Remembering Oliver Sacks

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Oliver Sacks died today. Cancer killed him at age 82. He told us it was coming, and how the knowledge of his death sat with him, as a man, and to some extent as a doctor. He wrote the following for the New York Times in February, pausing to quote David Hume:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.” “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.” I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Sacks is a hero to me because he was both a brilliant doctor and writer. In his medical work, he sought to understand what made people different and the same. He struggled to awaken patients who had suffered from a sleeping sickness, and recounted that experience in his 1973 book Awakenings (later a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro). He realized that the experience of human consciousness is both shared and unique, and regardless of what consciousness is, it is valuable. He helped to awaken in his readers a sense of the shared human experience, via stories of people suffering from neurological conditions.

Among many poignant stories Sacks related in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he introduced us to "Jimmie G.," a patient who had been unable to form new memories since 1945. In that book, like his recent NYT column, Sacks returned to Hume, in this passage about Jimmie's diagnosis (emphasis added):

‘He is, as it were,’ I wrote in my notes, ‘isolated in a single moment of being, with a moat or lacuna of forgetting all round him ... He is man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment.’ And then, more prosaically, ‘The remainder of the neurological examination is entirely normal. Impression: probably Korsakov’s syndrome, due to alcoholic degeneration of the mammillary bodies.’ My note was a strange mixture of facts and observations, carefully noted and itemized, with irrepressible meditations on what such problems might ‘mean’, in regard to who and what and where this poor man was—whether, indeed, one could speak of an ‘existence’, given so absolute a privation of memory or continuity. I kept wondering, in this and later notes—unscientifically— about ‘a lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots, or rooted only in the remote past. ‘Only connect’—but how could he connect, and how could we help him to connect? What was life without connection? ‘I may venture to affirm,’ Hume wrote, ‘that we are nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’ In some sense, he had been reduced to a ‘Humean’ being—I could not help thinking how fascinated Hume would have been at seeing in Jimmie his own philosophical ‘chimaera’ incarnate, a gruesome reduction of a man to mere disconnected, incoherent flux and change.

There we have a glimpse of Sacks, the fascinated neurologist, driven not only to identify disorders of the brain, but to understand the creation of the brain: the mind. What is the mind? And what do we make of it? If our experience of life is altered or reduced because a misfire of the brain, can it be understood, treated, or accommodated? Why are some patients so cheerful despite their plights? What joy is innate in humanity? In July, Sacks himself wrote about celebrating his 82nd birthday, with the constant awareness that it would likely be his last. The irreducible fact of life is that death is coming; Sacks of course realized this and celebrated what life he had left. This is logical, although it's sad for those of us who remain.

In his February article about his cancer, Sacks reflected on the future:

...I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands. I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In the end, it's wholly appropriate that Sacks would find time to write his way through his final months, finishing up books, and sharing his thoughts as he approached the inevitable. What remains is not just a colossal body of work, but the memory of a man who recognized his own position among his fellows, who took it upon himself to heal when he could, to explain when he could, and simply to live when that was what remained. Let us celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, today, on August 30, 2015. I will reach for his books, and I encourage you to do the same.