When a great man dies, it is as though a library has burned
I was saddened to learn of the death of Oliver Sacks, the great author and neurologist, by cancer on August 30. He was eighty-one. Saddened but not surprised, as he had been ill for some time and had rapidly weakened in recent weeks. Dr. Sacks foreshadowed his impending death with a moving and eloquent essay on the meaning of Sabbath, published in the New York Times on August 15.
Two of humanity’s greatest gifts are: the ability to reason, and the ability to empathize. As they are very nearly opposing qualities, you rarely find advanced forms of both coexisting comfortably within a single individual. Oliver Sacks was that rare exception, and this made him a uniquely compelling personality.
A doctor by trade, an author by choice, Dr. Sacks made his mark in the world of popular literature with series of fascinating, often stirring accounts of neurological oddities he had encountered in his practice. The most well-known of these, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, became an instant best-seller when it was published in 1985, and made Sacks a household name. He is also known as the inspiration for the movie Awakenings, a somewhat fictionalized version of his 1973 book of the same name.
A lesser person would simply have regarded these unusual cases as clinically interesting, but having no larger meaning. Sensing a deeper story, Dr. Sacks used them as vehicles for sensitive and insightful explorations of the human condition.
Though not without a certain scholarly quality, Sacks’ writings reveal a person who was more philosopher than clinician, as empathetic as he was analytical, and a consummate humanitarian. His wide-ranging, disarmingly unselfconscious ruminations at times have an almost metaphysical feel. In Musicophilia, one of his later works, Sacks repeatedly uses the word “ensoulment,” a term probably of his own coinage, to describe the process by which the brain comes to be fully human. It is the sort of wooly-headed sentiment that might have diminished the reputation of a scientist of lesser stature. But to his many admiring peers, this was just another example of Oliver being Oliver. Dr. Sacks was so enamored of life, which he saw as a splendid, transcendent, and unspeakably marvelous thing, that he couldn’t help the poetic digressions. He reveled in the simple fact of existence. To his way of thinking, to be a living, sentient being in the world was an extraordinary gift.
To arrive at this enlightened outlook, Sacks had to forget an awful lot of training. Neurology is the study of the brain as a biological object. Everything about it pushes the practitioner toward a coldly mechanistic view, in which the brain is simply a machine constructed from interacting parts, a biological mechanism behaving in accordance with physical principles, without mystery or deeper meaning. To the neurologist, what we call “humanity” is simply a coordinated neuronal discharge. And consciousness, that unique, amazing, and mysterious thing that only the brain does, is essentially irrelevant, as it cannot be properly quantified.
As in much of academia, there is a certain embedded rigidity in the practice of science, an institutionalized stickler mentality that reflexively frowns upon the very idea that this Very Serious Pursuit could ever be enjoyable. This face of science wears a rather grim expression and behaves as though wonder and intellectual rigor were mortal enemies. Sacks recognized this as a flawed model and rebelled against it. Rejecting the confining formality of his chosen vocation, Sacks’ writings brim with gee-whiz enthusiasm, humor, and wit.
Like most of his millions of readers, I never met Dr. Sacks. Even though in a way it felt like I had, having read several of his books, and many of his columns. Such is the nature of fame that we feel we “know” someone in the public eye because we experience their thoughts by way of their words and find some connection in them, or because we see images of them on our televisions and computers. We get a mental picture of this person we think we know, develop a profile of them, and are surprised when we find out certain things about them that do not conform to that model. We looked at Oliver Sacks and saw a burly, affable, avuncular, bearded bear of a man and assumed much based on this presentation, most of it probably wrong. When we learn about the other Oliver Sacks, the details surprise us because they do not in any way fit the profile. Who knew, for example, that he was British? or that he was gay? that he had been a top-notch athlete and a body-builder? or that he had neurological issues of his own? We would never have guessed that at one time he was a hot-dogging, tough-guy motorcyclist, or that for much of the middle part of his life he battled serious addiction. The picture emerges of a complex, flawed but highly competent, remarkably well-rounded person who wanted to absolutely do life, and was, in fact, pretty good at it.
Both as a scientist and as a good sport up for an adventure, Sacks claimed to be looking forward to death, and to appreciate the opportunity to experience it from the inside. It is tempting to think of this declaration as so much brave nonsense. But I think he really meant it, and very purposely did death with the same verve with which he did life. It isn’t hard to imagine him paying microscopically close attention as death enveloped him, noting every little detail, every unanticipated wrinkle, wryly aware of the supreme irony that the ultimate human experience, quite literally, is one that can never be shared. You imagine him gamely holding on to consciousness for as long as possible, but at the very end, surrendering gracefully.
Dr. Sacks was solidly a scientist, nominally an atheist, but enough of a natural spiritualist, I suspect, to have pondered as seriously as anyone the question that crosses all our minds at some point: Where do we go when we die? His scientist self would have been more or less obligated to respond that we don’t “go” anywhere. Rather, we stop, quite suddenly. But his spiritual self might have opined that in this magnificent universe, of which we know so very, very little, much happens that cannot be observed or measured, so who knows?
In one of his last essays, Sacks wrote of his desire to die at his country house in upstate New York, eyes fixed upon the stars. Regrettably, this did not happen. The end came a little sooner than expected, and Oliver Sacks slipped away at his apartment, in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by hastily summoned friends and loved ones, beneath a washed-out city sky.
In cinema, a major transition is commonly signaled with a fadeout. There are two types. Fade-to-black signifies an ending: This story, or at least this chapter of it, is over. Finito. Fade-to-white is more ambiguous. It isn’t really an ending, and it kind of leaves you hanging, uncertain. Something obviously happens next, but exactly what is unclear.
And when you get right down to it, this really is the ultimate question: When our time is up, do we fade to black or to white?
Well Dr. Sacks, which is it?