Posted on behalf of Philip Ball
“Not quite salve et vale yet,” Oliver Sacks signed off a letter to me at the end of June, expressing the hope that he’d visit London again in the time he had left. The treatment he received earlier in the year had, he said, done “a very good job clearing out the majority of the metastasis in my liver”, and I allowed myself to be optimistic about seeing this remarkable, terminally ill man once more.
That’s not how it worked out. With his death at the end of August I – and many others – lost a friend whose generosity and sympathy of spirit were constantly inspiring. That Oliver would find the time to write at all when his remaining days were clearly so few, and when he had “case histories, essays etc, short and long” – and apparently several books too – still to complete will not surprise anyone fortunate enough to have felt his kindness. That his comments would stroll from the virtues of the Japanese “actor-magician” Yoshi Oida to Shakespeare’s belief that the fern can confer invisibility typifies his boundless curiosity. But who else wielded such breadth this lightly? Who, while afforded tremendous acclaim, was ever so devoid of ego?
This was one of the qualities that lifted Oliver’s writing to canonical status, and not just within the confines of “science writing” (he was rightly uncomfortable with being labeled thus). His subject was that of novelists, philosophers, poets, humanists of all descriptions: what is often rather grandly called “the human condition”. But in Oliver’s books and essays, the humanity was immediate and intimate, coming not from sweeping generalizations or lofty pronouncements but from deep within the grain of individual experiences. His concern was not “humanity” as such; it was people.
In all of the extraordinary, sometimes bizarre and baffling case histories that he described, he sought out what they revealed about our own fragile existence and what was unique and valuable in the lives of these people who often faced unimaginable challenges. To do this without mawkishness or sentimentality, yet with enormous empathy and even affection, required not just a rare talent with words but exquisite sensitivity. It is a fittingly Sacksian question to wonder (without expecting answers) how all this came about. Oliver’s account of his early life, in the first volume of his autobiography, Uncle Tungsten (2001), tells of his affluent, intellectual Jewish family in north London, whose scientific inclinations – his father was a general practitioner – might have been expected to launch him on just the kind of path it did: into neurochemistry and then consulting neurology. It offers no real clues about what would turn him into a writer with a unique ability to translate the clinical work of a neurologist into insights both beautifully lucid and movingly profound.
It does, however, hint at the beginnings of the loneliness that seemed to me to linger in the background even while Oliver was among friends and colleagues who shared a great deal of mutual affection. He writes in his second autobiographical volume, On the Move (2015), of “the habits of a lifetime’s solitude, and a sort of implicit selfishness and self-absorption”. Well, maybe; you might guess the former, not the latter. I was delighted, then, that Oliver found love again in 2009 at the age of 77.
It was Oliver’s passion for chemistry, revealed in Uncle Tungsten, that brought us into contact, when I discovered to my surprise and delight that he had read the books I’d written on the subject. His friends, the chemists Roald Hoffmann and Bassam Shakhashiri, rightly file Uncle Tungsten alongside Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table as one of the “great chemistry classics of all time”: two books that put chemistry on the required reading list. These books are not “about science” but simply and undemonstratively let science assume its place in culture. Like Levi, Oliver was a great writer whose subjects often happened to be scientific.
The first time I met him, in the harsh New York winter of 2003, I witnessed the irresistible strength of his chemical enthusiasms, undiminished since the days he tossed lumps of sodium into Highgate Pond in north London with his boyhood friend, the polymath Jonathan Miller. With barely a word of introduction but with eyes sparkling, he beckoned me eagerly into his kitchen, where next to the bowls of nuts he had laid out as much of the periodic table as he possessed (which was most of it), encouraging me to listen to the “cry of tin” and to handle the round ball of mildly toxic cadmium.
I do not envy anyone the necessary task of sorting through Oliver’s unpublished writings – which, he admitted, “spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand”. The correspondence alone will be enormous – he kept it all. It should also be delicious. “I enjoy writing and receiving letters,” he wrote. “It is an intercourse with other people, particular others.” That concern with the particulars of others is what makes all his writings so bountiful; I see now that is why he wrote – and with generous and life-affirming energy – in June.
Several writers have written about coming to terms with terminal illness, and many accomplish it with grace and courage. I’m not sure, though, that any of these accounts has been as uplifting as what indeed proved to be Oliver’s salve et vale in The New York Times in February. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me”, he wrote. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” It has been an enormous privilege that he has shared the adventure with us.
Philip Ball is a writer based in London.