So many people are singing the praises of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks that I hesitate to chime in. In February, Sacks revealed in The New York Times that he has terminal cancer, and reviewers are now raving about his new autobiography, On the Move, and entire oeuvre.
Sacks’s writings have given me so much pleasure over the years that I must express gratitude to him–while also disagreeing with one of his scientific enthusiasms, which I’ll get to soon.
In 2008 I interviewed Sacks at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology. [We posted a bad recording on YouTube.] Before he arrived, I wrote a column on Sacks for the Stevens student newspaper, The Stute. Here is an excerpt, lightly edited:
One of the joys of being a science journalist is finding scientists who trash their own fields. Psychologist Howard Gardner once complained to me that psychology is not a true science and probably never would be. Psychological research had provided no real understanding of such key concepts as the self, free will and personality. The only way psychology could advance, Gardner suggested, was to adopt a more “literary” style of investigation and discourse, like that practiced by the pioneering mind-explorers William James and Sigmund Freud.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks exemplifies this literary approach to the mind. Sacks is one of my favorite writers of any kind, fiction or nonfiction. In bestsellers such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, he presents vivid case studies of people afflicted by autism, strokes, tumors, Tourette’s and other conditions.
He resembles a Victorian explorer entranced by the curiosities he encounters during his forays into uncharted territory. What saves Sacks from being a mere voyeur, ogling others’ pathologies, is his immense compassion and empathy. While most mind-scientists try to work around the irreducibility of individual humans, Sacks has made it the centerpiece of his work.
The poet William Carlos Williams once proclaimed, “No ideas but in things” (a precept he violated in stating it). Sacks’s philosophy might be described as “no ideas but in people.” He once told me that he tried to follow Wittgenstein’s precept that a book should consist of “examples” rather than generalizations. He elaborated, “People keep saying, ‘Sacks, where’s your general theory?’ But I’m rather content to multiply case histories and leave the theorizing to others.”
Sacks’s anti-reductionist credo is implicit in all his writings, but occasionally he makes it explicit. He once wrote, “To restore the human subject at the center–the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject–we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what,’ a real person, a patient, in relation to disease–in relation to the physical.”
Elsewhere he has commented: “The realities of patients, the ways in which they and their brains construct their own worlds, cannot be comprehended wholly from observation of behavior, from the outside. In addition to the objective approach of the scientist, the naturalist, we must employ an intersubjective approach, too.”
Howard Gardner was right: psychology is not a science in the same sense as chemistry, nuclear physics, molecular biology. The human mind resists conventional scientific analysis and reduction, and with good reason, because it is by far the most complex phenomenon science has ever confronted. But with the help of wise, eloquent, imaginative mind-explorers such as Oliver Sacks, we can gain–if not self-knowledge–than at least a deeper appreciation of our endlessly odd selves.
Before his talk at Stevens, Sacks and I hung out in my office. He was as charming, gentle and modest in person as on the page. Spotting works on psychedelics in my bookcase, he told me a few stories about his youthful experiments with psychedelics and other illicit drugs.
Sacks details his pharmaceutical misadventures in On the Move, as well as his affliction with depression and anxiety, and shame over his homosexuality. Sacks’s struggles have clearly helped give him insight into and empathy for even the most profoundly dysfunctional patients. Our frailties, Sacks teaches us, can also become our strengths
On the Move is far more dramatic and shockingly candid than the lightly fictionalized memoirs of Karl Ove Knausgaard (and I’m a Knausgaard fan). I was jarred, however, by the section in which Sacks extols “neural Darwinism,” proposed by the late Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, as “the first truly global theory of mind and consciousness.”
In The End of Science, I criticized neural Darwinism, noting that many neuroscientists were unimpressed by the theory. I quoted Francis Crick’s complaint that Edelman had hidden “presentable” but not terribly original ideas behind a “smoke screen of jargon.” (See my profile of Edelman here.)
In On the Move, Sacks recalls Edelman saying to him, “You’re no theoretician.” Edelman’s condescension made me grimace. Long after Edelman’s work is forgotten, the writings of Sacks will be cherished, and not just for their literary quality.
In spite of his demurrals, Sacks is a theorist–or, perhaps, anti-theorist, in the same sense that Stephen Jay Gould was an anti-theorist in biology and Clifford Geertz in social science. Each of us, Sacks reminds us, is unique and constantly changing in ways that resist scientific analysis; our idiosyncrasies and mutability, far from being extraneous, are essential to our humanity. This insight, this anti-theory, has philosophical, ethical, political and spiritual as well as scientific implications.
Sacks, in spite of his age (81) and illness, continues to produce splendid work. In The New Yorker last month, Sacks pondered how trauma can be transformed into art in a moving reminiscence about performance artist Spalding Gray. In The New York Review of Books, he described a recent treatment that, although initially excruciating, left him filled with “physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania.”
Sacks expresses thanks both in that piece and in his February Times essay about his cancer. “I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he writes. “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.
We readers are grateful too, for all that Sacks has given us.