Since I was on the move myself, a dear friend gifted me Oliver Sacks’ On the Move before I left Vermont. I had never read Sacks before and was only vaguely familiar with him thanks to the film Awakenings and from seeing other people carry around The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. I was always intrigued by the title but never asked about it (I have no idea why I restricted my curiosity). After enjoying On the Move (a memoir) and learning about what went into so many of his books – going behind the scenes and into his process – I’m excited to dig into all his celebrated work. He’s a guy who would write 5000 word letters to his friends with 2000 word post-scripts, and meanwhile, I sit around claiming to be a writer, or at least someone who loves writing, and I can barely get to 500 words in a blog post. This guy never wasn’t writing. Except maybe when he was on amphetamines and/or riding around on his motorcycle. Even then though, he was probably writing, risk-taker that he was.
Anyway, I’m not going to give you an overview of his life; that’s what the book offers. Accept that gift and read it. What I want to do here, like I’ve done in the past, is take a few passages I’ve underlined and talk back to them. I should note that I typically underline a lot, but for the most part, I just enjoyed the ride this book gave me. It was also a very scattered collection of memories as they seemed to come up for him in the process of writing, reflecting, reimagining; all of it loosely anchored by various places he lived in, unmoored from chronology. In a single page, you’ll find him in the 60s on amphetamines and then in the 90s corresponding with Stephen Jay Gould. (He was also friends with the diverse likes of Robin Williams and W.H. Auden. And he had a California state record for the squat: 600 lbs at the time he achieved it.) Anyway…
“If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over.
Not a terrible stake to raise, but definitely a surprising one for someone who wrote so prolifically. It was a reminder that even the best writers need to kick themselves in the ass (to put it mildly). Although I’m not sure I could pull this empty threat off. What, am I actually going to kill myself if I don’t finish a particular piece of writing? No. But the point here is more that not writing is effectively killing yourself. You’re letting that creative part of you die, which is a terrible crime. So I’ll declare it right now: I’m done killing myself. Let this blog be partial proof. Most of the proof will come in private writing though, not for you. As Sacks notes at the end of the book:
The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
I find every patient I see, everywhere, vividly alive, interesting and rewarding; I have never seen a patient who didn’t teach me something new, or stir in me new feelings and new trains of thought; and I think that those who are with me in these situations share in, and contribute to, this sense of adventure.
I don’t think my students are like patients, but I share in Sacks’ sense of openness and wonder here when it comes to meeting each individual human being in the world as that: an individual human being. Which means an infinitely and singularly complex form of life. There’s no end to the learning you can experience with just one person, so what a bounty we have before us, surrounded by so many people! And yet we’re so often bored. Or we turn to fictional lives in all their comprehensible simplicity instead of diving into the real wonderlands all around us.
I need to stop using we to implicate other people in shit that I notice and experience. Sorry for taking such royal liberties. I’ll try to testify to what I understand instead of pretending like my knowledge is common knowledge, which is an awfully arrogant stance to take. As if because I notice it, surely everyone else does. And if they don’t, they’re idiots. I’m right in what I see and believe, so be grateful that I welcome you into my exclusive “we.”
But I still have trouble with the three Bs: bonding, belonging, and believing.
Sacks identifies with this statement from a patient who experienced painful childhood trauma. It resonates with me too. Sacks notes later in the book how he’s kept a safe distance from most of his life (despite being so intimate with his patients, loads of friends, and his writing), as if he didn’t quite know how to really bond, belong, and believe. Believe in what exactly? I can’t say for him, and I’m not sure how to express it for me either. But I do get the sense that I am somehow apart from my own life too often. Probably observing it with wry derision, or, I prefer to think, grateful wonder. Unfortunately, this removes me from my own active participation and presence in my current reality. I could pretend like that’s me being mindful, but it’s likely fairer to say that I’m self-alienating. Or maybe self-communing, which gets in the way of authentic communion with others. I’m too pleased with myself, and yet at the exact same time, I’m not pleased with myself at all. And so I end up bonding with no one, belonging nowhere, and believing in nothing. I’m a roving sack of flesh, dispirited. But then how do I move so joyfully through most of my existence?
I don’t have to make sense.
Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over.
When I visited Gallaudet University in Washington D.C….and talked about the “hearing impaired,” one of the deaf students signed, “Why don’t you look at yourself as sign impaired?”
Ah, what a delicious countercultural sentiment. A reminder of how “normal” is culturally constructed and contingent, of how silly we are to believe that our normal is natural and necessary.
There I go again, recklessly using “we” and “our.” As much as we collectively construct particular realities and confuse them with Reality, I alone construct my singular world and believe it Reality. What are my blind spots? What matters of convenience do I mistake as common sense? What ways of seeing and being do I take for granted as THE ways? Deafness is a difference, a problem only within a particular social context, decided by particular social beings.
I have seen him suddenly stop in mid-sentence and say, “I no longer believe what I was about to say.”
Sacks is referring here to psychologist Jerry Bruner and his boundless curiosity and knowledge. I just love the idea of catching yourself on your own bullshit, or understanding always that whatever you think and believe is bound to collapse in on itself. And that’s totally okay. In fact, it should be an obligation. Believe what you believe, but don’t believe that it’s unchangeable (especially just because you believe it). It is what you believe…for now. Subject to change.
Heck, you should hope that you’ll discover something new so that you’re always changing, adapting, evolving. Why deny your own expansion?
What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties.
Because I let myself be prey to Time, I keep thinking that all my growth and understanding has to happen NOW. Here, Sacks is reflecting on how his writing style evolved, how he changed as he aged and integrated new experiences into his neural structure. Why am I so eager to be a certain type of writer or person? Why not just write and be and go experience a diverse existence and let myself change as I will? What silly expectations I set for myself by thinking that because I’m of a certain age that I have to live a certain way! Or that people settle into who they are by the time they’re [fill in whatever strange social expectations you may have about who you’re supposed to be by now, with whatever now means for you]. Absurd. I am, and therefore, I think. That’s enough. Let’s be on the move then. Life always keeps up.
It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.
This was from Sacks’ friend, Thom Gunn, and I must rejoice in it as well. For here I am, with you, dear reader, but it is not the I of personality, but the full of I of mere being. And what a strange qualifier, “mere.” As if there is anything slight about being. Anything simple. Anything not purely delightful and infinite. I don’t write my way to a self, but more to my Self. I don’t write to construct a personality, but more to commune with my Person. And since I used capital letters to distinguish the concepts toward which I aim, you know I’m reaching for a higher purpose.
He felt that the brain played with ideas, that what we called perceptions were really “perceptual hypotheses” that the brain constructed and played with.
Here Sacks is talking about Richard Gregory’s research on the brain and vision. The latter part of the book details Sacks’ excitement about the emerging revolution in neuroscience, with particular reverence given to Francis Crick’s work (he of double helix fame). A bit from Crick:
Natural selection almost always builds on what went before…It is the resulting complexity that makes biological organisms so hard to unscramble.
And then Sacks focuses on Gerald Edelman’s theory of neuronal group selection, aka neural Darwinism:
…processes analogous to natural selection might be crucial for individual organisms – especially higher animals – in the course of their lives, with life experiences serving to strengthen certain neuronal connections or constellations in the nervous system and to weaken or extinguish others…
A human baby is not ready to go; it must create all sorts of perceptual and other categorizations and use them to make sense of the world – to make an individual, personal world of its own, and to find out how to make its way in that world. Experience and experiment are crucially important here – neural Darwinism is essentially experiential selection.
Really cool, really duh-in-retrospect stuff.
…neural Darwinism implies that we are destined, whether we wish it or not, to a life of particularity and self-development, to make our own individual paths through life.
Even if we do tend to follow paths that others have set for us.
I once asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said, “As a teacher.”
Same for me? Or, “as an eternal learner.” (Way to trump “lifelong,” Lou.)