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The Uncivil Servant: Oliver Sacks’s Fabulous Mind

Mitchell Abidor
November 18, 2017

Discussed in this essay: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017, 237 pages; Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview, Melville House, 2016, 100 pages; Insomniac City by Bill Hayes, Bloomsbury, 2017, 291 pages.

WHEN OLIVER SACKS died in 2015, he left instructions with three friends for the assembling of what is (perhaps) his final collection of essays, The River of Consciousness. If the essays, all beautifully written and providing food for thought, are in some way retrospectives, looking back and referring to cases from his earlier classic books, it is also a collection of essays about admiration.

Charles Darwin was a particular hero to Sacks, and in “Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers” we are presented with a portrait of a lesser-known Darwin than the discoverer of natural selection: Darwin the botanist, for whom botany was another proving ground for his ideas on evolution.

Freud also has pride of place, as Sacks reminds us of Freud the neurologist, and how his neurological work was an essential step on the road to psychoanalysis. In his essay “Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms,” Sacks recounts Freud’s work in a physiological lab in Vienna and the insights he gained working on the nerve cells of both vertebrates and invertebrates.

Then there is the great William James, whose spirit and teachings and clarity of expression, particularly in his Principles of Psychology, serve as a basis for Sacks’ ideas on consciousness and the functioning of the mind — and, even more, as a model for his writing.

An overarching idea that dominates The River of Consciousness is one that played a key role in all of Sacks’ neurological books, the notion that consciousness is an active process, that almost nothing we perceive is passively received, that it is we who assemble the world in which we live. “We have,” he writes, “no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true … depends as much on our imagination as our senses.” This is because “[t]here is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character of our recollections.” Citing William James, Sacks sums it up neatly: “Consciousness was not a ‘thing’ but a process.”

WHEN HE SPEAKS of the “personal continuity to the consciousness of every individual,” or when he describes how what he sees on Seventh Avenue “is not just Seventh Avenue . . . but my Seventh Avenue, marked by my own selfhood and identity,” Sacks’s personal circumstances while writing these words color our reading of them and lends them greater weight. The essay was written the year of his death, and so when he describes what he sees, the “events which catch my attention for a moment as they happen… [A] girl in a red dress goes by, a man walking a funny dog, the sun (at last) emerging from the clouds,” it is not just the process of perception, the construction of consciousness Sacks is describing, but those things that belong only to him, the sights and memories and sensations that only he has seen, that only he has stored in his memory, that only he carries with him while alive, and that will die with him on August 30, 2015.

The title essay of the collection has as its epigraph a quote from Jorge Luis Borges: “Time is the substance I am made of.” Sacks’ noting that the Seventh Avenue he sees is his personal Seventh Avenue, and the certainty of his ultimate fate, takes us back to a parable of Borges’, “The Witness,” in which he says, “one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies in every final agony.” Borges goes on to ask, “What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose?” Oliver Sacks’ insight and intelligence are an irreparable loss. So too is the loss of the image of the woman in the red dress he saw that day in Manhattan.

SACKS SPEAKS to us directly in his enchanting entry in the wonderful series of Last Interviews published by Melville House. (Other volumes include Roberto Bolaño, David foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag…)

This volume includes interviews conducted by masters like Terry Gross, Studs Terkel, Charlie Rose, and Tom Ashbrook, and there are striking aperçus in almost every one of them. With Gross, Sacks praises how “novelistically rich” 19th-century medical case studies were; with Rose (who constantly interrupts him), Sacks describes his friendship with Robin Williams; with Terkel, he speaks of the human ability to adapt new skills -- “left-handed’ skills,” he calls them -- when the need arises.

He explores briefly and cogently his main ideas, guided skillfully by the interviewers. The volume is a valuable supplement for those familiar with his books, or a wonderful point of entry for those who have not yet read them.

(A funny error in the book: on page 9 Sacks quotes Dr. Quincy. Oliver Sacks was someone totally uninterested in popular culture, and he is not quoting the TV medical examiner played by Jack Klugman; rather, this is a copy-editing error and he was quoting the 19th-century writer Thomas De Quincey.)

WE GET ANOTHER perspective on Oliver Sacks in Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City. Hayes was Sacks’ lover in the final years of his life, breaking a more than three-decades-long streak of celibacy for the neurologist, and in excerpts from his journals, Hayes presents us with a touching portrait of Sacks the elderly lover -- his eyesight all but gone, his health failing -- astonished in almost every way by the joys of this late-blooming love.

Sacks is capable of posing his partner philosophical puzzles: “Can one ever experience pleasure that is not attached to an object? Pure pleasure?’ Or “Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?”

But it is Sacks (and Hayes) the lovers and their wonder at their love, which for Sacks saves being old from being “either awful or trivial.” His happiness is derived from simply being with Hayes: “I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness.”

The utter sincerity of the emotions saves the Sacks portions of Insomniac City from being cloying. They touchingly round off our image of the great writer.

Hayes is less successful in his portrayal of New York, which he moved to late in life and which he views through a lens no real New Yorker can conceive of. The people on the subway are a subject of interest (instead of part of the mass who crush you); cabbies are the source of an infinite number of fascinating tales (instead of kamikaze pilots who live attached to their car horns). He even finds the hundred teenagers who take over Sixth Avenue with their skateboards a source of beauty, instead of the noisome mass of pests they would be. Overflowing garbage pails in summer charm him, and if all of Insomniac City were this book, it would be unreadable.

But it’s not, and instead we have an intimate portrait of a writer whose loss we’ll long feel.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.