“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.”
By Maria Popova
Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it. Take, for instance, Joseph Weber, whose spectacle of failed experiments made him the most derided scientist of his time yet paved the way for the detection of gravitational waves — one of the most monumental discoveries in the whole of modern science, as full of potential for revolutionary knowledge as the invention of the telescope. We rarely know which missteps will become stepping stones in the advancement of knowledge, for the pursuit of truth requires a certain discipline of deferring judgment for periods longer than our appetite for instant answers allows.
Although Lewis was educated at Harvard and Princeton, served on the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and presided over the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute, he wrote humbly and poetically from the self-described position of “a citizen and a sometime scientist.” In one of the essays, titled “Alchemy,” he starts someplace unlikely and leads us someplace monumental:
Alchemy began long ago as an expression of the deepest and oldest of human wishes: to discover that the world makes sense. The working assumption — the everything on earth must be made up from a single, primal sort of matter — led to centuries of hard work aimed at isolating the original stuff and rearranging it to the alchemists’ liking. If it could be found, nothing would lie beyond human grasp. The transmutation of base metals to gold was only a modest part of the prospect. If you knew about the fundamental substance, you could do much more than make simple money: you could boil up a cure-all for every disease affecting humankind, you could rid the world of evil, and, while doing this, you could make a universal solvent capable of dissolving anything you might want to dissolve.
With an eye to our haughty hunger for deriding yesteryear’s errors, Lewis reminds us that every error inches us closer to the truth, but not all errors are created equal — those undergirded by a great deal of scholarship and earnest scientific effort are more likely to yield byproducts that can eventually be transmuted into some proto-truth. Noting that the alchemists were serious professionals in their time, who honed their skills through “long periods of apprenticeship and a great deal of late-night study,” he writes:
We tend to look back at them from today’s pinnacle of science as figures of fun, eccentric solitary men wearing comical conical hats, engaged in meaningless explorations down one blind alley after another. It was not necessarily so: the work they were doing was hard and frustrating, but it was the start-up of experimental chemistry and physics… They never succeeded in making gold from base metals, nor did they find a universal elixir in their plant extracts; they certainly didn’t rid the world of evil. What they did accomplish, however, was no small thing: they got the work going… As time went on and the work progressed, error after error, new and accurate things began to turn up. Hard facts were learned about the behavior of metals and their alloys, the mathematics of thermodynamics were worked out, and, with just a few jumps through the centuries, the helical molecule of DNA was revealed in all its mystery.
[Now] alchemy exists only as a museum piece, an intellectual fossil, so antique that we no longer need be embarrassed by the memory, but the memory is there. Science began by fumbling. It works because the people involved in it work, and work together. They become excited and exasperated, they exchange their bits of information at a full shout, and, the most wonderful thing of all, they keep at one another.
With that singular superpower of the essayist to draw connections between the seemingly unrelated, Lewis pivots to his central point — a point tenfold more relevant, urgent even, three and a half decades later:
Something rather like this may be going on now, without realizing it, in the latest and grandest of all fields of science. People in my field, and some of my colleagues in the real “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry, have a tendency to take lightly and often disparagingly the efforts of workers in the so-called social sciences. We like to refer to their data as soft. We do not acknowledge as we should the difference between the various disciplines within behavioral research — we speak of analytical psychiatry, sociology, linguistics, economics, and computer intelligence as though these inquiries were all of a piece, with all parties wearing the same old comical conical hats. It is of course not so. The principal feature that the social sciences share these days is the attraction they exert on considerable numbers of students, who see the prospect of exploring human behavior as irresistible and hope fervently that a powerful scientific method for doing the exploring can be worked out. All of the matters on the social-science agenda seem more urgent to these young people than they did at any other time in human memory. It may turn out, years hence, that a solid discipline of human science will have come into existence, hard as quantum physics, filled with deep insights, plagued as physics still is by ambiguities but with new rules and new ways of getting things done. Like, for instance, getting rid of thermonuclear weapons, patriotic rhetoric, and nationalism all at once. If anything like this does turn up we will be looking back at today’s social scientists, and their close colleagues the humanists, as having launched the new science in a way not all that different from the accomplishment of the old alchemists, by simply working on the problem — this time, the fundamental, primal universality of the human mind.
In another essay from the collection, titled “Making Science Work,” Thomas revisits the subject, reaching across time and space to shake us out of our present cult of “big data” and remind us of the significance of small, humane data:
The social scientists … may be up to the most important scientific business of all… Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and almost entirely unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself. We need, for this most worrying of puzzles, the brightest and youngest of our most agile minds, capable of dreaming up ideas not dreamed before, ready to carry the imagination to great depths and, I should hope, handy with big computers but skeptical about long questionnaires and big numbers.
In yet another prescient essay titled “Basic Science and the Pentagon,” Thomas stresses the urgency of funding basic science — science marked by “the absence of any predictable, usable product,” carried out “in an atmosphere of high uncertainty,” and built on “What if?” questions rather than “How to?” questions — and the importance of incorporating social science into our most pressing research priorities. He writes:
The present administration has no special fondness for the social and behavioral sciences, and the National Science Foundation is sharply reducing its funding — never generous at best — for these stepchildren of scholarship. Very well, the country will survive, and the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and their siblings will have to eat grass until their time comes again. But the basic research enterprise involved in thermonuclear warfare contains a staggering array of behavioral research questions, the purest kind of social science, questions never before asked about human behavior, deep ambiguities approachable only in an atmosphere of almost total uncertainty.
Who will be bringing in the data telling us what to expect when, say, five million of us vanish in twenty minutes and another five million are left behind with bone marrows burned out and skins in shreds, looking at what is left of the dead and waiting to die? Or, to magnify the problem to what will more likely be its true dimension, what will the few million survivors say to each other, or do to each other, at the moment when the other hundred millions are being transmuted back to the old interstellar dust? This, it seems to me, requires study; mandates study. Will no one be casting an anthropological eye at the dilemma to be faced when human beings cease being human?
“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.”
By Maria Popova
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” But Anderson himself already had a great deal to teach about what it means to be an artist. Around that time, he met young William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), who considered himself lucky to be “uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions.” Anderson recognized the kernel of immense talent in the young writer and took him under his wing. Decades later, Faulkner would remember Anderson as his sole important mentor in a beautiful 1953 piece originally published in The Atlantic as “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation” and subsequently included in the Faulkner anthology Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (public library) under his original typescript title, “A Note on Sherwood Anderson.”
Faulkner reflects on the most important thing Anderson taught him about being a writer:
I learned that, to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born; that to be an American and a writer, one does not necessarily have to pay lip-service to any conventional American image… You had only to remember what you were.
He quotes Anderson’s own words to him as a young writer — words of immense timeliness nearly a century later; words that apply as much to literature as they do to any wakeful artist’s task:
America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning… All America asks is to look at it and listen to it and understand it if you can. Only the understanding ain’t important either: the important thing is to believe in it even if you don’t understand it, and then try to tell it, put it down. It won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper, and something else to try to understand and tell. And that one probably wont be exactly right either, but there is a next time to that one, too. Because tomorrow America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.
To believe, to believe in the value of purity, and to believe more. To believe not in just the value, but the necessity for fidelity and integrity; lucky is that man whom the vocation of art elected and chose to be faithful to it, because the reward for art does not wait on the postman.
Faulkner clearly kept his mentor’s words close to heart as he grew into himself as a writer. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature a quarter century after meeting Anderson, he echoed the heart of this abiding advice in his spectacular acceptance speech, in which he asserted that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
By Maria Popova
“If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful meditation on how differences bring couples closer together. This life-expanding recompense of embracing otherness graces every meaningful relationship, be it the love of a person or the love of a place, and it comes alive with uncommon splendor in Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (public library) — the poetic and profound more-than-memoir by the writer and photographer Bill Hayes.
After the sudden death of his partner of sixteen years, Hayes — a lifelong insomniac — leaves San Francisco for New York in search of a fresh start. He finds himself in a city where “life is a John Cage score, dissonance made eloquent,” where “every car on every train holds a surprise, a random sampling of humanity brought together in a confined space for a minute or two — a living Rubik’s Cube.” Slowly, his heart begins to awaken from the coma of grief and he falls in love again — first with the city, then with an improbable new paramour: the late, great neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. He learns that New York, like love, is demanding and difficult but rewards those who surrender to it unguardedly. Both can break your heart, and both can break it open if you embrace their irregular edges.
What emerges from this dual love letter is a lyrical reminder that happiness and heartache are inseparably entwined, and that without the tragic, the beautiful would be just a frayed strand of half-being.
I moved to New York eight years ago and felt at once at home. In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed with agrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment — an apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.
Alongside the portrait of New York Hayes paints a portrait of the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks — a largehearted genius of ceaseless eccentricity, who collects spectacles and dreams of fern salad and writes with a fountain pen and has never emailed or texted or owned a computer; who, when taught to open a champagne bottle in his late seventies, dons his swimming goggles “just in case”; who earnestly calls pot “cannabis” and exclaims with gusto when stoned into hallucination: “The primary cortex! The genius of the primary cortex!”; a man of imagination so infinite and empathy so complete that when asked what he has been doing lying in the garden for hours, he replies that he has been wondering about what it’s like to be a rose.
Hayes is the “Billy” in Dr. Sacks’s own magnificent memoir — the love of his life, whom he met after three and a half decades of singledom and celibacy. Dr. Sacks himself recounted their defining moment of mutuality: “[Billy] came to see me and (in the serious, careful way he has) said, ‘I have conceived a deep love for you.’ I realized, when he said this, what I had not realized, or had concealed from myself before — that I had conceived a deep love for him too — and my eyes filled with tears. He kissed me, and then he was gone.”
The two met when Dr. Sacks sent Billy a letter — one might say fan mail, though Hayes seems far too humble to call it that himself — after reading his book The Anatomist. Hayes writes:
He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known, and before long I found myself not just falling in love with O; it was something more, something I had never experienced before. I adored him.
Indeed, Hayes’s is not so much a love letter, for even the most exquisite of the genre can slip into the formulaic, but a most unusual letter of adoration — of Oliver, and of New York.
Besides that deep love and mutual adoration, Hayes’s tender account of his life with Dr. Sacks — or “O,” as he appears in the book — reveals that they share a fervent yet ungrasping appreciation of what he so poetically calls “those rare moments when the world seems to shed all shyness and displays every possible permutation of beauty.” They share, too, a good-natured curiosity about the world — one about the natural world, the other about the human world. Both are fearless explorers, but Billy is the modern urban counterpart to O’s Darwin and Humboldt and Shackleton — while Dr. Sacks ventures to remote islands of exotic ferns and curious neuropathologies, Hayes ventures into a questionable artist warehouse, comforts the sad stranger on the train and the go-go boy with the existential crisis, chats up the elderly woodworker carving a letter opener at the corner of Eighth and Jane, has his eye drawn by a 95-year-old artist with bright orange hair, and follows into a dark alley the homeless poet who writes him a koan-sonnet onto a celestial map torn from an old New York Times.
Hayes relays his disposition toward the city and its inhabitants:
I make a point of waving or nodding hello when I can. I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside. New York — which is to say, New Yorkers — will take care of you.
Indeed, what often escapes the gliding visitor is the subterranean kindness that governs the city, that makes it not only bearable but beautiful. Hayes writes:
I’ve lived in New York long enough to understand why some people hate it here: the crowds, the noise, the traffic, the expense, the rents; the messed-up sidewalks and pothole-pocked streets; the weather that brings hurricanes named after girls that break your heart and take away everything.
It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here. But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least. Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you — even if you don’t get something back right away. You will.
As he inhabits the city, Hayes is aglow with generous curiosity — not the greedy kind that makes souvenirs out of otherness but the warm, openhearted kind that seeks to understand and connect. He is a noticer of things — the white clouds backlit by the moon against the night sky, the hands of lovestruck couples “laced together as if in prayer,” the quality of the early morning air outside the busy subway station, “soft, as if unfinished dreams still emanated from everyone’s skin.” But perhaps, exactly contrary to the stereotype of the hasty New Yorker in a perpetual trance of busyness, every true New Yorker is — must necessarily be — a noticer of things, for this is a city where “beauty comes in unbeautiful ways.”
Strewn throughout the narrative are notes — sometimes poetic, sometimes playful, always in close contact with the profound — from Hayes’s journal, which he began on Oliver’s suggestion one spring morning shortly after they fell in love. Many of these diary meditations are loving records of unusual, endearing proclamations Oliver makes as a matter of course — precious fossils of the peculiarities that made Oliver Sacks Oliver Sacks.
In an entry from January of 2010, Hayes records:
O: “Every day, a word surprises me.”
O: “Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?”
They are also capsules of the tenderness that flowed between them — tenderness colored by Dr. Sacks’s lovable idiosyncrasies:
O: “I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins.”
“I just want to enjoy your nextness and nearness,” O says.
In an entry from the winter of 2010, Hayes records:
Palace Hotel, San Francisco — Over Christmas:
In bed, lights out:
O: “Oh, oh, oh…!”
I: “What was that for?”
O: “I found your fifth rib.”
In the middle of the night: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” O whispers.
In another entry:
O, in the car, on a drive back from the Botanical Garden — reclining all the way back in his seat (because of sciatica); two pairs of sunglasses on (because of his eye) — suddenly speaks, startling me (I thought he’d been sleeping):
“I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: you create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate. Like Jesus. And Kierkegaard. And smoked trout…”
I: “That’s the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me — I think.”
O chuckles, then adds: “It’s a kind of teaching, in a strange way…”
Later: I thought he was gazing at me lovingly as I drove, but then realized, no:
“I’m watching the odometer and thinking of the elements,” says O.
But love is, indeed, “a kind of teaching,” the tender mutuality of which Hayes captures in another entry under the heading “Random images and thoughts”:
How, during a daylong series of panels and performances on O’s work, he would repeatedly open his little tin and offer me a mint before taking one himself.
How, when we first met, he didn’t really know how to (or didn’t think so) share with another person. He’d never shared his life before, after all.
How when I didn’t feel well recently and took a long bath, he brought in to me a piece of toast with a slice of cheese on it. When I transferred to the bed, be brought me another slice.
On a particularly scenic July evening on the rooftop, the spectacle of the sunset aided by a touch of hallucinogens, Hayes contemplates the transcendent cross-pollination of differences that is love:
Taking in the great beauty of my surroundings — “an attack of beauty,” as O once said about a sunset — I thought two things: one, how there is so much in that head of his, so much O knows; and two, how different we are, in that what is going through my brain is not so much a stream of thoughts and images but of feelings and emotions. I am tuned into the people around me — the dynamics among the group of boys behind us, and the argument being had by the older couple right next to us, and my own complicated feelings. I may not know nearly as much as O knows, I am not as brilliant, but I feel a lot, so much, and some of this has rubbed off onto him and some of his knowledge has rubbed off onto me.
Undergirding their particular love story is the universal story of every love — that subtle yet indelible way in which two separate people come to permeate one another in the very fiber of their being, a mutual permeation works even across space and time: Those we love come to color even our past that predates them. Looking back on one of his first evenings in New York, Hayes recounts: “The tequila tasted as clean and bright as metal — like an element with a name I can’t pronounce.” He hadn’t yet fallen in love with Dr. Sacks, whose famous obsession with the periodic table would become part of their relationship — Oliver would later count Billy’s pushups by the names of the corresponding elements: “titanium, vanadium, chromium…” And yet Hayes’s mind had somehow revised his own memory with Dr. Sacks’s subsequent influence, for loving someone alters even our memory of who we were before we loved them.
What becomes clear from Hayes’s journals is not only the soul-deep affection between them, but also those small, everyday acts of care of which that affection is woven:
“I hope I get a good night’s sleep and then have a rush of thoughts, as I did this morning,” says O. “It’s very delightful when that happens — all of them rushing to the surface, as if they have been waiting for me to become conscious of them…”
I help him get ready for bed — “de-sock” him, fill his water bottle, bring him his sleeping tablets, make sure he has something to read.
O: “I want a flow of good thoughts and words as long as I’m alive.”
In an entry written less than a year before Dr. Sacks’s death, Hayes records:
“Do you sometimes catch yourself thinking?” says O, out of the blue, in the car, on the way to his place in the country. “I sometimes sort of feel like I’m … looking at the neural basis of consciousness.”
“Those are special occasions,” he went on, “when the mind takes off — and you can watch it. It’s largely autonomous, but autonomous on your behalf — in regard to problems, questions, and so on.” A pause, then returning to his thought: “There are creative flights… Flights: that is a nice word.”
“Mmm, I love that word… What… triggers such flights for you?”
“Surprise, astonishment, wonder…”
When knee surgery compounds the unbearable chronic pain of sciatica, making it impossible for Dr. Sacks to sit, he tells Hayes, who has built him a standing desk:
Writing is more important than pain.
O: “I thought being old would be either awful or trivial, and it’s neither.”
I: “What makes it not awful and not trivial?”
O: “Aside from you, thinking and writing.”
Hayes captures Dr. Sacks’s indivisible wholeness, this arduous resistance to the fragmentation of identity politics, in an exchange from the autumn of 2012:
Over dinner, O talking about his late friend Gaj — Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel laureate in medicine — with great excitement and conviction, comparing him to Goethe, of whom it was said, O tells me, “He had a nature. A nature.”
I thought I knew what O meant — O, who has always disliked being pigeonholed, typed, as simply one thing or another, doctor or writer, gay or not, Jewish or atheist, etc. — but I wasn’t completely sure and prodded him.
“A nature,” he repeated, as if that was the only way to say it. “He wasn’t this or that, fitted with so many labels, an ‘identity,’ like people today, but all aspects of him were of a piece — this is who he was, not what he was; a force of nature, I suppose.”
Hayes — whose life has been marked by loss: his longtime partner Steve, his agent, mentor and dear friend Wendy Weil, and finally Oliver himself — considers the measure of aliveness:
I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.
After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.
The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause — to memorize moments of the everyday.
It is with such an appetite for aliveness that Dr. Sacks meets his own death when the unexpected diagnosis of the rare recurrence of a rare cancer interrupts the idyll of their love. But even this news he receives with his inescapable essence of a writer and a lucid optimist, a liver of life, underlining each word as he writes atop a new page of his notepad: “Sad, shocking, horrible, yes, but…” In one of the finest parenthetical passages I’ve ever encountered, replete with wisdom beyond its concrete context, Hayes explains:
(Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.)
Beneath that underlined heading, Dr. Sacks lists what Hayes calls “eight and one-half reasons to remain hopeful; to feel lucky at the very moment when one might reasonably feel most unlucky.” His list would swell into his now-iconic essay on living and dying, “My Own Life,” which he dictated to Hayes almost fully formed over dinner a couple of nights later.
His life expectancy suddenly compressed by the terminal diagnosis, Dr. Sacks sets out to compress in turn as much life as possible into the time he has left, condensing even his very being to become all the more intensely himself. The seed for this zest, if fertilized by the diagnosis, had been there all along, captured in a prescient remark he had made to Hayes early in their love, years before the fatal illness, which appears as the book’s epigraph:
I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.
In another diary installment, Hayes captures the heart of what made Dr. Sacks such an exceptional writer — his adamant refusal to slide down the hierarchy of great writing from enchanter to mere explainer:
He insists on crossing out clauses suggested by a copy editor that define or explain an unusual word or term he has used: “Let them find out!” he says, meaning — make the reader work a little. Go look it up in the dictionary, or go to the library!
In a journal entry from the spring of 2015, Hayes records what might be an epitaph for Dr. Sacks:
O: “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
But what makes Dr. Sacks — the writer, the human being — so singular is the unremitting love with which he approached the world he attended to in writing, an orientation of spirit that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report.” Hayes captures this in a diary entry penned just two weeks before Dr. Sacks’s death:
[O:] “I say I love writing but really it is thinking I love — the rush of thoughts — new connections in the brain being made. And it comes out of the blue.” He smiled. “In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…”
It is fair to doubt, as I did before beginning the book, whether it is possible to render a man so beloved by the world even more lovable. But this is precisely what Hayes has done, conveying with great care and tenderness the subtleties of character that only an intimate love can reveal in a person. There is, however, a harrowing price the reader must pay for bearing witness to their beautiful love: One is left to wonder how the loss of a man as irreplaceable as Dr. Sacks, a loss grieved by millions, is at all survivable by the person who loved him the most. And yet Hayes, in a supreme testament to how love teaches us to borrow the best parts of one another, tempers his melancholy with Oliver’s infinite capacity for buoyancy of mind and spirit. Half a century after Albert Camus’s abiding treatise on the most important question of existence, Hayes writes:
I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her. It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possibly say — sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of thing said more often about a romantic love — husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover. You can’t imagine them going on without you. But they do. We do. Every day, we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And, there is really only one answer: To be alive.
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