over the basement.
So, we quickly learn, the “First Loves” in this book’s secondary title included long swims, biology and chemistry, cephalopods and vanadium, but no pubescent romantic liaisons. On the Move and Insomniac City remain the go-to source materials concerning Sacks’s human loves.
Near the end of this book, we read, “But it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others, if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished and to which one had given one’s best in return is itself threatened.”
Sacks wrote these words shortly before his death. The threats to our culture that he feared were not political or military. A little European Jewish boy during World War II, he grew up to see civilization survive Nazism. He describes a scene we witness every day—children being ignored by parents who are staring at their cell phones—and points out what should be obvious, that these children will grow up feeling neglected. Many social critics have expressed anxiety over the dehumanization facilitated by modern technology. But in uncharacteristically alarmist language, Sacks takes his own apprehension a step further and writes that we have created a condition that “resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.” (The New Yorker published the essay in its February 11 issue under the title “The Machine Stops,” a reference to E. M. Forster’s eerily prescient 1909 short story, which Sacks recaps in the essay.)
Our culture is indeed threatened, as are the air we breathe and the oceans from which our ancestors emerged. And yes, today on an overcrowded subway I peered into the kind of handheld digital device that Sacks worried was among the causes of a massive neurological calamity. But on the device’s little glowing screen I was reading a chapter from Musicophilia, a beloved book by a favorite author.
A small sign hangs above my desk, printed with a sentence from an op-ed that Sacks published in The New York Times when he knew that he would live only a few months longer: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” As long as people are still reading Sacks, in spite of what they’re doing with their glowing devices, this reader will continue to harbor optimism for our species.
Despite Sacks’s best attempts at nihilism in this final collection, he posthumously and eagerly shares with the world his “hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth.”
Everything in Its Place: First Loves & Last Tales
By Oliver Sacks
Hardcover, 9780451492890, 288 pp.