Monday, August 31, 2015

Oliver Sacks (1933 - 2015)

End Of The Enlightenment

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.
-- Oliver Sacks, "My Periodic Table"; New York Times, July 24, 2015

In Jewish tradition, it's said that if you save a human life, you've saved the universe, whole and entire.  What happens, then, when a life goes out? Oliver Sacks, MD, passed away over the weekend; in his passing, I'm fairly certain not many people understand what we've lost.

Sacks was among a shrinking number of scholar-scientists, the last in a lineage of European --  men and women -- and (this, a bit of a trope) generally English intellectuals, educated in the tradition of the Enlightenment. Donnish, possibly eccentric, but clearly brilliant; frankly curious about the world and passionate about the why of a thing, driven to chronicle and understand it.

They were often polymaths, prodigious writers, frequently (unless it was their principal method of expression) also fair composers of music or art. They understood the importance of clear thought and speech, of how to argue and to reason and explain what they'd found in their exploration of the world.

(This same category of person could include Newton, Pitt, Einstein; Goethe; Mary Wollstonecraft or Jane Austen; William and Henry James, among others -- but Dr. Samuel Johnson pops into my memory for a moment: Language and clarity of thought was his obsession, and a lifelong struggle with what was most probably Tourette's Syndrome -- a condition caused by "dysfunction in cortical and subcortical regions, the thalamus, basal ganglia and frontal cortex", per Wikipedia.)

For Sacks, the mystery which captured his attention (Sacks described himself when working as 'obsessive') is what we carry in our skulls -- the electro-chemical seat of all pleasures and terrors, Bardo and Paradise: the brain --  and he knew well how much we do not know about that organ, or anything else.

In a series of books over roughly thirty years, Sacks presented popular chronicles of the scientific aspects of neurology by sharing tales of his patients. On one level, they were 'medical mystery stories' -- Why do these things happen to us? -- principally about his patients' rare or notable afflictions, and that often these same people developed gifts of insight or ability due to those same conditions.

But, while every tale noted the pathos of their circumstances (Sacks the physician used his obsessive intellect with a dispassionate eye), they were also stories which presented his patients' conditions with real compassion: Sacks the man never forgot that they suffered, laughed, were persons with lives both before and after they began to experience the world in an uncommon way.

Riding Kiddietown's public transit over those same thirty years, I've seen only three individuals which I could say with confidence had a neurological condition (as opposed to those with apparent psychological ones, including the drivers). Principally, the outward signs are motor tics or repeated hand gestures, some relatively subtle and others very manifest. We live in a culture that glorifies physical perfection, High School-like popularity, wealth, and youth -- and looks down with distaste upon or ignores anything less. By presenting rare and notable neurological conditions in his books in a way that made it possible to see the human beings they had happened to, Sacks made it more likely our response to the person on the bus, repeatedly touching the side of their face, or whose head spasms to the left every few seconds, would trigger that same compassion, in us.

A friend recently repeated to me something once said by their best friend, a physician: We're all just one blood test away from a reminder of mortality. Sacks' chronicles remind the majority of us of our luck in this Game, so far (There, But For The Grace Of God...), but also a momento mori that our lives are a Dice Game, and that at some point after thousands of throws at the table that luck will give out. We will not live on Sugar Mountain forever. We will suffer all that flesh is heir to.  Sacks understood that; and even if this is a Game where no one gets out alive, he was still grateful to be here.

Sacks discovered he had cancer in 2006, a rare form which echoed aspects of the human condition that had fascinated and driven him: an ocular tumor, a melanoma, in one eye. Nine years later, it reappeared as multiple metastases in the liver.  This past February, he published a short essay about it in the New York Times ("My Own Life"), and followed it with others in July ("My Periodic Table"), and a final word about Shabbat this past month."I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence", Sacks once wrote, "other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still 'speak' to people after my death."

Whether something else exists or not, Now he knows what we do not. I hope he was able to see the spread of the night sky again before leaving.

And, it's another Mensch that leaves us. As I've said before, we live in a world with a limited supply of Mensches.