From Abracadabra to Zombies
On the Move: a Life
The photograph on the cover of Oliver Sacks's memoir is just one of many surprises awaiting the reader of this account of an extraordinary man about his life and work. If you knew nothing of Sacks, seeing the book cover and title in a bookstore might evoke a cascade of images of a young stud on his motorcycle. Is this a travel book? Is the title meant to hint at sexual experiences? If you know of Sacks, as I do, from books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the cover photo seems incongruous. He should be effete, overweight, bearded, and wearing a white coat. He's a neuroscientist who writes captivating stories about people with neurological issues that illuminate various aspects of consciousness, perception, memory, and behavior. He's the author of An Anthropologist on Mars, another collection of stories about such people and how they have managed to live their lives with brains or sensory organs that are not run-of-the-mill. Could that handsome young man with the athletic physique sitting astride a BSA Bantam be the same fellow who wrote in Hallucinations of his years of amphetamine use and self-experiments with LSD and other drugs? Yep. Same chap. And more. At one point in his memoir Sacks tells us that in 1960 he wrote to his parents that the only things he really liked were talking, reading, and writing. Don't believe him. He loved bodybuilding and weightlifting, swimming, scuba diving, and riding a motorcycle at high speeds over long distances. He also loved conversing with the likes of Steven Jay Gould--another of my favorite writers--and Francis Crick, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. He also liked other men, something I did not know before reading On the Move. I realize that in today's world it is important to announce that being gay--or even being seen as "an abomination," as Sack's mother saw him--need not hinder anyone from accomplishing whatever they set their mind to. Still, I find myself wishing that discussions of one's sex life be kept private, along with one's religious beliefs. I don't care who you are or how important you have been, I have no interest in either your sex life or your religion.
Regarding religion, Sacks doesn't say much about it in his memoir. Perhaps he felt he'd said enough about religion in his boyhood memoir, Uncle Tungsten, which I haven't read. He seems to be a "cultural Jew," one who knows the history, rituals, and practices of Judaism and who occasionally partakes of some Jewish ceremony or other, but who hangs out with those who don't seem to have any particular religious proclivities and who roast pigs (he doesn't say whether he ate any pig). Regarding politics, Sacks has nothing to say. He was born and raised in London and never became a U.S. citizen, though he's lived here for something like 50 years. His only semi-political act mentioned involves being literally pulled into a protest march by a student from Gallaudet in Washington D. C. in 1988. A vociferous student revolt erupted when the only university for the deaf in the world hired a hearing president. Sacks was there to cover the protest for The New York Review of Books.
The Deaf President Now protest lasted more than a week, culminating in a march on the Capitol (Gallaudet was founded and maintained by a congressional charter). My role as impartial observer soon got compromised; I was walking along and making notes on the sidelines when one of the deaf students grabbed me by the arm and signed, “Come on, you’re with us.” So I joined the students— over two thousand of them— in their protest march.
The students wanted a deaf president who was fluent in American Sign Language. I remember reading about the revolt and may even have read Sacks's report in The New York Review of Books, which is where I first encountered his writing and where many of the articles in his anthologies first appeared.
Like I said, the book is full of surprises if, like me, you have not followed the life of Sacks and have, until now, known him only through his writings. The only thing I disliked about the book is that it makes my life seem like a waste of time in comparison.
Last February, Sacks wrote a short piece about his struggle with ocular melanoma that is about to end:
A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones....now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.
In his short farewell essay, Sacks makes reference to David Hume--my favorite philosopher--and, like Hume, Sacks makes no mention of looking forward to or dreading meeting any gods in an afterlife. He concludes with this:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written....
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.
My sentiments exactly, except that I've taken much more than I've given and what I've given hasn't been much compared to people like Oliver Sacks.
posted on June 27, 2015