‘The River of Consciousness’ by Oliver Sacks
Author: Steve Susoyev
November 7, 2017
God bless the curious adult! As a child I asked my parents and a few teachers to explain how plants’ muscles worked. The answer was that plants don’t have muscles; well then, I wanted to know, without muscles how do sunflowers turn their faces toward sunlight? How does the Venus flytrap close its claw to ensnare a fruit fly? Not until River of Consciousness have I encountered anything like an answer—from a man who also was curious about plants’ mobility, and oh, so many other things.
Oliver Sacks’s curiosity drove him to explore, in unprecedented depth, phenomena that he experienced himself: His previous book titles include Migraine, Hallucinations, and Musicophilia. And his intense interest in the experiences of others is reflected in books like The Island of the Colorblind and Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.
The Oliver Sacks Foundation, headed by his 30-year collaborator Kate Edgar, is now releasing this, Sacks’s 16th book and his first posthumously published volume. Readers of Oliver Sacks have much to celebrate here. Already a fan of his work, I expected a random collection of well-written essays, with some pleasant insights. But the new book is a revelation: River gives us a wide-ranging collection of ten essays, many of which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books—but fresh here, thanks to the connections among them.
When considering the great writers and thinkers who were gay but never “came out” during their lifetimes, our community has to do a bit of a shuffle. “Oh, many men of John Cheever’s generation lived double lives” is a typical rationalization I have employed myself. We want to claim their brilliant accomplishments but not their self-hatred. We seemed willing to cut Oliver Sacks a bit more slack even before the release of his memoir On the Move, published shortly before his death in 2015. In that feisty book, he gave us a thorough and moving account of his life, including his love affairs with men. The book’s dust jacket featured a photo of him as a strikingly handsome young man astride a BMW motorcycle, resembling a Tom of Finland model.
Oliver Sacks lived a profoundly private life, but it was not a double life. He never married and didn’t procreate. In his forties, after what he described in the 2012 Hallucinations as a “love affair gone sour,” he decided that he wasn’t cut out for romantic relationships, and spent 35 years in celibacy. He visited a psychoanalyst twice weekly for 49 years. Some readers have taken Sacks to task for failing, even after he was a widely admired public figure, to reveal anything about his personal life that could inspire young gay people, or offset the oppressive anti-gay forces in society. He certainly was aware of those forces; at age 18, he hinted to his father that he was attracted to men, and endured his mother’s curse: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” Not until On the Move did he explicitly discuss his history of gay loves and experiences and give us the name—Karl—of the person with whom his last love affair had soured.
Sacks won fans around the world with books including the best-selling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, in which his intimate portraits of people experiencing unusual neurological phenomena focused on the people and not on their anomalies. Dubbed by the New York Times as the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine,” he was an expert on many subjects and managed to retain a childlike glee when learning something new, including how to kiss—which, no longer celibate, he accomplished at age 76. After his decades of celibacy, Sacks again fell in love and had a lot of catching up to do. He did so with charming enthusiasm. The man with whom he shared the last seven years of his life, Billy Hayes, is one of the three editors of the new book and the author of a memoir released in February of this year, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me.
Sacks’s legacy includes his important and lasting contribution to rationality: “What concerns me is the invasion by religion of our schools, our politics, and our science,” he stated in a prescient 2005 speech at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In February 2010, describing himself as “an old Jewish atheist,” Sacks joined the Foundation’s honorary board of distinguished achievers.
An increasingly popular body of literature that fosters rationality might be called “science for the layperson.” Among the heroes of this genre are the scientists E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Danah Zohar, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Evelyn Fox Keller, and the journalist Matt Ridley—all blessed with the gift of explaining astronomy, evolutionary biology, paleontology, botany, marine biology, physics, or genetics in ways that we non-scientists can grasp. But the master of this genre was Oliver Sacks, who was comfortable—who indeed delighted in—connecting all of these seemingly disparate disciplines, and more. Perhaps most importantly, he advocated greater interaction between the fields of neurology and psychiatry, the latter of which he believed had been hijacked by the insurance industry’s obsession with diagnostic categories. In a passionately executed footnote that spans two pages toward the end of River, he explains why this matters.
Sacks the aggregator manages to pull together Darwin’s observations of the neuron-like electrical impulses at work in the Venus flytrap and the “mental qualities” of the earthworm, recent discoveries of the capacity of the octopus to learn not only from experience but from observation, and the complex memory and communication systems of bees. He explains the neurology behind near-death experiences, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the geometric patterns accompanying migraine. He seems to take special delight in stepping back from all of this research to gently mock Descartes, whose narrow conception of “consciousness” (I think; therefore I am) held that a dog could be dissected while alive without experiencing pain. Sacks clearly loved living in the era when scientists came to recognize that even a single-celled amoeba is capable of “learning” to avoid pain.
In Sigmund Freud’s work, Sacks finds inspiration for hope, “a hint of how the two seemingly disparate universes—the universes of human meaning and natural science—may come together.” A section that could have been called “The Redemption of Freud” reveals that the man who named homosexuals “inverts” enjoyed an illustrious career as a neurologist before any of his psychoanalytic ideas emerged; Freud’s articles on cerebral paralysis in children are cited 150 years after their publication, because of his meticulously detailed observations. He gave the name “contact barriers” to the neural connections that later came to be known as “synapses.” Most tantalizingly for Sacks, Freud wrote that there had to be a biological “bedrock” to all psychological conditions.
Sacks’s examination of the mobility of plants that speaks to this reader’s childhood curiosity appears in a chapter called “Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms.” Sacks describes how plants generate electrical impulses that operate very much like the electrical impulses driving mammalian mobility, except a thousand times more slowly. Without neurons, plants rely on calcium ion channels and complex blends of chemicals. “The blueprints for these,” he explains, are “encoded in the plant’s genome, and indeed plant genomes are often larger than our own.” The book is packed with revelations like this, some extremely detailed, some suggesting further exploration.
Sacks catalogues some of the more egregious failures of modern science, and particularly medicine, in a chapter called “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science.” Scotomas are “blind spots” in the visual field, and he documents several areas of study in which insightful researchers broke ground with revolutionary findings—which subsequently were ignored for decades, and in some cases for centuries, because of biases plaguing the scientific community. In 1888 a Swiss neurologist, Louis Verry, discovered a mechanism in the brain of a stroke victim that explained her sudden colorblindness. But his discovery flew in the face of accepted medical knowledge—knowledge that was based not on scientific observation but on a set of philosophical beliefs about perception. Verry’s work was buried, research was stymied, and the nature of colorblindness was misunderstood for 85 years.
Sacks does not condemn the physicians and researchers who, due to a “deep and perhaps unconscious philosophical attitude,” ignored and buried Verry’s published work until the mid-1960s, or those who today ignore important evidence in other areas. Instead, he cautions us all to be aware of the prejudices that drive us to ignore or bury the truth in our own work and lives.
Which brings us to the chapter titled “The Fallibility of Memory.” Here Sacks returns to Freud, now as an apologist, and mentions briefly, without naming it, Freud’s 1896 “seduction theory”: For roughly a year, the father of psychoanalysis widely discussed his conviction that patients were accurately reporting having been seduced or raped as children, usually by their fathers. Uncharacteristically, Sacks jumps to the conclusion that “eventually, when there seemed little evidence or plausibility in several cases, [Freud] started to wonder whether such recollections had been distorted by fantasy . . .” Without engaging his usual attitude of let’s-consider-all-aspects-of-this-history, Sacks fails to mention the outrage with which Freud’s Viennese colleagues reacted to the seduction theory, or the political and professional pressure under which Freud in 1897 abruptly—not “eventually”—abandoned his theory and, arguably, his patients. Sacks then considers the controversial realm of “recovered memories” of abuse that flooded news outlets in the 1980s, and discusses research on successful implantation of false memories. He seems to imply that the reports of Freud’s patients in the 1890s concerning childhood incest lay on the same spectrum as hysterical accounts of “Satanic ritual abuse” in the late 20th century.
I have read all but two of Oliver Sacks’s books, and have encountered no other examples of what seem like his own scotomas. One can imagine that as a 49-year devotee of psychoanalysis, he was disinclined to explore, with his usual vigilance, why Freud chose to attribute reports of child sexual abuse almost entirely to children’s lurid imaginations. The literature is rich with examinations by former psychoanalysts, including Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, of Freud’s conscious decision not to rock the boat of Victorian Europe’s commitment to the sexual status quo—and thus to blame the victims of child sexual abuse and move on with his colleagues’ support of his newly minted but still vulnerable profession. Oliver Sacks chose not even to mention the counter-arguments offered by Miller and other Freud-skeptics.
With some writers, we might be far less forgiving of what feels like a glaring and retrograde omission. But I confess to feeling almost relieved: My hero was human and may have had blind spots of his own! Oliver Sacks shed much light on the human experience, and continues to do so. In a New York Times essay, he wrote shortly before his death: “I have several other books nearly finished.” His fans, including this reviewer, will eagerly await more posthumous essay collections.
The River of Consciousness
By Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 9780385352567, 240 pp.