Oliver Sacks at the Museum of Natural History

Lawrence Weschler

Assigned to write a profile for The New York Times, Lawrence Weschler began spending time with celebrated neurologist and author Oliver Sacks in the 1980s. After meeting for dinner two or three nights per week for four years, the two developed a close friendship. For wracking personal reasons, Sacks asked Weschler to abandon the profile, a request to which Weschler acceded. Still, the two remained close friends for the next thirty years. Shortly before his death in 2015, Sacks called Weschler to ask him to finish the project. Compiling fifteen notebooks of interviews from the original profile, interviews with close friends such as poet Thom Gunn and psychoanalyst Bob Rodman, letters, and more, in And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? Weschler completes the defining portrait of Oliver Sacks.

August 1982

We have developed a pattern, Oliver and I. He comes over in the evening to my apartment. I begin by offering beer and cheese and crackers, which he consumes with considerable gusto. Then we go out to dinner, then we return and I offer him ice cream (he’s already eaten a Granny Smith apple on the way home).

He then seems to veer along a narcoleptic precipice, he starts yawning compulsively nodding, gasping to wakefulness. I quickly ply him with coffee—two, three, four cups. Eventually he’s awake enough to drive home.

After our most recent dinner, I get a letter from him dated August 7.

Lovely seeing you last evening—I do greatly enjoy our evenings together and wonder if the sudden, peculiar collapsed feelings I seem to get toward the end are not because of the “forbiddenness” and anxiety involved— Your probing concern to elicit my substance and reality and draw a good appreciation to me, where my fearful-deprecatory part says, “No! It’s a lie—you’re nothing—not real—lie low—shut up—be mute—stay hidden . . . Die!

• • •

A week that had started well for Oliver (he’d quickly completed a new middle portion of his Leg book) has turned sour. (The earlier tripartite 4 A Visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and Lunch at a Japanese Restaurant 042-78663_ch01_6P.indd 49 6/17/19 10:39 AM 50 And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? division has been metastasizing new sections, such that the book will begin with the drama on the mountaintop, which is to say the dread confrontation with the Bull, before then proceeding to chapters on his helicoptered return to the very Middlesex hospital in London where he’d once interned, only now as a patient, the whole phenomenology of that unsettling transformation, compounded in turn by a terrifying postsurgical siege of “limbo,” in which he experiences a complete bodily dysphoria, as if his own leg were somehow utterly alien and other, the ensuing vertigo in his entire sense of identity, and then by turns the stages across which his bodily integrity ever so gradually returns—a musical quickening, extended physical therapy and convalescence, and only then, finally, the complete return to blessed health.) He is badly stuck again on the last section (“healing, the return of proportion, the convalescence on the Heath at Hampstead”), and as if in empathy (or by way of re-presentation), his back has now gone badly out.

Still, as previously planned, we set out for a Friday-morning walk from my new digs on far West Ninety-Fifth, and Oliver relates how this palsy with the Leg book has him worried—and with good reason. He’s been blocked on it for years (ever since soon after the incident itself, in 1974, though most recently in a concerted fashion, since 1979) and everything else (the Tourette’s book, the dementia book, etc.) feels all blocked up behind it. His friend Eric Korn had thrown up his hands in exasperation when Oliver told him earlier this summer that he intended to pursue the theme one more time during this vacation. Korn would rather he gave it up already, but Oliver can’t: He feels the loss would be too great, and everything seemed to be going well until he got to this last section, which he sees requires a soft lyrical touch, one which he doesn’t appear to be able to muster, the Talmudic intellectualizing always seeming to surface and blot everything over— So, yes, he’s very worried and disturbed, all gloom and moody.

“When the writing is flowing well, I am powerful and cheerful and can’t imagine it ever being otherwise,” he tells me as we amble down Riverside Drive, “and when the writing becomes blocked, I am crestfallen and palsied and there, too, I can’t imagine it ever being otherwise. In either case, my visions of the future are at all times characterized by a spurious permanence.”

“When the writing is flowing well, I am powerful and cheerful and can’t imagine it ever being otherwise…when the writing becomes blocked, I am crestfallen and palsied and there, too, I can’t imagine it ever being otherwise.”

As I see it, his current problem with the Leg book is that it needs to end on this airy, ventilated, open-ended note, convalescence and recovery; only, as he approaches the end, Oliver’s inhibitory neuroses and misgivings become more and more pronounced—he becomes tight and constricted and dark and brooding, just the opposite of what he’s trying to describe, so that, self-fulfillingly, he can’t.

We continue on, talking about nothing much.

By Seventy-Ninth Street we decide to cut east, to the American Museum of Natural History—to which he used to go often, though not so much recently.

Once inside, Oliver’s disposition brightens considerably. We head over—of course—to the hall of mollusks and stop before a case of squid, nautiluses, and octopuses. Oliver is by now positively chipper.

I ask him what he’d always so liked about them. For a moment, he stares at the case thoughtfully—the polymorphous, slightly goofy octopus, the sleek propulsive squid. “I mean,” he finally erupts, jocularly, “you can see what I liked about them.

“With octopuses,” he continues, “I suppose it was partly the face—that here, for the first time in evolution, appears a face, a distinct physiognomy, indeed a personality: It’s true that when you spend time with them, you begin to differentiate between them, and they seem to differentiate between you and other visitors.

“So there was that, this mutual sense of affection for the alien.

“And then there was their way of moving, which is jet propulsion.

“And their eyes, which are huge.

“Their birdlike beaks, which can give you a nasty nip.

“And their sexual habits—the male, you see, donates an entire spermfilled leg to the female . . .

“That, and their ancientness . . . and their simultaneous adventurousness, how they threw off the repressive shell and moved out, to float free.

“And then, I guess, their sliminess.” He giggles like a child. “I mean, I do like the slimy.”

Gazing some more now at another octopus, Oliver sighs. “Wasn’t it Freud who wrote somewhere of ‘the beauty of an existence complete in itself’?”

A few moments later, we are standing before a demonstration of the mathematics of the nautilus shell: “This was my earliest delight, back in London: my preschool childhood ecstasy—this discovery of the regularity of forms in nature—life as a mathematical ejaculation.”

A bit after that, looking at an exhibition of clay models of prehistoric protohuman heads, Oliver notes: “Their eyes are more benign than they were in my generation . . . hmm . . . charming. Charming faces, even with no cranium to speak of. At my college at Oxford, we had a collection of brains in jars: the Brains of the Great. Turgenev’s was huge, almost three thousand milligrams. Poor Anatole France’s not much more than eight hundred.”

At one point, we pass a portal labeled EDUCATION HALL. Oliver frowns. “Oh, that’s too bad. At school I loved to be on the wards, in the museums, but I hated class.”

They have some truly marvelous dioramas at the museum, exquisite reproductions of desert- and forest-scapes—foliage, detritus, wildlife, bark—and we pause to admire them.

“It’s like the sudden return of vision at the hospital, after Norway,” Oliver recalls. “After the weeks of being confined in my narrow little room. The way everything suddenly seemed to pop out again once I got outside: I mean, one needs the third dimension. Before it popped back out, a sort of attenuated perspective had persisted but without the edible chunkiness of the world.”

Oliver now smiles wistfully. “The richness of the world is unbelievable! I’m afraid I don’t have a comparable feeling for the richness of social tissue, the kind of thing which must make New York City such a marvel.” And indeed, that seems right to me: Oliver is forever marveling at the natural world and for that matter at the world of natural wonder within any particular individual’s skin—but not at the world of possibility between individuals.

Oliver is forever marveling at the natural world and for that matter at the world of natural wonder within any particular individual’s skin.

Or anyway, mere human individuals: We find ourselves pausing at a diorama of a standing grizzly bear. “Ah,” Oliver sighs. “I do wish to be loved by a larger animal—all of us, siblings together.” He goes on to relate how once, in Yellowstone, Eric had had to physically restrain him, to hold him back in the car, to prevent him from chasing after a passing bear.

• • •

As we leave the museum, foraging vaguely for a place to lunch, our conversation turns to Jewishness, nature, family . . .

“Does Jewishness cut one away from nature?” Oliver wonders. “Life is a great lyrical diorama, but not in the Talmud. And yet it was in the convalescent home.

“I do have a set of cousins in Canada of whom I am inordinately fond. They light the Sabbath candles in their cabin in the woods—they have it right, but I’m afraid my ghetto parents did not . . . or anyway, my father did not. My mother, maybe.

“At any rate, it was only in Manitoulin”—his sometime Canadian retreat—“seven years after her death, that I suddenly remembered my mother’s face and her voice—her presence.”

From there, he free-associates backward. “Nature brought me to California,” Oliver says. “I love Muir and Burroughs. California made me realize what a wonderful planet this is.”

For a while, back then, he thought he might have the makings of a novelist. “But my own last attempt at a novel, in California, floundered in a profusion of characters—after six hundred of them, I gave up.

“I mean, really, I never meant to become a neurologist. I meant to be a naturalist. I got deflected into medicine, into neurology. So that I had to treat neurology as if I were a naturalist.

“Our entire family went to synagogue on Saturday. My parents and the older siblings had moved from the East End (a poor district) to Northwest London in 1930, three years before I was born. They all knew the Bible. But in our family there was a distinctly different feeling between Friday night, which was lyrical, and Saturday, which was all Deuteronomical proscriptions.

“Both my parents grew up in Orthodox environments—both with rabbis for parents—though my mother’s upbringing was especially so. My mother’s father was born in Russia in 1837, came to England in 1859.

“My mother may have been the least observant of the seventeen. Observation was myth and ritual for her, which is to say, Friday nights. In fact, on her tombstone, it says ‘Friday nights will never be the same,’ and it’s true, they haven’t been. She was the keeper of the totemic. She knew the Bible but had no feeling for Midrash. She liked the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, which I connect with her own fondness for nature.

“My father was more interested in commentaries. Meals were a continuous inquisition on Hebrew grammar and medical practice. With him I connect it to a passion for roots.

“I myself am illiterate in Hebrew, the only one in my family. I know by heart a lot in a gabbled meaningless way. Perhaps this is owing to a turning away, during those terrible war years at that hideous country school, or maybe because of the loss, just before that, when I was six, of my Hebrew teacher. The feeling of profound abandonment.”

Oliver also lost an especially dear music teacher when he was twelve, a sudden tragic death in childbirth. He claims he faked his way through his bar mitzvah the following year. Perhaps, he surmises, there was a resistance at work. “Because later, during a break from my last year at Oxford, after nine months on a kibbutz in Israel, I was completely fluent. Though coming back on the plane, I instantaneously forgot it all and have not remembered a word since.

“But that clear difference between Friday and Saturday—the loving, pastoral, mythical Jewishness of Friday: Welcoming the Bride. Saturday, by contrast, was a rabbinical day, full of slaps” (as he says this, he slaps his own hand so abruptly, a loud smack, that I jump) “and prohibition. And indeed, perhaps it was Saturday that fed my later antinomian passions. It was Superego Day.

“One Saturday, Eric and I went to the airport, took a flight to Amsterdam, just to eat bacon sandwiches!

“Later, much later, my father, who has an extraordinary library of Judaica, asked me if I wanted any of his books. I asked for a Zohar” (one of the fundamental texts of kabbalistic mysticism). “He was embarrassed, somehow thought my request deeply inappropriate, but he managed to rummage up one volume out of a set.

“The thing is, everyone in the old neighborhood was Jewish. And biology wasn’t Jewish—that was one of the things I liked about it—the West Coast wasn’t Jewish.” (His obviously having been a different West Coast than the one I was growing up in at the very same time.)

“Rather than a doctor, I’d have been a nineteenth-century naturalist, or possibly a nineteenth-century doctor,” he concludes, reverting to an earlier theme.

“Actually, as a physician, I am a nineteenth-century naturalist.”

• • •

We find ourselves standing before a Japanese place, gazing at the food dioramas, “by turns horrifying,” as Oliver characterizes them, “and mouthwatering.”

After we’ve gotten seated and ordered our sushi, I pick up and ask him why he became a neurologist rather than some other kind of doctor. The question, to him, hardly makes any sense.

“I mean,” he stammers, “obviously I became a neurologist rather than, say, a cardiologist, because there’s nothing for an intelligent man to be interested in in cardiology. The heart, I suppose, is an interesting pump, but it’s just a pump. Neurology is the only branch of medicine that could sustain a thinking man.”

Okay, but why neurology rather than, say, psychiatry?

“I pretend that at the outset it was a need to immerse myself in the abstract rather than in particular living patients. But rather, I suspect my sense of origins was too strong, coming from a family of physical doctors. My mother incidentally also trained as a neurologist with the great Kinnier Wilson. He gave her, and later she gave me, his reflex hammer.”

Indeed, both of his parents toyed with the idea of becoming neurologists. Did they feel bad about not having pursued the specialty?

“Well, my father had an apologizing part. He showed an ambivalence toward specialists, a definite deference, although at the same time he knew he was a far better doctor and diagnostician. This comes through in my own feelings about specialists.

“My mother achieved eminence early. She was one of the first women admitted to the Royal College of Medicine. By 1920, in her late twenties, she was already powerfully established. (This gave rise to an occasional embarrassment at ceremonial dinners—‘And what does your husband do?’) She was a brilliant surgeon who became a much-loved surgeon—as she grew older she developed her humanity.”

Oliver is silent for a few moments, pondering that last thought, working his way through his sushi pads. “For all my failures and the suicide which will probably end it all, I do have a feeling of developing, though, of being different at fifty than I was at forty, at forty than at thirty. I don’t know how people who don’t develop bear it.”

How does he feel he has developed?

“I think I’m deeper. I have a stronger sense of depths and abysses and what is surely felt and experienced though difficult to put into words.”

“I think I’m deeper. I have a stronger sense of depths and abysses and what is surely felt and experienced though difficult to put into words.”

He pauses, sighs. “But, of course, in fact I haven’t gone forward. I’ve gone back. I present a sorrier state each decade.”

At which point he absentmindedly starts working his way through my sushi pads.

Does he feel bad he’s not a GP?

“Yes,” he responds without a moment’s wavering. “Back in 1979, in Manitoulin, they offered me the job—their old doctor, a fine New Zealander, was retiring and they urged me to come up. I fantasize about it: I’d have gone up and apprenticed myself to him—it might have taken about six months to master the skills. It would have been a good life. My father is a very ‘fortunate man.’”

Speaking of fortunate men, I mention that my artist friend Robert Irwin will be in town from LA later in the week and suggest that he join Irwin and me for dinner at my art-collecting aunt and uncle’s at the weekend.

He hesitates. “Probably I’d sit through the whole first hour mute, in an excruciation of silence. Then suddenly I’d burst forth, so vociferous no one could get a word in edgewise. Either way—mute I’d be a great embarrassment, or megalomaniacal perhaps an even greater one.”

And we have reverted to the gloom with which we began the day. Interestingly, at this point he free-associates back to his youth: “Partly I felt like a queer alien growth arising unprecedented from my background—a bewilderment, an embarrassment to my parents and teachers. But I myself have always felt vaguely freakish. The writing passion, for example, was peculiar to me in the family.

“In 1946 or so, when I was thirteen or fourteen, during my chemistry passion, I became fascinated by thallium, which features a bright green line in its spectrum, and I became obsessively charmed by it. In the car I would rhapsodize about it for minutes at a time: A quarter of an hour into my celebration, my parents would say something which indicated to me that they had no idea what I was talking about, and indeed that they mildly disapproved.

“Which would only confirm my set-apartness.

“I sometimes compare their attitude to that of Yehudi Menuhin’s parents, who always struck me as so sensitive and sensible about their genius son.

“I don’t know that my parents knew what to make of me,” Oliver finally says with a sigh, pushing away the empty sushi platter, “although that may just be grandiosity or melancholia or Japanese-lunch syndrome.

“You see,” he says, “part of me wants to regale you with tales of my background and part of me feels it’s totally irrelevant.”

Our day winds down. He hails a cab for the ride back to the parking lot where he stashed his car, suggesting that he may head on up to Canada later for a few days, to try to shake his mood.

• • •

During the day at the Natural History Museum, I’d urged Oliver to explain primes and sunflowers to me. He had demurred—he wasn’t in the mood. I call him that evening to remind him, and a few days later get this handwritten missive:

August 28 1982

Dear Ren, [. . .] Sorry I was a dull dog today—I felt both a bit ill and a bit depressed—acutely so (both organically and morally) after the MSG . . . It is this sort of thing which led me to MIGRAINE and in general to Neurology—

I have no interest (tho’ sufficient competence) in “ordinary” neurology—perhaps I should call myself a “neuropsychologist,” like Luria: but this is not so either— What I am (have always been) interested in are the effects (“resonances”) of disturbed bodily function on the mind—“What will become of thought itself when it is subjected to the pressure of sickness?” (Nietzsche). Or, more generally, the effects (reciprocally) of Bodily States and Being [. . .]—a study of Being in the way that a physician is peculiarly equipped and circumstanced to do. Absurdly, I know scarcely any other contemporaries with so general an interest—and yet it would seem so obvious—and exciting.

[. . .]

There may be a novelist manqué at work—I do see myself (at times) as a queer sort of “neurological novelist”—and I see a whole genus: “The Neurological Novel” (and now Pinter has given us a neurological play). [“A Kind of Alaska,” Pinter’s one-act riff off of Awakenings, the script of which Oliver had recently received.]

The “novelizing” impulse is very strong indeed—but the “neurologizing” impulse is equally strong. [. . .] I suppose I am interested in “Neurological Fate”—but only insofar as it is opposed by Freedom. For whatever reason, the eternal fight of Fate vs. Freedom—which one sees played out on so many arenas and stages (social, political, psychological, etc.), the drama of Impersonal Force vs. the Individual—which is the center (say) of the Marxian or the Freudian epic—is, for me, most poignantly fought out with one’s organic (neural and psychological) endowments, i.e. on a “Lurian” stage.

[. . .]

Anyhow—these thoughts come to me (incoherently, it has lasted too long for MSG, I must have flu or something) in delayed response to yr questions as to why I turned to neurology . . .

As for sunflowers, etc., I take the liberty of enclosing D’Arcy Thompson’s chapter on this. In a curious way, I can only think of such things when I am happy (or well). In Manitoulin, in that good summer of ’79, I was continually collecting and examining pine cones, delighting in their logarithmic spirals, Fibonacci series, etc. (or perhaps giving myself to an “inexcusable Pythagorism”). Many people,—especially the old anatomy professor I mentioned today—compared me to D’Arcy Thompson—this love of the mathematizing organic was always central in me. But, unlike D’Arcy T, and perhaps “inexcusably,” this love has always associated itself to a sense of “mystery,” and mystical idealism, which as you can see, he strongly reprehends. But for me, these are “the thoughts of the Old One,” starting in numbers and spirals, conceiving this whole Universe in ideas (I think this sort of “mystical idealism,” and Pythagorism in particular, is strongly developed in my mother’s side of the family, but obviously most intensely developed in me).

Forgive this inordinate letter! Oliver

• • •

Over the ensuing Labor Day weekend, Oliver disappears without a trace, and without any prior indication. I call and call. Dark fantasies play across my mind: Has he actually gone and committed suicide, as he’d teasingly suggested? Would a prospective suicide leave his answering machine on? Likely not, but then perhaps has he gone swimming toward the bridge, thrown his back out but good, and drowned? Or flipped his car, barreling around some curve? It gets silly, all this worrying, and yet I can’t stop, and it only gets worse.

Monday evening I get a call: It’s Oliver, his voice faint and thin with self-loathing. He’d been in the Adirondacks, it had been wonderful, the only good writing days of 1982. Why, he wonders, he positively hisses at himself—why had he come home?

Lawrence Weschler, a longtime veteran of The New Yorker and a regular contributor to NPR, is the director emeritus of the New York Institute of the Humanities at NYU and the author of nearly twenty books, including Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Everything That Rises, and Vermeer in Bosnia.