Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks opens the door of his lower Manhattan apartment himself because his assistant, Kate Edgar, is in the emergency room with a twisted ankle. He looks somewhat befuddled, although he is expecting us. He is neither tall nor short, slightly round in the middle and wearing a button-down shirt, one middle button undone. His shyness, which is legendary, is evident from the moment he greets us, as he steps back awkwardly to make room for us to come inside.
My 15-year-old son Noah is with me, skipping school for the opportunity to meet the writer behind The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the new Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and other volumes. Using the old-fashioned but powerful technique of medical narrative, with patients as heroes, Sacks’s work has bridged the divide between modern science and the human soul, stirring the curiosity of the general public. With prodigious literary skill, his anecdotal books illuminate tales of the brain’s misfunctions, and, on occasion, its amazing ability to compensate.
In large white Nikes, Sacks pads across the living room-turned-office, passing by Kate’s empty desk. “I am so very worried about her,” he tells us earnestly in an accent that has been described as from Jewish North London (where he grew up) with shades of Oxford (where he studied). He leads us into a smaller office, an inner sanctum. Sacks shuns computers so a bulky electric typewriter sits waiting in the sunlight that pours in through the window.
Sacks has never married and is said to have given up on committed romantic relationships. He has no children of his own but has many young relatives and godchildren, not to mention numerous correspondents under the age of ten; it’s clear that Noah’s presence comes as a relief. He shows us his bulletin board (which he calls a “notice board”), plastered with photographs and other mementoes. Sacks is 74; the corkboard is full. With evident pleasure he points to photographs of a few of his patients, some of whom he has written into life in his books and New Yorker articles. These are tacked haphazardly among pictures of his intellectual heroes, like chemists Linus Pauling and Michael Faraday and the late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould, his dear friend. “I had a dream about him last night,” Sacks says. “As you get older and people die, they get into your dreams more and more.”
A devoted swimmer and scuba diver, Sacks points to an image of a cuttlefish, an octopus-like creature with an impressive nervous system that is his favorite example of an “alien intelligence.” “They hover in front of you and look at you,” he says, “and you get a strong feeling of someone being there. Usually, you have to get up to mammals or birds to get that feeling.”