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Oliver Sacks

By Paul Theroux

There are, and have been, distinguished members of this academy as accomplished as Oliver Sacks but I doubt that many of us—or any of us—in addition to our works, have at the same time also been able to give a Latin name to the rarest of cycads, and ferns, and cephalopods; deal with equanimity face to face with a big strong patient in a grip of delusional psychosis screaming obscenities; play classical piano; swim for twenty miles; learn sign language; ride a motorcycle for days through the desert; ingest almost every hallucinogen known to man (including magic mushrooms, morning glory seeds, angel dust, PCP, and LSD); break numerous bones and recover from these fractures; earn the esteem of W. H. Auden, and Her Majesty the Queen, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Robin Williams, and Mickey Hart, the drummer of The Grateful Dead—oh, and bench-press 600 pounds, a California record for weightlifting. These details, added to Oliver’s literary and neurological accomplishments, make him inimitable.

Oliver achieved greatness as a writer but Oliver was rare in also being a great man—and in a further refinement of that rarity, I think of him as a shaman—a wizard in his words, compassionate in his actions, with the power to enchant and the wisdom to heal.

It is my good fortune that I was able to call him a friend. He had many friends. I have never known anyone like him. He was the man who knew everything, had read everything; someone with whom I could discuss anything at all—the most academic subject, the most literary, the most deeply personal—the Wallace Line, the psychotropic vine ayahuasca, the effect of rat droppings in a river, the jellyfish lake of Palau, rock music, marriage, Mad Cow Disease, writer’s block, the nuances of Nabokov, my attacks of gout, the connection between paranoia and eroticism. He was clear-sighted, unjudgmental, and to the end of his life, fearless.

He was also the most modest of men. He told me once at Beth Abraham Hospital, “Without my badge and my white coat I am indistinguishable from many patients here. In Bronx State, a state mental hospital I used to work at, I always used to carry my white coat and my identity pass, because I was never sure that if I lost it I would be able to prove my sanity. ‘Oh, yes, yes,’  he said, mimicking a sarcastic doctor, ‘Delusion of being Oliver Sacks. Sedate him.’ ”

It is the nightmare of Chekhov’s “Ward Number 6,” a story to which Oliver often referred. Many people—most—have issues. Consider “street neurology,” he said, the close observation of New Yorkers on the sidewalk, and you see a whole range of untreated neurological conditions.

He was guided by the insight that what we think of as a deficit—blindness, autism, Parkinson’s Disease, Tourette’s Syndrome, and other afflictions—rather than causing despair for being debilitating, can actually inspire assets, new ways of dealing with the world, can make people brilliant. This I think of as his shamanistic power, bringing his neurological experience to bear on such figures as Dostoevsky, Bartók, Kierkegaard, Mozart, Klee, de Chirico, and others. “Samuel Johnson was probably Tourettic,” he said. “Sherlock Holmes possibly autistic.”

The 12th-century visionary, composer, philosopher, and mystic Hildegard of Bingen Oliver diagnosed as “migrainous” in what is I think his greatest book, Migraine. One of Hildegard’s visions, “The Fall of the Angels,” is a shower of stars, which she describes with lyrical rapture. Oliver notes that Hildegard has experienced a severe migraine and “a shower of phosphenes in transit across her visual field, their passage being succeeded by a negative scotoma.”

A visual challenge? No. He then describes how she is “Invested with this sense of ecstasy, burning with profound theophorus and philosophical significance, Hildegard’s visions were instrumental in directing her towards a life of holiness and mysticism. They provide a unique example of the manner in which a physiological event, banal, hateful, or meaningless to the vast majority of people, can become, in a privileged consciousness, the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration.”

Oliver agreed with Emily Dickinson:

Water, is taught by thirst.

Land—by the Oceans passed.

Transport—by throe—

Peace—by its battles told—

Love, by Memorial Mold—

Birds, by the Snow.

He was himself wounded—a terrifying and alienated childhood of dislocation and loneliness, gay at a time when being gay was seen as aberrant or criminal; lonely as an adult, troubled by migraine, insomnia, compulsive eating, and he was accident-prone. He had back and leg problems and, at the end of his life, liver cancer and a tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. His ailments inspired compassion, and made him grateful to be alive, and gave him a subject. He was a doctor-writer in the same way that Chekhov was a doctor-writer—resourceful, hard-working, insightful, gently humorous, widely-read, impartial, prolific. He was Chekhovian in saying, “Ask not what disease this person has, but rather what person the disease has.”

He was distrustful of conventional medication. Once in a hospital, Oliver introduced me to a Parkinsonian patient, Grace. Oliver had written in her file: “An enigma since 1929.” He had monitored many of his patients over 40 years, which is why the case histories in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and other case histories are so fully realized. Grace’s was a static neurological condition: writing movements, tics, oscillation of the eyes. She was on no medication, because Oliver observed that Grace felt an energy with her condition. And Oliver saw that her husband was loving, devoted to her. “With medication she would have become devitalized.”

Without the dullness induced by medication, he said, a Parkinsonian patient had the possibility of the freedom to live; the energy to react, to “borrow” postures or gestures from other people.

Faced with a patient who had a severe neurological problem, Oliver was open to anything: aromatherapy, music therapy, group therapy, acupuncture, hugging, hand-holding, fresh air, visits to museums, outings in the countryside—and of course even drugs, though he believed that drugs often obscured the real cause of the problem and created misleading symptoms of their own. I looked over his shoulder one day in a hospital visit. In a patient’s record, another doctor had written “this demented woman”—and beside it Oliver had written almost scoldingly, “Not demented!

His sort of neurology, and his writing, was at times a species of rescue. “I come across many people who have been in hospitals for twenty or thirty years because of being misdiagnosed,” Oliver said. It was the old horror from “Ward Number 6.” “These so-called designer drugs—designer heroin. There are forms of it that render people profoundly Parkinsonian. Deaf people are mistakenly diagnosed as retarded. Post-encephalitics are sometimes locked up in mental hospitals as schizophrenics.”

After a long somewhat harrowing day at a hospital, Oliver said to me, “However sad or frightening, there is something positive here.”

His influence on writers, botanists, doctors, book collectors, musicians, travelers, and friends was immense. He visited me in Hawaii. He improved my swimming, he introduced me to music I had never heard, books I’d never read, he taught me the lore of cycads. I now have a variety of cycads growing around my house, and Alexander Romanovich Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist in my library, and the Ecuadorian experience of drinking the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, and a new way, the Sacksian way, of looking at the world, not at what is lacking, to lament, but what is in the world and the mind to celebrate.

Learning that he had perhaps just a few months to live, he wrote an essay on the theme of gratitude, for having enjoyed “the privilege and adventure of being alive.” In his 70s he fell in love. Last summer, I saw him in his apartment in Greenwich Village. He was in his bathrobe, seated at a desk, writing in his characteristic scrawl. “About creativity,” he said with enthusiasm. “The creative process, the ouroboros.” I told him I had a tattoo of an ouroboros. He whipped out a magnifying glass and jumped to his feet. “I must see this.” He died two weeks later.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters