In the early 1980s, New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler spent four years hanging around the neurologist Oliver Sacks, gathering material for an extended profile. The story, at Sacks’s request, was ultimately never published, but a few decades later, in the final months of his life, Sacks implored Weschler to return to the project. The following is an excerpt from that work. We pick up the story here with the unlikely pair on a visit to some of the doctor’s original home stomping grounds in London.
As a student at St. Paul’s Academy in London, Oliver Sacks founded a tremendously successful literary society. It quickly eclipsed the staid Milton Society, “which had been founded at St. Paul’s, years earlier, by Milton himself,” he says.
“We were a ravenous Jewish overgrowth,” he goes on, “and one day the headmaster called me in and said, ‘Sacks, you’re dissolved, you don’t exist,’ as simple as that—a phrase that has persisted within me, hauntingly, through the years.”
Talking about St. Paul’s, which “used to be in Hammersmith, in a magnificent Gothic monstrosity,” to which Oliver would bike or bus (“the 28, the bus of my childhood, whose fare has in the meantime jumped from one penny to forty pence”), puts him in mind of the Natural History Museum in nearby South Kensington, which he would often skirt on the way to and from school—and he proposes we head over for a visit.
On the drive, he explains how, though his romance with motorcycles began in adolescence, he really only got his first one on his twenty-first birthday. During his last six months in England, stationed for a residency in Birmingham, he would gun his black Norton down the Birmingham–London highway. Eventually, as virtually his last act in England—he starts to laugh at the memory—he “stepped o=” his bike, at eighty miles an hour, slid a hundred yards on the slippery road, and survived, protected by his leather swaddling. (The bike was destroyed.)
Then, the minute he got to America, he got another, “an off-road scrambler.”
Arriving at the Natural History Museum, a huge and imposing stone secular cathedral built in high confident Victorian Gothic, Oliver relates, as we approach the ramp, “Beneath the visible museum, there was a vast underground one, crammed with anatomical samples. The New Spirit Building, it was called; I was a frequent visitor. The place used to be so unpopular, it was a delight. There were no concessions to popular presentation,” he says, punning.
“I hate this brightly lit stuff,” he grumbles as we pass winking, blinking displays of ecology and Nature and Man just past the entrance. “It was so dull and minute before.”
“Quick, let’s find the invertebrates!” he interjects, hurrying along, pushing past the tarrying throngs. “Let’s find some place that’s not concession. In those days, we just had a passion for cataloging. The fact that there was Courtship and Mating and Feeding”—Oliver mimics the titles of the new displays, mincingly—“was not the least interesting to us.
“The passion was systematic: it was for evolution, for cataloging—we couldn’t care less about habitats.” He veritably spits out the word, but then pauses on the threshold of the largely empty invertebrates hall. “Funny, though, now that I think about it, because conventional neurology nowadays is like a parody of systematic thinking, whereas today, I am much more interested in issues which might be described as the cerebral habitat.”
We cross the threshold.
“I was once almost killed by a Cyanea,” Oliver announces, dreamily.
“A Cyanea. A jellyfish. How we loved the names of echinoderms: starfish, sea urchins, the sea cucumbers. I remember one—yes, that one over there—called penny-agony [Peniagone].
“There’s much too much space in these cases now,” Oliver complains. “They used to be filled with hundreds of examples illustrating the slightest variations. Now everything has gone into deep storage. It’s too bad: This allows for a superficial enchantment. We used to come to a profound enchantment at what was simply a zoological museum.”
We continue to roam the cases, as Oliver becomes more thoughtful. “Reluctantly I left zoology and went on to medicine, but even late I considered abandoning medicine and Jewishness to become a gentile zoologist in California.”
From what did he think this love for classification had derived?
“Forcing or finding order in an imagined chaos. Basically, it was a love of names; there was a lot of name magic, an Adamic passion.”
As we continue to explore a room full of fossil cases, Oliver delights in the presence of an old woman, stooped before successive cases on the far side of the room. “The only act of concentration I’ve so far encountered in this museum today,” he huffs. “The way it used to be: we were pilgrims.”
Was the activity devotional?
Yes, if devotion and play are not seen as opposites.”
We drift out of the invertebrates, through the Hall of Amphibians (“I loved Eryops: clumsy amphibians out of water who took on grace and ease once back in it.”) and presently into a room featuring a display of stuffed hippos. “Ah, my friends!” exclaims Oliver, rapt. “I used to have erotic fantasies of all sorts here, and by no means all human (hippos in the mud!); indeed, not all organic (the mud!).” He sighs dreamily, only barely selfparodic: “A hippo would make a wonderful bed partner,” he pronounces definitively.*
*There may have been something in the water, or the mud, as it were. For in his 2016 book Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, the cultural historian Stuart Jeffries records how at least two other prominent Jewish intellectuals of the period seemed to have a similar fixation. To wit, according to Herbert Marcuse’s stepson Osha Neumann, “[Marcuse] ‘would sit with this one stuffed hippo on his lap, and project this image of a non-genital, non-aggressive sexuality.’ Marcuse shared that fondness with Adorno, who . . . in letters to his mother would address her as ‘My dear, faithful Wondrous Hippo-Cow’ and sign himself off as ‘Hippo King.’”
We continue on next door to the Geological Museum. “The geology museum had a wonderful dullness.” We make our way over to a case full of geodes, before which Oliver pauses, transfixed. “I love the idea of something dull on the outside, and spectacular and crystalline on the inside.”
Later: “Gorgeous stibnite! I used to worship a huge phallic one upstairs!”
We venture next door to the Science Museum, in the vast interior vault of which we are immediately confronted by huge engines. “Wittgenstein loved it here, as did Auden. Wittgenstein could think of no afternoon more pleasant than one spent fixing a friend’s toilet.”
Before biology, Oliver had loved chemistry and optics. “I love the brass and gold and old nineteenth-century apparatus. I hate plastic and twentieth-century apparatus.
“And here,” he says, “is the wall where they used to have their periodic table, the table before which I had my salvational vision. Each element was listed, and alongside, in a succession of elegant Victorian bottles, samples of each element. I would come here and gaze, entired by a feeling of natural (as opposed to arbitrary) order—of holy order. I was nine then. I would think out the properties of the messy ones. I had many of these elements in my lab at home, including a bar of lithium, which is highly unstable.”
“One had to keep it immersed in oil or it would spontaneously ignite.”
“I would spend all my pocket money on chemicals. Tungsten I loved: I had an uncle who ran a lamp factory who would slip me an occasional sample. It has the same specific gravity as gold, a fact I found extremely pleasing.
“I loved combines. For example, I would make a teaspoon out of a combine of tin, lead, and bismuth, which would melt if one put it in a cup of tea—to my great delight. The same thing happens, of course, with spoons made of gallium.
“I indulged in extravagant anthropomorphisms, just as I had earlier when it came to numbers, and I used to fancy, for instance, how three 37s yearned, just yearned, to merge to form 111. When it came to the elements, I felt sorry for the inert gases—they fascinated me perhaps more than any other elements, but I felt sorry for them—for example, for xenon, which it was thought at the time could not merge with anything, although I suspected it could with fluorine. I used to muse: The passion of fluorine should be able to overcome even the aloof coldness of xenon—and years later this was proved so. In 1960, xenon hexafluoride was derived, just as I’d predicted in 1944. ‘Hooray, it exists,’ I remember thinking; I knew it would. I merely couldn’t command the pressures and the temperatures.
“The fact is I simply doted on the elements, just as I later read Mendeleev had. There is a love of truth, which is chemistry, but there can also be cranky truth, which is alchemy. Both of them, strangely, were strong in Newton.
“I was fascinated around the same time by stereoscopy and became quite inventive, contrived a variety of mirrorscopes which upended vision.”
He pauses for a few moments. “And here I confabulate not: my grandfather Marcus Landau did invent a miner’s lamp which used to, at any rate, be on display right here at the museum.” Whereupon there ensues a mad, fruitless search for the very lamp in question.
Presently we give up, but just as we are walking out of the museum, he spots a special exhibition of protective clothing o= to the side, and, utterly possessed, he makes a beeline for it, all agog, racing right past the cashier (to whom I, the eternal Sancho, rush to apologize and settle accounts for the two of us).
Inside the darkened space, he is hushed, rapt, and giddy
“Leather is very modish today as a fetish,” he tells me, at length, “but I disapprove. Somehow it must be tied to use: to danger and speed and motorcycles. Otherwise it’s completely inappropriate.”
We move among parachute gear and spacesuits, scrub equipment and firefighters’ garb. Oliver is delighted, beads of perspiration on his brow. “Had I not become a doctor, I’d have loved to design protective wear for extravagant environments.”
Later that night, Oliver insists we go to a Chinese place so we can have squid and bêche-de-mer (sea cucumbers), the latter of which are distinctly squishy-odd: all slippery and sinewy. “Very primitive,” Oliver rhapsodizes, as he tries to frame a bite between his chopsticks. “Very rarely does one get to eat something this primitive.” (Having seen them at the museum, he had to eat one at a restaurant.)
Conversation caroms about, to begin with his father, who calls to check in, “a combination of anxious attention (for example, calling us here at the restaurant to tell us he’s got home safely),” Oliver observes, “alongside a propensity for being completely oblivious to the obvious danger (for example, when Michael and I were being beaten at school).” Oliver spears another slurp of bêche-de-mer. “Like a hypochondriac in denial about the real illness: a nasty business.”
From there we free-associate (how? I wonder, maybe just from one nasty business to another) to the subject of a rogue cousin. None other than Al Capp, the late cartoonist behind Li’l Abner and a notorious, almost operatically pro-Nixon, anti-hippie archconservative. Who is not only a cousin of Oliver’s, but a cousin of Abba Eban’s as well. They are all cousins!
Oliver goes on to speak of the strange sad story of his second cousins the Capps, how they’d all been fervent leftists during the thirties but with the coming of McCarthyism, Al had maneuvered things such that his brothers would take the rap while he emerged clean, a reactionary convert who to the end of his days professed a particularly cynical, and especially transparently cynical and self-loathing, form of conservatism. (Myself, I told Oliver, I’d always wondered if it wasn’t some sort of grimly sustained act: you want to see a conservative, I’ll show you a conservative! Oliver isn’t so sure.
“I love the idea of something dull on the outside, and spectacular and crystalline on the inside.”
A moment’s pause, another slurp of bêche-de-mer. Another curious free association: “Once I was with a patient who was intently watching his hand slowly monstrify into a ticcing machine. Laughing, I told him he looked like the Werewolf of London watching his nails becoming talons with horror and amazement. I then threw him a ball, which he caught—springing him out of his Parkinsonism. For a moment he forgot to behave like a Parkinsonian.” (I mention Sartre’s notion of the waiter who is continually engaged in acting like a—what?—a waiter!)
Later, palming the tea and slowly making his way one by one through all the orange slices that have arrived with the check, Oliver concludes the evening by discussing an article, or maybe even a book he’s been pondering—if only he could get past the Leg book. “I would like to do for the demented what Piaget did for children, which is to say to survey the slow deconstruction, as opposed to construction, of personhood. Or phrased differently, to bring out how the demented are no less human for being demented—which is to say, how to love a demented person. How even when tasks are no longer possible, play still is. How the very last thing to go in dementia is the signature, the home of personhood.”
Themes, he concludes, of dignity and indignity.
I relish the writings of both Weschler and Sacks; is the full treatment, from which this is an excerpt, in print so I may read it all?
So amazing. I had read a little about Oliver Sacks and then it simply went away from my radar. Thanks for bringing his work thoughts back to me
Could Orion print the whole article? Oliver Sacks is an exemplar of human diversity. He has so expanded my sense of what humanity is and can be. He discovered, honored and humanized the odd ones.
Thank you for this. A couple of notes: It is and was St. Paul’s School, not St. Paul’s Academy, and while teh current incarnation is in Barnes, across the river from Hammersmith, the school in Sacks’s time was in West Kensington.
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