The Art of Medicine: W.H. Auden on What Makes a Great Physician and How He Influenced Oliver Sacks
“A doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.”
By Maria Popova
The poetry of W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) was among Oliver Sacks’s formative books. When the two men eventually became friends in the final years of Auden’s life, Dr. Sacks was still a thirty-something neurologist with little more than a weightlifting record under his belt, a long way from becoming the Dante of medicine. Auden became an invaluable mentor as the young writer was honing the singular voice that would later render him the greatest science-storyteller of our time.
In the pages of A Certain World (public library) — Auden’s terrific commonplace book, that proto-Tumblr of fragmentary inspirations fomenting the poet’s imagination — I was delighted to discover the surprising seedbed of the kinship of spirit between these two otherwise rather different geniuses.
Under the entry for Medicine, Auden writes:
I can remember my father, who was a physician, quoting to me when I was a young boy an aphorism by Sir William Osler: “Care more for the individual patient than for the special features of his disease.” In other words, a doctor, like anyone else who has to deal with human beings, each of them unique, cannot be a scientist; he is either, like the surgeon, a craftsman, or, like the physician and the psychologist, an artist.
It is precisely those members of the medical profession who make the bogus claim that they are “scientific” who are most likely to refuse to consider new evidence.
Radiating from this private reflection is the sudden illumination of why Dr. Sacks, that poetic humanist of modern medicine, was so enchanted by Auden’s work and the spirit from which it sprang. (In my own life, I have found that all of my close friendships with people whom I’ve first encountered through their work are based on something larger than aesthetic admiration for one another’s work — they are based, rather, on a certain resonant affinity for the spirit undergirding the work, of which the work is only a partial expression.)
Writing shortly before the publication of Dr. Sacks’s groundbreaking Awakenings — the record of his miraculous work with patients frozen in a trance-like state by sleeping-sickness, brought back to life in large part by music — Auden offers a beautiful figurative counterpart to Dr. Sacks’s literal solution:
As Novalis wrote, “Every sickness is a musical problem; every cure a musical solution…” This means that in order to be a good doctor a man must also have a good character, that is to say, whatever weaknesses and foibles he may have, he must love his fellow human beings in the concrete and desire their good before his own. A doctor, like a politician, who loves other men only in the abstract or regards them simply as a source of income can, however clever, do nothing but harm.
In his magnificent autobiography, which remains one of the most rewarding and life-expanding books I’ve ever read, Dr. Sacks recounts the advice Auden gave him as he was writing Awakenings:
You’re going to have to go beyond the clinical… Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.
How marvelous to uncover, buried amid the pages of his forgotten commonplace book, the seed of this wisdom, which helped Dr. Sacks write the book in such a way that Auden himself would later laud as a masterpiece.
Complement this particular fragment of Auden’s altogether wonderful A Certain World, which also gave us the poet on writing and the most important principle in making art, with the story of how Oliver Sacks once saved his own life with music.
Published May 19, 2016