The Road to Oliver Sacks’
Lawrence Weschler on Meeting a Then-Unknown 48-Year-Old Neurologist
Heading out to Oliver Sacks’s recent homebase on City Island, just off The Bronx, that first time in June of 1981, I’ll grant you, I was trawling, vaguely, for another story.
I’d only just transplanted myself to New York City from my original home stomping grounds in Los Angeles, largely owing to the success of my previous story, which a few months earlier I’d somehow managed to sell, pretty much over the transom, to The New Yorker. Aged 29, I’d come home late one evening to my Santa Monica apartment to find the light blinking on my answering machine. Answering machines must have seemed pretty new-fangled in those days, because the feathery voice on the tape began haltingly, “Mr. Weschler, is this Mr. Weschler? . . . Mrs. Painter, do you think he can hear me? Should I leave a…Mr. Weschler? This is William Shawn of the New…aaaah, Mrs Painter, how can I tell if the thing is working? William Shawn of the New Yorker magazine, and I am just calling to say that we all very much admired the piece you submitted to us a few months ago and we were wondering if…oh dear, Mr. Weschler, if you are getting this message could you please call us back at the following number”—and so forth—“Mrs. Painter, I don’t think he got any of that at all.”
However, I did, I had, and in later years I’d be very grateful for the momentary filter of that answering machine: had I happened to have been home and picked up the ringing phone, I’m sure I’d have assumed it was one of my friends pulling my leg and blurted “Yeah, and I’m Bernardo Bertolucci” or something like that, and just hung up.
The piece in question, a book-length midcareer biography of the California “Light and Space” artist Robert Irwin, had been four years in the making, as I subsequently explained to Mr. Shawn, a few months later, when he invited me to lunch at his usual haunts, a corner banquette at the Algonquin, from which he could survey the entire room while pretty much disappearing himself, mouselike, into the background. He urged me to sample anything on the plank-long menu the waiter had just extended—nervously I chose the first thing that hit my eyes, the day’s special, lobster-stuffed filet of sole—at which point Mr Shawn ordered “the usual” (corn flakes, as things developed). He then turned the full force of his penetrating curiosity upon me (that of the Iron Mouse, as I’d subsequently hear him called).
“It appears that you currently live in California,” he said, “but, I mean, where were you born?” (His was hardly an unusual New York prejudice in those days: my book had by that point garnered more than a half dozen rave rejections from New York publishers, all assuring me that they definitely wanted a look at my next manuscript, though they couldn’t very well see how they could be expected to succeed in publishing anything about a California artist.)
“Van Nuys, California,” I responded, “in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles.” Still confounded, Mr. Shawn bore down: “But, I mean, where did you go to school?” Birmingham High, in Van Nuys. “And college?” Cowell College at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Things clearly weren’t adding up, and Mr. Shawn, a first rate reporter in his own right, continued probing until he was able to establish that all of my grandparents had been Viennese Jews who’d variously arrived in flight from Hitler (indeed, my maternal grandfather had been the eminent Weimar era émigré composer, Ernst Toch)—a category, at last, that he could comprehend.
The founding provost of Cowell, the first college at UCSC, which was itself only four years old when I arrived in 1969, had been an award-winning American historian with a consuming allergy to all things positivistic. As a result, Santa Cruz in those early days came to boast a truly idiosyncratic range of disciplinary biases in the wider American academic context. The psychology department was anti-behaviorist, and in fact Freudian, of all things. In politics it was tough to find any classes in how a bill became a law, but theory (from Plato through Hobbes) was very well represented, just as in philosophy (almost unheard of in America) it was virtually impossible to pursue logic or language or most other such Anglo-American doctrines, the bias being emphatically continental, and phenomenological to boot.
And so forth. “Nothing that will bring him any good,” as my grandmother Lilly, the composer’s widow, used to sigh, when asked what I was studying up there. But in fact it proved a terrific general education, one ideally suited to instilling the only things one really needs to acquire, I’ve come to feel, from college, which is to say how to learn and in particular how to read (a book, a situation) and how to frame questions—a perfect education, that is, for becoming a staff writer at the New Yorker (as indeed three of us from out of the total 200 in the Cowell graduating class of 1974, would go on to become—the other two being the intrepid war and surfing reporter Bill Finnegan and the lyrical personal essayist Noelle Oxenhandler).Robert Irwin reached a point in his life where he’d abandoned his studio practice altogether, declaring perception itself, and more specifically the sheer marvel of perceiving oneself perceiving, to be the pure subject of art.
My dubious grandmother had actually proved accidentally instrumental in launching me on the path that would lead to Robert Irwin. During her last years, she desperately tried to pass on to me (the oldest son of her only child) all the lore and knowledge necessary for handling my grandfather’s musical estate after she’d be gone, and indeed, I even took half a year off to help her prepare for an extended 20-some-odd session interview with the UCLA Oral History program (she had earlier donated all his papers and scores and recordings, and even a bust of him by Gustav Mahler’s daughter Anna, to a newly established Toch Archive at the campus’s Music Library). Scheherazadelike (which is to say not unlike the lead character of her husband’s own last opera), she almost literally kept herself alive till she’d completed the tale (knowing that she alone retained much of the key information), expiring two weeks after the last session.
At that point, the Oral History program asked me to come on during my remaining summers before graduation to edit the two-volume transcript of her interviews (since it was thought I’d have a better chance of making out her thick accent). I’ve written elsewhere about some of the challenges involved, including in particular the moment when she slowed down conspicuously to pronounce the name of the little mountain village near which Toch’s unit of the Austro-Hungarian army had been stationed on the frontlines during the First World War and in whose trenches he’d gone on to compose one of his most lyric pastoral string serenades, surely a name she herself was likely the last person alive to know, and here it was, pronounced ever so distinctly: Hotpotatoshit.
I spent hours, days, in the Powell Library stacks trying to track that one down, all to no avail, though when I finally published the story years later in a long profile of my grandfather, an insanely perspicacious reader managed to crack the puzzle, pointing out that I should have been looking at prewar Baedeckers where I would have found the little village of Hotederschitz in the Austro-Hungarian (subsequently Yugoslav, subsequently Slovenian) borderlands along the Italian front. (Which is to say in the same region where Ernest Hemingway had been driving ambulances on the other side of the lines and would subsequently frame much of the action of A Farewell to Arms.) (Which is to say that if things had only gone slightly differently, my grandfather Ernst Toch could easily have killed Ernest Hemingway!) (But I digress.)
The point is, all of that explains (as I in turn explained to Mr Shawn that day at the Algonquin) how it came to pass that following my graduation from Cowell (in the end a double major in philosophy and cultural history, though frankly I’d cycled through different majors pretty much every semester I was there, depending on what happened to be capturing my fancy at the time), I was offered a longterm job at the UCLA Oral History Program, initially specializing in the fading legacy (as they say, doing oral history is always like working in a burning library) of the once vibrant European Émigré scene there in LA (interviewing the surviving witnesses to the days when Mann and Brecht and Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Neutra and Schindler and Feuchtwanger and Werfel and Mahler-Gropius-Werfel and Klemperer and Walter and Huxley and Isherwood and Viertel and Lang and Reinhardt and Korngold and Rachmaninoff and on and on, and yes my own grandparents, all haunted the palm lined palisades overlooking the sun setting into the Pacific, where, or so the story went, the two dachshunds had once met, the one wistfully commenting to the other, “Here, it’s true, I’m a dachshund, but in the Old Country I was a St. Bernard”).
Presently, however, I was recast as the principal editor of a fresh series of interviews the Program launched out upon, under a grant from the NEA, entitled “LA Art Scene: A Group Portrait.” I undertook some of the interviewing myself (the dealer Irving Blum, the surrealist assemblage master Ed Kienholz), but mainly I edited the transcripts of interviews performed by other people, including as presently developed, museum-man Frederick Wight’s delightful interrogation of an artist I had frankly never heard of: Robert Irwin.
Now, granted I had no particular background in contemporary art and I was scrambling to catch up as I went along, but notwithstanding the fact that Irwin already then would have made many critics’ and fellow artists’ list of the top ten or twenty artists in America, there is no question that he was the least well known by the general public of any of those, in part because of late he was only creating quiet, subtle, site-specific works that dematerialized within weeks of their creation, and beyond that because he was still refusing to allow any of his works to be photographed (reasoning that a photo would capture everything the work was not about and nothing that it was, which is to say merely its image but never its presence).
So it wasn’t entirely my fault. To hear Irwin tell it, from out of a preternaturally blissed out Southern California youth (surfing, sunbathing, dancing, chasing the girls and playing the horses when not styling the cars) and with hardly any advanced education at all (beyond the stray art school semester here and there), he had gone on, across the late 1950s and the entire ’60s and into the early ’70s, to perform a highly disciplined, almost maniacally focused phenomenological reduction of the act of painting itself, an entirely untutored almost lunkheaded replication of the sort of thing high flying philosophers at best could only talk about. Such that, at one point I took the liberty of sending him a note that read, in its entirety, “Have you ever read Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception?”
And he was at my office door the next day. Turned out he happened to be living there in Westwood, in those days less than a mile away—and notwithstanding the fact that I’m pretty sure that had I sent him that note at any point from half a year earlier on back, he’d simply have torn it up and thrown it out, not the least bit interested in having any sort of truck with some pointy-headed wussy east coast intellectual (he always loved characterizing me as a typically angst-ridden east coast intellectual, notwithstanding my Southern California bonafides every bit as sterling as his own), it happened that he’d recently reached a point in his trajectory where he wanted to start reading philosophy in earnest, such that we ended up having lunch together for the next three years.
Which is to say that he’d reached a point in his life where he’d abandoned his studio practice altogether, declaring perception itself, and more specifically the sheer marvel of perceiving oneself perceiving, to be the pure subject of art (beyond which there surely wasn’t need for any further objects)—and that therefore he henceforth wouldn’t be making anything at all except himself “available in response,” that is, willing to go anywhere at any time to talk with anyone who wanted to about subjective perceptual experience.
Over the next several years, however, when he wasn’t anywhere else, I could usually count on finding him under a specific tree near the North Campus Library there at UCLA, burrowing into philosophy texts (Plato, Kant, Wittgenstein, Husserl, Hegel, Sartre, Polanyi, Kierkegaard, Schutz, and yes, Merleau-Ponty) pretty much under my guidance, and two or three times a week I’d wander over from my office and we’d have lunch, starting out by talking about what he was reading but rather quickly segueing into his marvelous tales of that light-drenched California youth of his (Dorsey High), the subsequent stages of his progress as an artist and the relentless inspiraling of his vocation.
For someone as committed to the primacy of solitary experience as he was, he was remarkably garrulous and easy going: a great storyteller and an extraordinary explicator of often otherwise quite abstruse aspects of artistic practice. Come evening, I’d go home and transcribe my recollections of those conversations into a growing sequence of notebooks, which in turn proved the basis, a few years later, of that manuscript, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which kept getting rejected until suddenly, improbably, it got accepted by the New Yorker (and later published by the University of California Press, where, in good part thanks to the fascination of Irwin’s arguments and the geniality of his voice, it remains in print to this day).
Mr. Shawn explained that the magazine was quite backed up at the moment and that it might therefore be a while before they’d be running the Irwin piece (about half the total manuscript, probably in two parts). In the meantime he wondered if I had any other ideas for pieces, and I described to him a gorgeous contemporary art museum named Louisiana about half an hour north of Copenhagen, Denmark (long story—read the piece, which he indeed gave me the go-ahead to pursue on the spot).
Following that bout of reporting, I then ventured, on my own dime, into Poland, at that point a good nine months into the season of its original Solidarity passion, for another ten days of. . . frankly I wasn’t quite sure what. As usual, I had no particular expertise, certainly didn’t speak the language: I just sensed that something remarkable was under way there, something not to be missed. Actually, thinking back, earlier that year I’d snagged a commission from Playboy of all places to perform a cross-country survey of the sorry situation of the American Left in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s victory (almost getting myself killed in the process the day before the inauguration when the passenger plane I was taking into National Airport in DC suddenly had to veer up precipitously from its intended landing, its engine screaming, its right wing banking mere feet off the ground, when the plane in front of us, some entitled gazillionaire’s private Lear, blithely U-turned on the runway and headed back toward the terminal by the least cumbersome possible route—a pretty good metaphor for the ensuing eight years of governance, come to think of it, not least of all the coming liquidation of the air traffic controllers union).
In the end the editors at Playboy killed the piece: “Too political,” they’d complained (what had they wanted? Girls of the New Left? Actually that’s probably precisely what they had wanted: girls of the new left). But anyway, the reporting on that piece had left me all the more fascinated by what was going on in Poland. Most of the American reportage welling out of the country up to that point had been framed exclusively in Cold War terms and tinged with an air of condescension (“Oh, isn’t it adorable how those workers are trying to learn how to behave like good little democrats”), whereas it had seemed to me (an impression only confirmed in spades by my ten-day visit) that what the Polish workers were up to was something altogether more fundamentally radical than anything American workers or progressives had been attempting in generations.
Leaving Poland, I quickly worked up an essay, “94 Visions of Poland” (a tour d’horizon in the form of 94 numbered anecdotes from my visit there) and sent it back to New York, where, returning a few weeks later, I was invited into Mr Shawn’s office and informed that while they’d liked that piece, too, they wouldn’t be able to run it until later in the fall, and would I be willing to go back to update it before then? (I would and I did, that September, and the expanded two part piece ended up running, before the Irwin or the Jensen, in November 1981, just weeks before the declaration of martial law, which it more or less anticipated).
Anyway, it was in the quietus between those two Poland trips that I decided to call Oliver Sacks and he’d invited me out to his place on City Island.
I wasn’t calling out of the blue: we’d already been having some correspondence during the year before that.
I’d actually first heard of Sacks some years earlier, my last year at Santa Cruz in 1974, the year Awakenings was first published. It’s worth recalling that Sacks’s second book was hardly a bestseller when it first appeared (any more than his first book, Migraine, published a few years earlier and marketed, to the extent it was at all, to a relatively limited niche market). Although Awakenings had been fervently hailed by literary critics (W.H. Auden, Frank Kermode), it had gone largely dismissed in medical circles, and in any case did not really catch fire on either side of the Atlantic.“The thing of it is,” Todd advised, after a few moments thought, “that when you’re dealing with a huge amorphous topic, it’s kind of like you’re walking on a beach and you come upon a dead sea walrus and you’re curious about how and why it died.”
But Maurice Natanson, our lead phenomenologist there in Cowell College, a Husserl scholar who looked more like Buber, started touting it almost from the start, which would have been just like him. I used to love auditing Natanson’s courses, even when I wasn’t taking them, because his meandering lectures, filled with ever-so-slightly cork-screwed real-world examples, often got to sounding like extended medleys of Donald Barthelme stories. (Years later, after I’d made it to the New Yorker, I once had occasion to meet Barthelme and asked him who his main influences had been—Ionesco? Beckett?—to which he replied, Actually no, there’d been this young professor, just starting out, back at the University of Nebraska when he’d gone there as an undergraduate, named Maury Natanson. And it was incredible: it was as if the two had undergone some sort of longterm mind-meld.)
Come to think of it, the entire Awakenings drama back at Sacks’s Mount Carmel in New York had been taking place during precisely the years I’d been studying in Santa Cruz—starting the summer just before my arrival at Cowell, in 1969, reaching its first climax that very August and September, having quickly transmogrified from Awakening to Tribulation.
Myself, I must have been pretty insufferable that first year at Santa Cruz, a smart-alecky know-it-all know-nothing. I remember how that first week we must have been reading The Republic in the college’s freshman Western Civ core course, because at the very first meeting of our break-out seminar subsection, led by the eminent literary critic Harry Berger, I expounded at some length about how this whole thing, Plato’s Republic, was an utter pile of nonsense, no wonder Socrates kept winning his arguments, his interlocutors were a bunch of doofusses—“Yes, Socrates, you are right,” “So true,” and so forth—when obviously there were all sorts of perfectly valid counter-arguments that none of them seemed capable of advancing.
Harry, cannily bemused, let me go on at some length before mercifully intervening, “But the thing of it is, Ren: Plato is a genius and you are a freshman.” He waited for a moment as the well-deserved laughter eddied, before continuing, “And he’s playing you like a piano. Why don’t you shut up for a moment and listen to the music? Does it occur to you that maybe, as far as Plato was concerned, Socrates’s very tragedy was that he had never been able to find any proper interlocutors during his lifetime, and that in a sense, Plato was sending these dialogs out into the future in the hope of one day maybe being able to find him one? That each of us, reading the dialog, are granted the opportunity to become that sort of interlocutor. But that first we have to learn how to read, to set aside all our prior self-certainties and actively engage with the text.”
To recognize conspicuous sophistry, in this instance, sophistry whose falseness is the whole point of the passage—or on other occasions (another of Harry’s favorite hobby horses) to recognize when things are being “conspicuously excluded,” their very absence constituting the most pressing presence in a scene. Not a bad set of lessons, at any rate, for the first week of freshman year.
Later that year (back at Mount Carmel, Sacks’s ward would probably have been subsiding from the utter bedlam of Tribulation into the wider, slower rhythms of Accomodation), I got what in retrospect I’ve come to consider one of the best lessons I ever received in the art of reportage—in a marine biology class of all places. Todd Newberry, the College’s soft-spoken, wryly resigned scientist, used to take his students out on field trips to the salt flats and tide pools of nearby Monterey Bay, preceding the outings by distributing marvelously aphoristic mimeographed pages of instruction: When you go out there, first of all Keep Still for a good long while, allowing the site to recover from the Catastrophe of your Arrival. Then get your Feet in the Water, and get your Eyes where your Feet are: all the really interesting stuff will be hiding underneath, deep inside the outcrops. (Wonderfully resonant advice, years later, for when I would find myself cluelessly traipsing about Gdansk and Gdynia.)
But perhaps his most useful lesson came toward the end of the semester, when he had us burrowing away on some term paper response to a pretty wide-open essay question. What is an ecosystem? or something like that, I forget the particular assignment. But anyway, I was floundering, utterly at a loss, and hence went in for office hours. “The thing of it is,” Todd advised, after a few moments thought, “that when you’re dealing with a huge amorphous topic, it’s kind of like you’re walking on a beach and you come upon a dead sea walrus and you’re curious about how and why it died.” (Now, I don’t walk on beaches, I don’t come upon dead sea walruses, and if I ever did, I doubt I’d be curious about why they died. But, okay.)
“Now, you can do one of two things. You can pick up that piece of driftwood over there,” he said, pointing to a corner of the office, “and you can return to the walrus and start bashing its sides, and all you’re going to end up doing is to make a hash of the blubber and probably of your own arm as well. Or you can take that same piece of driftwood, go over to that boulder over there” (other corner of the office), “pick up that little stone there over to the side, have yourself a seat, and start sharpening the driftwood. It’s going to take you a long time, but just around the time the sun is starting to set, you’re going to have yourself a blade, you’ll be able to go back to the dead sea walrus, make a few clean incisions and figure everything out.”
He smiled benignly: I must have yet to have looked entirely enlightened. “The point is,” he went on to explain, self-evidently, “when you’re dealing with a huge amorphous topic, don’t go asking huge amorphous questions. Spend 95 percent of your time honing the questions, because once you have the right question, the whole field will open to your gaze.”
I could go on, piling on further examples, but one of the last of them was to come one of the last weeks of my time there at Cowell, when Maury Natanson, pulled me aside to flag this new book, Awakenings, advising me, in his quite unnerving High Prophetic style, that I might want to give the thing a look.