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Book Review: Oliver Sacks' "On the Move" and the Obligation of the Teacher

06/12/2015 05:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

I knew vaguely of Oliver Sacks' books beginning 20-30 years ago but didn't get seriously interested in reading him until recently. A few months ago I wrote about the eminent, much-admired clinical neurologist regarding his much-noticed New York Times op-ed announcing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, a rare form beginning in the retina. (He's since apparently in remission.) I decided to write about this piece because his moving retrospective view of a life, now seen as from above and afar in the face of mortality, resonated with Marguerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian," where I had found a strikingly similar passage that Yourcenar puts into the mouth of the Roman Emperor.

Now we have what might have been similarly called, "Memoirs of Oliver Sacks," but which has the modern, hip title, "On the Move" (Knopf, 2015). The title is fully justified by Sacks extravagant life, an appropriate caption for his idiosyncratic professional and private trajectory. "On the Move" is a plainly-written plugged-in memoir of a London boy's polymath life history including 40 years of best-selling books on his clinical neurological patients. These are stories ("narratives") of people with rare neurological conditions whose maladies are fascinating in themselves and provide perspective on the rest of us who are, at least most or maybe some of us, "normal." Sacks' books study the abnormal and we learn a lot about how our understanding of what is normal needs expansion, meaning humanizing. "Weird" people, from this view, are not weird or unfathomable. They are our brothers and sisters hit by catastrophic bad luck.

A few of his best known books are, "The man who mistook his wife for a hat: and other clinical tales" (1998); "Awakenings" (1999 -- made into a film starring the late Robin Williams); Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain" (2008); "Hallucinations" (2013), and his early book, "Migraine" (1970).

Book photos of the adult Sacks depict a portly, bearded man with a big, genuine smile. He resembles Karl Marx, Santa Claus or, to be precise, an orthodox rabbi. (Sacks is Jewish but secular). The memoir, for readers who, like me, didn't know his past, shows he was anything but jovial in the sense that behind his extrovert appearance was a private man Sacks repeatedly characterizes as lonely and isolated. On the outside, Sacks' is the life of a wild man with an immense appetite for the world, someone who lived many culture.

Sacks was born in 1933 in England to an esteemed Jewish family of doctors (his mother was a well-known gynecologist; his father, a primary care physician, was Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban's uncle; his cousin was Al Capp, creator of the cartoon strip Lil' Abner). He did boarding school then was evacuated to the English countryside during World War II. He returned to London in 1943, came to the United States at sixteen, went to medical school in Los Angeles and made his clinical career in New York, seeing literally thousands of neurologically-impaired patients over a career, in various New York City hospitals and clinics such as Beth Abraham in the Bronx and Little Sisters of the Poor, which was also a hospice.

Sacks from early on loved motorcycles and tooled days and vacations around the country (i.e. the U.S.) on BMWs. But he wasn't an counter-culture Easy Rider type, he was a "chemical boy" who "loved chemistry and biology." He was interested in every insect, tree and leaf, on his way to the medical profession. But he was often heavy into drugs and had numerous near-fatal accidents and mental episodes.

Sacks is gay, which is unimportant in itself but social attitudes about it had a lot to do with his personal life. He had only a few frustrating experiences as a young man, one or two successes, then (I note this only because it's a telling part of a totally life) he writes that he "had no sex for 35 years." He was in love three times, briefly, and at the age of 75 (he's now eighty) met Billy Hayes, a much younger man, who shares his life. (We all wish them well.)

When Sacks as a young man at UCLA medical school in the early 1960s, he became a body-builder, one of the famous "Muscle Beach" crowd, one of the series of beautiful Los Angeles urban beaches (e.g. Hermosa Beach, Long Beach. Arnold Schwarzenegger was another feature several years later). Photos show an immensely strong man who--I couldn't have imagined this--once held the California record for the full squat, 600 lbs. If muscling-up had to do with being gay, Sacks was way out in front of the Stonewall generation that developed out of the police raid and counter-riot at the Stonewall gay bar in Greenwich Village in June 1969.

Looking at Sacks from the point of view of the ex-pat, he's one of a number of remarkable Brits who came to the States in the 60s-90s for a period and then ended up staying a long time, some of them becoming American citizens. Harvard economist Niall Ferguson (a Scot, author of "The Ascent of Money") is one. Another is the flamboyant Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile English Trotskyite who evolved into a fierce American citizen and national security hawk, nonetheless ever a true European cultural, literary and political intellectual engagé (his memoir, "Hitch-22" - written a few years ago as he was dying of esophageal cancer -- recounts his adventures in world affairs from the '60s to the Atheist movement of the last ten years. His best-selling book, "God is not Great," had considerable influence. A third is Andrew Sullivan (another well-known gay intellectual) a conservative, author of the political culture blog "Daily Dish," which I think he's abandoned now as too onerous. A last is the courageous historian Tony Judt, a pal from graduate school days in Paris -we lived a few blocks apart in the Quartier Latin, he was at the Ecole normale, I was in the Rue Lhomond doing Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation research on the French Communist movement. Tony died a lingering, awful death from Lou Gehrig's disease a few years ago. His "Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945," is a monument to contemporary historical scholarship.
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A personal note: writing this sort of literary/political/personal article about "On the Move" with references a lot of other things that happened is significant for me, for two reasons. First, they're a kind of bric-a-brac memoir for myself, absent diaries. By contrast, Sacks kept detailed diaries from his early years, including extensive notes of his clinical cases. He claims to have 1000 notebooks full in all. (Memo to those who plan a memoir: write it down now.) As a teacher over many years at Amherst College I always felt that telling students about people I met (e.g. Pope John Paul II at the Rome Airport, with whom I shook hands and told I'm from Chicago where there's a big Polish community), events I witnessed (e.g. the Portuguese revolution in 1975, or Ulster during the blackest days of sectarian conflict), writers of important books I met etc., is, in addition to teaching facts and theories, a kind of moral obligation, passing on to interested students the culture I was part of. The history of people's lived lives is vital to a large view of the world as it is beyond our provincial corner of it.

For example, this intention to past things on motivated my Amherst course, "Culture and politics in 20th century Europe." The syllabus began with Bernardo Bertolucci's epic, "1900," a fresco of Italy's evolution, 1900-1945; then ran roughly chronologically through class struggle/nationalism/industrialism/communism, (Mussolini, Trotsky, Freud, totalitarianism, Existentialism, Fellini, the '60s, the West European terrorist movements of that period, and, much to my surprise, ending up with a class on the significance of soccer hooliganism (it's preferable to WWI), and two classes on John Paul II, first on the collapse of Communism, second the critique of Western market capitalism. This course was absolutely idiosyncratic, in effect I was offering my own experiences trying to light the fires in undergraduate eyes.

This sense of mission had an origin in my own past, during my dissertation years in Paris, 1969-73, I was lucky enough to be taken on by Raymond Aron, France's leading liberal intellectual. In his faculty seminar, to which he invited this American graduate student, he often talked about his own experiences. His dissertation years in Germany, he was in Berlin when Hitler came to power, were the research that became "Main Currents in Sociological Thought." (Germany was a center of developing sociology.) He and others in this select group that included almost every noted French intellectual not a member or acolyte of the Communist party, hashed and rehashed Marx, Tocqueville, Comte, Machiavelli, Max Weber, Marcel Mauss, Emilie Durkheim, Alain, Ernest Renan and others. Aron from time to time let slip a sort of sad reference to Sartre, his comrade at the Ecole normale in in the late 1920, who had become his political/intellectual adversary. Aron believed America was vital in standing off the Soviet Union in the Cold War. He was one of the few French liberal writers with the courage to defend the U.S. (while also criticizing it - see his book, "The Imperial Republic"). Among American intellectuals Daniel Bell in particular interested him because Bell's "The coming of post-industrial society" showed Marxism's failures while respecting its achievements. Aron's best-known book in English, Aron's "The Opium of the Intellectuals," was his famous denunciation of left-wing French intellectuals' complaisance or perhaps complicity with Stalinism from the 1930-70s.

Aron's judgment about the rise of Nazism remains fresh in my mind. He was there, in Berlin in 1933 and then in Paris witness to the Third Republic's failure to confront Hitler. If Paris and London had rejected Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland in March 1933, he said, Hitler, his military and economy still weak, would have backed off. The world in 1938 got the Munich Agreement instead. This needed to be passed on to young people whose knowledge of history was sparse, let alone their understanding of power in world politics. So thanks to Oliver Sacks' culturally-enriching memoir that allows me to make a point about the obligations of the teacher.