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Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Poet Friend Taught Him About the Nature of Creativity

“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with — what William Gibson so memorably termed our “personal micro-culture” and Brian Eno called “scenius.” The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.

In On the Move: A Life (public library) — the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love — Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn’s poem “On the Move” from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.

Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

To be sure, Sacks’s love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age — a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits’s complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam’s busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)

He adds:

The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.

What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book — that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks’s extraordinary text.)

Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals — clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.

He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic — a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman — he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.

Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important — something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic’s janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.

He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.

But if this wasn’t courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage — the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn’t feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:

I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there — pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators — I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.

I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night — Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert — feeling exuberant and alive.

Sacks’s jubilant intuition wasn’t misplaced — that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name — a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks’s singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.

Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently — a confidence further nurtured by Gunn’s encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks’s beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.

He talked with Gunn about “the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process.” Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:

I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile — the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.

Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend’s values:

It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way… “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job.” But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)

I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks’s parenthetical note about Gunn’s ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:

Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.

Despite knowing his friend’s disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:

I sometimes felt terrified of his directness — terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.

But their relationship lived up to Emerson’s assertion that “a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere” — Gunn’s feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks’s development as a writer, who was “eager for [Gunn’s] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else.”

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings — a cultural classic that was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:

Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality — just the most important quality — call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three…

Sacks adds:

I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love — and out of love — and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).

But it was in Gunn’s poetry that Sacks found something else — something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn’s intricate tapestry of influences — his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our “spiritual and mental ancestors” — Sacks writes:

I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.

Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne’s sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:

I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.

Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the “quickenings” of the creative process to unfold slowly — something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read “NO!” — “reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time,” he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:

I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.

I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

Oliver Sacks writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)

Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading — a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks’s conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.

BP

MoMA Acquires the Rainbow Flag as a Design Icon: A Conversation with the Artist Who Made It

“Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design.”

In 1976, a young man named Gilbert Baker conducted that great creative act of “bisociation,” bringing two unrelated concepts together into something revolutionary. He fused vexillography — the art-science of designing flags — with the groundswell of the LGBT rights movement, spearheaded by his friend Harvey Milk. Baker incubated the idea for the next two years and on June 25, 1978, he raised the first two rainbow flags at the United Nations Plaza in downtown San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

Nearly forty years later, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the iconic rainbow flag into its permanent design collection — a visionary move by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, who has previously acquired the @ symbol in her continual quest to expand our understanding of design as a force of culture and an agent of civic discourse.

There is a poignant parallel between this acquisition and Antonelli’s 2011 exhibition Talk to Me, which examined the communication and interaction between people and (mostly digital) objects. The rainbow flag is an utterly analog yet highly interactive object — a flag only flies on the wings of wind or human hands, or else it collapses into limp fabric — that speaks to and with people powerfully. It embodies Antonelli’s famous words from her Talk to Me essay: “In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.”

There is also a profound resonance with her more recent Design and Violence project, as the rainbow flag was a telegraphic response to the Stonewall riots that catalyzed the political momentum of the LGBT rights movement. The flag became an inclusive celebration of those violently excluded by nation and state, the people whose basic human and civic rights were being denied and outright violated by the very entities supposed to protect them — the same entities belonging to which traditional national flags symbolize.

I spoke with Antonelli about her rationale behind the acquisition and its broader cultural implications:

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle, as does the rainbow flag: bright, simple, luminous, positive despite everything. The epitome of grace under pressure, a design feat. When it was born almost 40 years ago, it defied violence and prejudice. Sadly, it still does, in some places. There is no prouder addition to our collection than a great design object about real life and tough issues.

Antonelli and her curatorial assistant, Michelle Millar Fisher, kindly shared this exclusive recording of Fisher’s conversation with Baker about the origin story of his iconic creation and its enduring impact in the world. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

On being inadvertently initiated into vexillography and how the rainbow flag was born:

It started hitting me in 1976, [which was] the bicentennial of the United States… I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the rainbow flag comes from… All of a sudden I’m looking at the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the GAP and all kinds of tchotchkes. And I [realized] a flag is something that’s really different than any other form of art — it’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not a logo. It functions in so many ways, it’s interpreted in so many different ways.

And I thought that’s the kind of symbol that we needed as a people — something that everyone instantly understands. It doesn’t have to say the word [like] it doesn’t say “United States” on the American flag, but everyone knows visually what that means… I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we’re a people — a tribe, if you will — and flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate that we have that kind of symbol.

On being at the right place at the right time — a fruitful intersection of culture, conviction, and craft:

I was a big drag queen in 1970s San Francisco [and] I knew how to sew — I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the rainbow flag, because up until then we had the pink triangle — the pink triangle came from the Nazis [and] was the symbol that they would use to still label us, but it came from such a horrible place of murder and Holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful — something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things, our ages… Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky…

[…]

Because I was in San Francisco in the early seventies [knowing how to sow] translated into being the guy that would make banners for protest marches… and that became … my role in the movement. My craft … became my activism.

On how the rainbow flag came to telegraph the most important message Harvey Milk championed for a community that had remained invisible for most of modern history:

Harvey Milk … carried a really great message about how important it was to be visible, how important it was to come out… That was the single most important thing — our job, as gay people, was to come out, be visible, to live in the truth… to get out of the lie. And a flag really fit that mission — because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility.

On being very deliberate about the birthplace of the flag and how this inclusive intention has since been reflected in the universal language the flag carried around the world:

The United Nations Plaza wasn’t an accident. That was very deliberate — because, even in those days, [our] vision was that we’re a global struggle, this is a global human rights issue.

[…]

Much has changed for some [but] as a global vision, we’re way far from that. We’re still dealing with huge, massive resistance — even here, in our own country; even here, in our own city; in our own families… What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us. I [travel] and I see a rainbow flag and I think … that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go… It’s sort of a language onto itself… The beauty of it is the way that’s connected us, and that’s the wonder of it.

See more of Baker’s work — including a series of limited-edition handmade rainbow flags — on his site. Complement this milestone for design and human rights with the illustrated biography of Harvey Milk, the the greatest LGBT children’s books, and these vintage photos of the first-ever Pride parades.

BP

How Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage Invented the World’s First Computer: An Illustrated Adventure in Footnotes and Friendship

The story of how an improbable pair forever changed our horizons of the possible.

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather “poetical in her appearance,” which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean “depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed.” Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:

In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole’s Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination — it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called “admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine” — “The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal.”

Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo’s tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur — Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit — and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace’s spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.

Thanks, Michelle

BP

Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

A touching celebration of the “intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” visionary neurologist Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning maps the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

The book is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Nowhere does Dr. Sacks’s grace shine most luminously than in the disarming vulnerability — sometimes pensive, often poignant, always profound — with which this great seer discusses the heartbreak of not being seen himself, especially when it comes to the most intimate frontier of the human psyche. He recounts a pivotal conversation with his father as he was about to depart for his university studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen:

“You don’t seem to have many girlfriends,” he said. “Don’t you like girls?”

“They’re all right,” I answered, wishing the conversation would stop.

“Perhaps you prefer boys?” he persisted.

“Yes, I do — but it’s just a feeling — I have never ‘done’ anything,” and then I added, fearfully, “Don’t tell Ma — she won’t be able to take it.” But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. “You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.” Then she left and did not speak to me for several days. When she did speak, there was no reference to what she had said (nor did she ever refer to the matter again), but something had come between us.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

This experience, which left an indelible imprint of shame on young Oliver’s mind, is doubly perplexing and heartbreaking in the context of his parents’ credentials — both were prominent physicians, which would ordinarily imply the unsuperstitious critical thinking that science espouses. In fact, his mother, a female surgeon and anatomist at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a trailblazer for women in science — so much so that his father would jokingly refer to himself as “the husband of the eminent gynecologist Elsie Landau.” And yet even here, Dr. Sacks is able to transcend the personal devastation and perform the great act of empathic inquiry that became the raw material of his work — a dedication to considering the complex reality of another, very different mind:

We are all creatures of our upbringings, our cultures, our times. And I have needed to remind myself, repeatedly, that my mother was born in the 1890s and had an Orthodox upbringing and that in England in the 1950s homosexual behavior was treated not only as a perversion but as a criminal offense. I have to remember, too, that sex is one of those areas — like religion and politics — where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.

And herein blooms a vibrant example of the very thing that makes the book so extraordinary — the elegance with which Dr. Sacks bridges the observations of the mind with the tribulations of the heart:

My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead. She was suddenly overwhelmed, I now realize, and she probably regretted her words or perhaps partitioned them off in a closeted part of her mind. But her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

That paralyzing inhibition followed him into university, but because guilt is a judgment of reason and the heart has its own emotive will, he eventually found himself falling in love for the first time — in spite of himself, in spite of his mother’s anguishing admonition, in spite of his brother’s well-meaning but woefully misguided effort to alleviate his sexual shyness by introducing him to a kindly French prostitute, who sensed young Oliver’s predicament and instead had “a nice cup of tea” with him.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

At Oxford, he met a young fellow named Richard Selig — a Rhodes scholar of enormous “vitality and love of life,” who “bore himself like a lion.” Dr. Sacks recounts those first flutterings of love:

We got talking; I suspect that it was he who started a conversation, for I was always too shy to initiate any contact and his great beauty made me even shyer… His knowledge of the world was far greater than mine, even given the disparity of age (he was twenty-four; I was twenty), far greater than that of most undergraduates who had gone straight from school to university with no experience of real life in between. He found something interesting in me, and we soon became friends — and more, for I fell in love with him. It was the first time in my life I had fallen in love. I fell in love with his face, his body, his mind, his poetry, everything about him. He would often bring me just-written poems, and I would give him some of my physiology essays in return.

[…]

We would go on long walks together, talking about poetry and science. Richard loved to hear me wax enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, and I lost my shyness when I did so. While I knew that I was in love with Richard, I was very apprehensive of admitting this; my mother’s words about “abomination” had made me feel that I must not say what I was. But, mysteriously, wonderfully, being in love, and in love with a being like Richard, was a source of joy and pride to me, and one day, with my heart in my mouth, I told Richard that I was in love with him, not knowing how he would react. He hugged me, gripped my shoulders, and said, “I know. I am not that way, but I appreciate your love and love you too, in my own way.” I did not feel rebuffed or brokenhearted. He had said what he had to say in the most sensitive way, and our friendship continued, made easier now by my relinquishing certain painful and hopeless longings.

But just as young Oliver was making peace with the fact that he and Richard will only ever be friends — lifelong friends, perhaps — life took one of its cruel turns. One day, Richard showed up in Oliver’s room, concerned about a lump in his groin and asked his friend — since he was a medical student — to take a look. Oliver’s fears were confirmed — it was a malignant tumor. Richard was told he had no more than two years to live, and he never spoke to Oliver again. “I was the first to recognize the deadly import of his tumor,” Dr. Sacks writes with wistfulness so palpably and heartbreakingly unmitigated by the lapse of six decades, “and perhaps he saw me now as a sort of messenger or symbol of death.”

He was so devastated that his studies began to suffer and his parents decided it was best for him to take a leave from Oxford and spend some time in “a friendly and supportive community with hard physical work from dawn till dusk” — so, in 1955, he joined a kibbutz. The experience was transformative in not just the intended ways:

I had gone to the kibbutz as a pallid, unfit 250 pounds, but when I left it three months later, I had lost nearly 60 pounds and, in some deep sense, felt more at home in my own body.

Oliver Sacks in Greenwich Village in 1961, on his new BMW R60 (Photograph: Douglas White)

This was the start of Dr. Sacks’s love affair with the world of physique and strength training — a deeply personal proto-demonstration of something he’d later come to demonstrate as a pioneering neurologist: that the mind is indivisible from the body. In the years that followed, as he returned to clinical work, he also began weight training with a clinician’s systematic rigor. Eventually, he sliced through the country on the back of his beloved motorbike, armed with a camera and a newfound love for landscape photography — this, it bears repeating, is a man of ample talents — and made his way to Venice’s famous Muscle Beach. There, he came to be known as Dr. Squat for squatting with a gobsmacking 600 pounds — a feat by which he set the California state record in 1961. (Having done bodybuilding myself in a past life, my admiration for Dr. Sacks doubled.)

Dr. Squat setting the California state record in 1961

Eventually, Dr. Squat traded in his bike leathers and weightlifting belt for the white coat of Dr. Sacks. He fell in love again with a young man named Mel, only to have his heart broken by Mel’s conflicted rejection:

We enjoyed each other’s company for a year — the year of my internship at Mount Zion. We would go on weekend motorbike rides together, camping out, swimming in ponds and lakes, and sometimes wrestling together. There was an erotic frisson here for me, and perhaps for Mel too. Erotic with the urgent opposition of our bodies, though there was no explicit sexual element, nor would an observer have thought we were anything more than a couple of young men wrestling together. Both of us were proud of our washboard abdominals and would do sets of sit-ups, a hundred or more at a time. Mel would sit astride me, punching me playfully in the stomach with each sit-up, and I would do the same with him.

This I found sexually exciting, and I think he did too; Mel was always saying, “Let’s wrestle,” “Let’s do abs,” though it was not a purposively sexual act. We could work our abdominals or wrestle and get pleasure from it, at one and the same time. So long as things went no further.

I felt Mel’s fragility, his not fully conscious, lurking fear of sexual contact with another man, but also the special feeling he had for me, which, I dared to think, might transcend these fears. I realized I would have to go very gently.

But like those of us who have experienced the devastating disappointment of failing to dissolve another’s private conflictedness by the sheer force of love, Dr. Sacks discovered that all the gentleness in the world was hapless against the hard edges of Mel’s inner inhibitions. When the erotic and romantic tension between them became too much to bear, Mel left, leaving behind the cold ashes of a could-have-been. Its unlived potentiality — like all great unrealized longings — reveals itself as scar tissue of the soul as Dr. Sacks looks back a lifetime later:

I had had dreams, in our “honeymoon” period, that we would spend our lives together, even into a happy old age; I was all of twenty-eight at the time. Now I am eighty, trying to reconstruct an autobiography of sorts. I find myself thinking of Mel, of us together, in those early, lyrical, innocent days, wondering what happened to him, whether he is still alive… I wonder if he will read what I have just written and think more kindly of our ardent, young, very confused selves.

Photograph by Oliver Sacks, 1960s (Courtesy of Dr. Sacks for Brain Pickings)

The heartbreak of this almost-romance catapulted Dr. Sacks into a harrowing bout of amphetamine addiction, which he barely survived. After a couple of other short-lived infatuations, he entered a somewhat undeliberate period of celibacy that would last nearly four decades. What he didn’t find in romantic love he found in his work with patients — a profound sense of purpose and a deep love for how his work touched human lives. He writes:

It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients… I found my patients fascinating, and I cared for them. I started to taste my own clinical and therapeutic powers and, above all, the sense of autonomy and responsibility which I had been denied when I was still a resident in training.

Over the decades that followed, that fusion of fascination and love propelled Dr. Sacks into becoming the most influential neurologist of our time, irrevocably changing our understanding of the human mind and how it shapes the spirit. And because life has a way of dancing with its own strangeness, it was through the love of his work that Dr. Sacks finally found the love of his life. (As some wise friends have memorably advised, “If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.”) Dr. Sacks writes:

Shortly after my seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, I met someone I liked. Billy, a writer, had just moved from San Francisco to New York, and we began having dinners together. Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us, perhaps without fully realizing its depth. Only in December of 2009, still recuperating from knee and back surgeries and racked with pain, did I realize how deep it was. Billy was going to Seattle to spend Christmas with his family, and just before he went, he 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.

[…]

There was an intense emotionality at this time: music I loved, or the long golden sunlight of late afternoon, would set me weeping. I was not sure what I was weeping for, but I would feel an intense sense of love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

On the Move, the dedication page of which reads simply “for Billy,” is unsynthesizably transcendent in its totality — so immensely rewarding, so rich in private human truth and shared human wisdom, that compressing it into anything less than the full 416 pages is an injustice. As Dr. Sacks bids the world adieu, he leaves us with this miracle of a book — the ultimate gift of “love, death, and transience, inseparably mixed.”

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Sacks; special thanks to Kate Edgar

BP

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