Surprise, Astonishment, Wonder: The Intimate Oliver Sacks via Insomniac City

Our copy of Insomniac City is peppered with tiny post-its flagging its many sublime hunks of joy and wisdom. Bill Hayes’ extraordinary memoir intersperses encounters with New York City, where he moved after the sudden death of his partner, and his unexpected six-year love affair with renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks. For Sacks, this first experience of love for came at the age of 75, in the last years of his life, after 35 years of celibacy.

Insights into the very original Sacks, or perhaps we should say Sacks’ very original insights and thinking, make delightful weekend reading. Here’s a sampling:

Bill Hayes

We stayed in touch. I sent him photographs I had taken in Central Park of bare tree limbs. I thought they looked like vascular capillaries. With this neurologist’s eye, he felt they looked like neurons.

‘I am reminded of how Nabokov compared winter trees to the nervous system of giants.’ he wrote back.

On the word LIST:

I: What do you list toward, Oliver?

O: Other than libidinal listings?

I: Those go without saying.

O: I want a flow of good thoughts and works as long as I’m alive…and you?  What do you list toward?

Undated Note:

O: How much can one enter, I wonder, another’s insides—see through their eyes, feel through their feelings? And does one really want to…?

‘Trail. Nice Word…’ O turns to me. ‘Do you feel on a trail?’

‘Now I do,’ I reply. ‘For a long time, I felt off it.’

O nods.

‘A trail is FOR one. But one has to MAKE it,’ he says.

‘Old men ought to be explorers,’ he suddenly says.’ I like that line.’

‘Auden?’

‘Eliot.’

9-20-14

‘So you sometimes catch yourself thinking?’ says O, out of the blue, in the car, on the way to his weekend home in the Hudson Valley. ‘I sometimes sort of feel like I’m…looking at the neural basis of consciousness.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Those are special occasions,’ he went on, ‘when the mind takes off —and you can watch it. It’s largely autonomous, but autonomous on YOUR behalf—in regard to problems, questions, and so on.’ A pause, then returning to his thought: ‘These are CREATIVE flights…FLIGHTS: That is a nice word.’

‘Mmm, I love that word…What…triggers such flights for you?’

‘Surprise, astonishment, wonder…’

‘Yes.’

 

Sally Schneider

 

 

 

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