Workers Vanguard No. 1074

18 September 2015


Oliver Sacks: An Appreciation


1 September 2015

Dear Comrades,

I was saddened to see that Oliver Sacks died on 30 August of metastatic melanoma. Despite his admitted literary “too-muchness” (as he put it in his memoir On the Move: A Life), his books were welcome bright spots, committed to bourgeois science and a better understanding of the human mind in a reactionary imperialist age.

Oliver Sacks was born in England in 1933. Both his parents were physicians and Orthodox Jews. He was inquisitive and highly educated, and his homosexuality created personal contradictions for him in a time when being gay was largely a social and religious taboo. He became a neurologist, perhaps most well known for his 1973 book Awakenings about patients with “sleepy-sickness” who were brought back to life with the drug L-dopa (the book was made into a movie in 1990).

In November 2014, Sacks wrote a small piece for the New Yorker on the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), a kind of ancient gymnosperm (the first plants with seeds). Sacks’ small article explained something I didn’t know: a ginkgo drops its leaves all on the same day in the fall, unlike angiosperms (flowering plants) whose leaves fall off over time as they weaken and blow away. The reportedly oldest Gingko biloba in America is at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (the first American botanical garden), and it must be something to watch Bartram’s enormous ginkgo drop all its leaves in the course of one day.

His books deal with fascinating elements of the human mind, like the man with agnosia “who mistook his wife for a hat.” I appreciated his stories about the neurological source of his own face blindness. I read with interest his book Hallucinations, as an elderly relative of mine had begun to “see” people who were “visiting” her; it helped me appreciate how people experience life as their minds degenerate. I also learned that while hallucinations may be visual, they may also be olfactory or auditory. It was oddly comforting to learn that, when one is tortured and isolated for prolonged periods—like the U.S. imperialists treat their “enemies,” at home and abroad—the mind will create its own hallucinatory world.

I empathize with Sacks’ hostility to the “complete subjugation of the human to medical arrogance and technology” in nursing homes, treatment that is commonplace in capitalist medicine.

His fascinating books provide insight into the breadth, complexity and fragility of the human mind.

S. Williams