The Man and the Machine: What Ever Happened to Oliver Sacks?

By Paul Duckworth, MLIS

On a sunny, mild day last week, rare this winter in the Midwest, I walked to the mailbox to collect the usual assortment of flyers: oil change coupons, muffler shop flyers, supermarket ads, the ubiquitous fast food coupons, and special offers for hearing aids (yes, I admit that I am “of that age”). There, mostly hidden amidst the glossy and pulp paper promotions, was something I actually wanted—the new issue of The New Yorker, dated February 11. And so, sometime that evening, after walking outdoors enjoying the weather, cleaning up after the cat, and cooking a pot of spicy curried dal, I was able to settle in and savor the deliciously-drawn and worded cartoons, plus an article or two of interest. As I flipped through pages, I stopped, riveted and disbelieving, on page 28: an article by Oliver Sacks! Those who don’t know me can’t appreciate what a fan I am of this odd, intelligent, soft-spoken Brit.

You may very well be mulling over the words “Oliver” and “Sacks” and thinking, “Is it Sacks? Seems it should be Sachs” and “Why are those words somehow meaningful to me?” Or perhaps, “Wasn’t he a doctor?” Or, “Why am I connecting him with Robin Williams?” Plus, of course, the question “Whatever happened to him?”

What happened to him is simple to say: he died in 2015, aged 82, after a great career as a neurologist and writer. The fact that he is deceased may help you better understand why my eyes were riveted, my mind reeling, by this page 28 in one of my favorite magazines. The article was titled, appropriately enough, “The Machine Stops.” Is Sacks comparing himself to a worn out machine? I wondered. Are we humans merely a collection of wires and chemical reactions operating under the marvelous laws of physics? Has Sacks spoken from the dead? More about this article soon, but first, some background about the man and his marvelously mesmerizing mind.

Unless you are a neurologist, your first association with Sacks probably dates back to a movie theater in 1990 when you went to see Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in “Awakenings.” Or, if your amalgamation of protoplasmic cells had not yet emerged onto planet Earth back then, you might have watched the film more recently at home on DVD, courtesy of your local library. But then, being the reader you are, no doubt you connected the film to the book of the same title, written by none other than Oliver Sacks.

So, you very well may know who Oliver Sacks is, or was. However, I’d wager that there’s a lot about the man which you may not know. Following is a list of statements about Sacks and his life. See if you can tell which of them of him are true, which are false. Answers are at the bottom of this article, in small print, upside down. Take a guess, or look up the answers in your thousands of books and millions of web pages at your disposal.

  1. He was British, born in London.
  2. Was a bodybuilder on Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif.
  3. First cousin of Israeli prime minister Abba Eban.
  4. Suffered from a rare condition called prosopagnosia: a neurological condition characterized by the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people.
  5. His I.Q. was between 180 and 200, higher than that of Stephen Hawking.
  6. Sacks “discovered” Temple Grandin and wrote about her.
  7. Used L-Dopa.
  8. Was a meth-head, for a time.
  9. Was gay.
  10. Immigrant to the U.S.
  11. Lived on an Israeli Kibbutz for a while.
  12. Scuba diver.
  13. Both parents were physicians.
  14. Failed medical school.
  15. Atheist.
  16. Owned a BMW motorcycle, which propelled him on numerous long road trips.
  17. In his early college days, after being awarded £50 for an Oxford University essay on anatomy, he spent most of it to purchase the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
  18. His middle name was Wolf.
  19. Made friends with the Hell’s Angels.
  20. A collection of his essays, titled The River of Consciousness, was published posthumously in 2017.
  21. A collection of his essays, Everything In Its Place, will be released this April.
  22. Recovered from encephalitis lethargica, also known as sleeping sickness.
  23. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.
  24. Was reputed to have been a prolific handwritten-letter writer who never used email.
  25. His neurological knowledge helped inform the early inventive stages of the Internet.
  26. Authored 16 books.
  27. Doubting himself, he burned the manuscript for the first book he wrote.
  28. Suffered from writer’s block for several years.

So, how did you do? Look, now you know more facts about Sacks than you ever thought you wanted to know, plus a few plausible-sounding things that are not true.

OliverSacks-quote

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about saying more in regard to what inspired me to begin this article: Sacks’ short essay, “The Machine Stops.” In the summer of 2015, weakened by cancer, short of breath, his eyesight failing, having just a few weeks to live, Sacks was attempting to complete an essay about social media and in the midst of his work discovered the prescient 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. Forster’s story was set in a futuristic world where people live in solitary isolation underground and a giant machine takes care of all their needs, including a device for communicating with other isolated people that we today would recognize as instant messaging and video chat. At the story’s close, the machine “crashes” and down goes civilization with it. But before they die in the chaotic entropy, people realize this: the only thing that matters is humanity and one’s connection to the natural world. Forster’s Sci-Fi story resonated with Sacks, and in a letter (handwritten, of course) to his friend Atul Gawande, Sacks shared that he was trying to complete his essay about smartphones, etc. and was delighted to have found Forster’s short story.

In this final, brief piece, “The Machine Stops,” which The New Yorker withheld until now, Sacks wrote what were perhaps his final words to the public and “raged against the machine” with his calm, intelligent, rational, and cogent observational thoughts:

Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases…. [People] have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved…. [I feel] that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened [and I have] deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world. Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before. I revere good writing and art and music, but … only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass. This idea is explicit in Pope Francis’s encyclical [On Care For Our Common Home]…. We can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.

As I conclude, I think about the film “Awakenings” and Sacks’ later comments about his work in that hospital ward. He was tenacious and courageous in trying to reach and cure those patients who were locked in their own bodies, yet awake in their minds. I think about listening to the audio version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as I drove through the Sandhills of Nebraska one July many years ago. Sacks was compelled by his curiosity to enter the world of these people with neurological differences and share their experiences with us. On The Move comes to mind, his fascinating tell-all autobiography that I listened to a couple of years ago as I was driving to Yellowstone. I loved listening to his voice, as he accounted stories and scientific knowledge. What lingers most for me, though, is his sense of compassion for those with neurological differences and how he treated each person with whom he worked with gentleness. Sacks regarded each one as a full, three-dimensional human being, rather than mere subject or patient. In so doing, he has given his readers much wonder, delight, empathy, and insight into the human condition. Sacks was a 19th-century gentleman who, lucky for us, lived in the 20th and early 21st centuries. His joy of knowledge and his ability to take events and facts and weave them into insightful connections is unparalleled. His words remain as a gift for us and for the future.Answers

 

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