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Oliver Sacks: The Medecine Man Essay, Research Paper

The medicine man Obs: What made you write Uncle Tungsten? OS: The immediate provocation was having a chemist-friend send me a parcel which contained a little bar of tungsten. When that fell out, the image of my uncle and his wing collar and his tungsten-blackened hands came to me. Obs: Was it difficult to write about your experiences at school? OS: The boarding school to which I was evacuated was very unpleasant and very traumatic. When I came back I had a violent need to find stability and order and clarity. Obs: You found the order in the periodic table? OS: In chemistry generally, and the periodic table in particular. Actually, this has been bottled up in me for close to 60 years. Obs: Were you writing at school? OS: I’ve kept journals since I was about 14 or so. Obs: Who did you read at that time? OS: I was very fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Professor Challenger stories – this great rambunctious zoologist with his enormous beard. HG Wells I adored. I knew all of his short stories. I was haunted by some of them. I still am. For me, London was flavoured by Wells, and Chesterton as well. I loved The Napoleon of Notting Hill and Dickens. Obs: When did you make the move towards neurology? OS: Much later. First chemistry was the passion, then I wanted to be a zoologist. Then a physiologist. Only when I was about 24 did I see that neurology would be my thing. In retrospect, I realise that it was probably destined from the start. Obs: You quote a school report which says ‘Sacks will go far – if he does not go too far’. Are you a natural extremist? OS: Well, I’m impulsive. I think sometimes I push things too far as well. Obs: Do you think neurology satisfies that need to go a bit too far? OS: As a physician, I have to constrain this. I mustn’t push a patient. I must remember that tact, delicacy is the crucial thing. There may be all sorts of questions I want to ask. As an investigator one wants to go as far as possible, as a physician, the relationship with the patient is all-important. Obs: Are there other writers who influenced you to be the writer you are now? OS: I loved the Victorian naturalists like Wallace, Bates, and especially the Darwin of the Beagle. I loved Faraday’s little book, The Chemical History of a Candle. Obs: You wrote journals when you were a teenager: when was it clear to you that you also wanted to write books? OS: I submitted some journals to a publisher in my early twenties. They got rejected, and I didn’t submit anything again. They were journals of my travels. The first book which made it was Migraine. That was an extreme delight. Obs: Both your parents were given to telling medical stories. Did you inherit the writing gene from your mother or your father? OS: With my mother the stories were often more elaborate. I occasionally thought of her as a sort of ancient mariner, but both my parents were story tellers, and story telling is an essential part of medicine. Obs: Are you a writer who’s a neurologist, or a neurologist who’s a writer? OS: I feel I’m both, very deep inside me. In fact, Uncle Tungsten’s about all sorts of things. I can’t imagine myself either as a non-writer or non-neurologist. They’re both conjoined parts of my identity now. Chekhov said: ‘Literature is my mistress, but medicine is my lawful wedded wife’. I’d never want to abandon medicine as Somerset Maugham did. Obs: You have described medicine as ‘a romantic science’. Do you think this means that medicine is best understood through literature? OS: All good novelists are good clinicians, and one feels this with Tolstoy or Dickens. Medicine is the point where biology and biography intersect, and I think one needs to have both the biological scientific impulse and the biographic narrative impulse. Obs: Who do you write for, apart from your patients? OS: I sometimes regard a book as a letter to anybody who’s interested. For me, the first act of writing is not for anybody, it’s for myself. Obs: What first took you to America? OS: I wanted space, novelty, freshness, and adventure. I think also perhaps wanting to get out of what I regarded as the rather rigid hierarchy of medicine in England. It was also the foolish vision of a classless society. I somehow imagined America would be a democracy. Of course, it’s as class-ridden as England, but on the whole by money. Obs: Were you influenced by US writers? OS: I loved Moby Dick. I was fascinated by the density of Faulkner, and the complexity, especially Light In August, Steinbeck and Hemingway. Obs: You describe yourself in the book as both shy and flamboyant. Do you think America’s a good place to be shy and flamboyant? OS: I don’t think there’s any place – except maybe a nunnery or a monastery or something – to be shy. But flamboyant, yes. Obs: Do you now find yourself happy to be away from your roots? Presumably you have roots in America. OS: I don’t know whether I have roots anywhere. I need to come back to London, to home base, every so often. Obs: You do say strongly that you’re anti-Zionist. OS: When I was very young I didn’t have any particular feelings on Zionism. I don’t know that my parents did until after the war and after the Holocaust, when they felt that there should be a Jewish national state. Obs: Do you share that view? OS: Yes, although it’s tricky, because equally there needs to be a Palestinian state – and that’s a lot of people in a small place. Obs: Neurology must expose you to the mysterious side of the brain. OS: People can be afraid about neurology and neuro-science. They see it as unweaving the rainbow and removing the spirit. Chemical and electric currents are finally what it talks about. I don’t think there are any states of mind that are not states of the brain, and I cannot imagine disembodied mind, or spirit. But I think the wonder of our aesthetic or religious sense, or musicality, is increased by the fact that it depends on three pounds of jelly in our head. Obs: Do you believe in God? OS: Sorry? Obs: Do you believe in God? OS: I thought you said did I have a dog! No. I’m an old Jewish atheist, whatever one means by this. I don’t know whether I ever believed. I’ve never been able to imagine any sort of personal god, but I think one wants to say there’s a divine order and beauty about the world. Obs: That seems implicit in the book. OS: There is beauty and order everywhere, but it doesn’t mean there’s any agent behind the beauty and the order. I can’t imagine any transcendent entity. Having said that, I work in both orthodox Jewish and orthodox Catholic hospitals, and I enjoy seeing religious faith and religious practice in its best form. I have a sympathy for it. Obs: Were you ever tempted to write a portrait of your parents and family that was less affectionate than the one you’ve actually put into this book? OS: Yes, indeed. I think I spent 50 years or more trying to understand and to resolve and reconcile some of my complex feelings there. Obs: You say somewhere that your parents were more sensitive to the sufferings of their patients than their children. Do you hold that against them? OS: I think that was the case. But it’s partly a book of reconciliation and of understanding. It’s almost impossible for us to criticise people of another time and generation under constraints and impulsions we can’t imagine. But yes, I could have put things more strongly. Obs: Are there things that were left out? OS: Oh, of course. Obs: Dark things, angry things? OS: There’s been an extreme selection. At one point the manuscript was over two million words. Now the book is 100,000, so 95 per cent has been left out. Obs: What’s next? OS: I have a little book which will be out next spring – just a journal of a visit to Mexico, with members of the American Fern Society. Beyond that, I want to write a book on ageing. Obs: Do you feel yourself to be on the edge of old age? OS: I am on the verge or over the verge. I’d also like to publish a book of unelaborated case histories. I’ve kept my notes, tens of thousands of notes, for the last 40 years. Obs: So no shortage of material? OS: I used to be afraid about 10 years ago that I was running out of material, but now I’ve found so many of the interests of my earlier life coming up. So I can write about botany and chemistry as well.· A televised version of this interview will be shown on Artsworld this afternoon at 6pm. Available on Sky Digital Channel 199. To subscribe call 08705 900 700. · Oliver Sacks was born in London in 1933. He is the author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. He now lives in New York.

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