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Interview with Olive Sacks by Salon

Source: Salon
"Mozart makes me a better neurologist"

In an attempt to find the relationship between body and soul, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has studied the strange paradoxes of neurological disorders for more than 25 years. Never allowing the humanity of his subjects to be overshadowed by their clinical condition, Sacks has written more than 30 books, including "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat," "Awakenings," and most recently, "An Anthropologist on Mars." The following is an excerpt from a recent conversation between Sacks and Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser as part of San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures series.

What was it like to have Robin Williams become Oliver Sacks in the film "Awakenings"?
He's a wonderfully friendly man, and soon after we met, we went out together. We ate together, went out for a drive and saw a few patients together. I didn't realize, I just had no idea at that time, that I was the object of the most minute, most microscopic, and devastatingly accurate, observation. Except devastating is the wrong word because everything Robin does builds up, and it constructs from there.

When I'm nervous, I get this sort of odd posture, and I realized that Williams was in fact in the same posture. Not because he was imitating me, but because by that point he'd incorporated me, and this had become a natural position for him. He had incorporated my posture as he had incorporated my memories, my hopes, my experiences, my character. It was wonderful and rather frightening, suddenly having this younger twin. And at that point both of us decided that we needed to make some space for him to construct a character out of himself, which he did.

In that first stage of acting, perhaps all actors have to practice a kind of mimicry before the real creation is made, and I think it is in my own writing as well. I think perhaps all art starts as mimicry.

Where do you get your sense of soul, of the complete person? It doesn't seem to derive from your having gone to medical school.
Well, for what it's worth, I had something of an orthodox religious upbringing. I remember that as a child that I used to have an odd mystical feeling about the Sabbath. Whenever the Sabbath came, I saw my mother light the candles. I would think this was an astronomical event. I would think that the peace of God was descending on remote star systems everywhere. I think it's a beautiful thought; I wish I could recapture it somehow.

Reading was very important for me, in particular Dickens and H.G. Wells, and novelists who talked about the wholeness of life. Although my parents were both doctors, they had met at the Ibsen Society in London, and so that was also an influence very early on.

Since you mention "Awakenings," I named it after Ibsen's last play, "When We Dead Awaken." It was for a partly guilty reason, because in that play the old sculptor Rubek is accused by his model of having taken her life to make it into his art. And I've occasionally had that sort of fear or guilt myself. I think it can inhibit me, and I've got to be sure that people do not feel bereft of their lives. I think if I felt they'd be hurt I wouldn't write about them, or if I would I wouldn't publish it.

Can you think of any particular moment in Dickens or other 19th-century novels that have the quality of those Sabbath candles?

There are so many H.G. Wells stories which fascinate me. One of them is "The Country of the Blind," in which a lost traveler finds a secluded valley in South America where the houses are parti-colored. He thinks the people who built these must have been as blind as bats, and then he finds that, in fact, there has been for 300 years a community which lost their sight and has now lost even the memory, or the concept, of ever having seen.

That came to me overwhelmingly about 18 months ago when I visited an island of the color-blind. I love his story about the door on the wall, about a door which opens onto a sort of magical experience of childhood.

For some reason when you said Dickens I thought of an absurd thing -- when Mrs. Gradgrind (in "Hard Times") is dying, they say "Are you in pain, dear?" And she said, "There is a pain somewhere in the room, but I cannot be positive that I've got it." That's quite unimaginable, of course, because I think pain defines the self to some extent.

In your stories, the cure sometimes seems to be a destructive and frightening experience. It solves the problem that was there in the first place, but brings worse things in its wake, which is a very familiar plot from fairy tales.
I was struck by the fact that a deaf and dumb 13-year-old girl, after becoming fluent in American sign language, seemed to have become a little suspicious. She would often say, "You're lying." And one would say, "That's not a lie, it's a mistake."

But language carries the possibility of lying, and I'm not quite sure that gesture does in the same way. I wonder then, whether this is one of the fearful consequences.

I found myself thinking of language as the apple of the tree of knowledge, and the knowledge of good and evil and of truth and lies, and of some sort of innocence being gone. But this might also be a sort of silly, romantic notion.

You seem to shy away from the paranormal. How do you feel about inspiration--
I'm all for it (laughter).

When I feel inspired, there certainly is a sense of a vehicle, and of passivity, and of entry, and even of taking over. But I would think of this entirely in terms of unconscious and preconscious thoughts and forces, pushing into what has been called the antechamber of consciousness. I don't think the thoughts come from out there, from the atmosphere, from the muses, from metapsychosis, from past souls, from Hades, from Heaven or wherever. Or to put it another way, I think all of these things are already inside one.

What do you read for pleasure, or do you prefer to see films or concerts?
I'm afraid I don't read much poetry now -- it's an awful thing to say -- nor too many novels, nor too many plays. In my old age I seem to read mostly history and biography.

I don't go to movies much. Concerts, yes, although I tend to take my notebooks to concerts and to sort of sit quietly at the back and write, but not about the music. But the music is important. You know Nietzsche used to do something similar. He was very fond of Bizet. He said, "Bizet makes me a better philosopher." So, Mozart makes me a better neurologist.

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