Thursday, August 23, 2012

Oliver Sacks WAS the 1960s

I've always found Oliver Sack's books to be a mind-expanding experience thanks to the stories he tells about people like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, and the man who kept throwing himself out of bed because he didn't recognize his own leg, and the man who couldn't remember anything for longer than fifteen minutes, among many other case histories. All these neurological problems create a reality very different from the quotidian.

But that's nothing compared to what Sacks was up to in the sixties:
"I started with cannabis. A friend in Topanga Canyon, where I lived at the time, offered me a joint; I took two puffs and was transfixed by what happened then. I gazed at my hand, and it seemed to fill my visual field, getting larger and larger while at the same time moving away from me. Finally, it seemed to me, I could see a hand stretched across the universe, light-years or parsecs in length. It still looked like a living, human hand, yet this cosmic hand somehow also seemed like the hand of God.
All this on two puffs??? Where can you get some of that Topanga Wowee?

But Sacks was just getting started... Sunday morning I counted out twenty pills (of Artane, a belladonna-like drug) ... there were no psychic effects... I heard a knocking at my door. It was my friends Jim and Kathy, they often dropped round on a Sunday morning. "Come in, door's open," I called out, and as they settled themselves in the living room I asked, "How do you like your eggs?" Jim liked them suny side up, he said. Kathy preferred them over easy. We chatted away while I sizzled their ham and eggs - there were low swinging doors between the kitchen and the living room, so we could hear each other easily. Then, five minutes later, I shouted "Everything's ready," put their ham and eggs on a tray, walked into the living room - and found it empty. No Jim, no Kathy, no sign that they had ever been there. I was so staggered I almost dropped the tray.

It had not occurred to me for an instant that Jim and Kathy's voices, their "presences," were unreal, hallucinatory. We had had a friendly, ordinary conversation, just as we usually had. Their voices were the same as always - there was no hint, until I opened the swinging doors and found the living room empty, that the whole conversation, as least their side of it, had been invented by my brain.
He has other hallucinations too that morning, and this might be the funniest part of the article:
"As I drew nearer to look at it, the spider called out "Hello!" ... I said "Hello yourself" and with this we started a conversation, mostly on rather technical matters of analytic philosophy. Perhaps this direction was suggested by the spider's opening comment: did I think Bertrand Russell had exploded Frege's paradox? Or perhaps it was its voice - pointed, incisive, and just like Russell's voice, which I had heard on the radio. (Decades later, I mentioned the spider's Russellian tendencies to my friend Tom Eisner, an entomologist; he nodded sagely and said: "Yes, I know the species.")
If you think these incidents scared Sacks straight, you would be wrong...
"I had been taught, as a child, that there were seven colors in the spectrum, including indigo... But few people agree on what "indigo" is. 

I had long wanted to see "true" indigo and thought that drugs might be the way to do this. So one sunny Saturday in 1964 I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed "I want to see indigo now - now!"

And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture; it was the color of heaven, the color, I thought, that Giotto spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved... I leaned toward it in a sort of ecstasy. And then it suddenly disappeared, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that it had been snatched away. But I consoled myself: yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up in the brain."
So next, while on vacation, he shoots himself up with morphine.
"Within a minute or so, my attention was drawn to a sort of commotion on the sleeve of my dressing gown, which hung on the door. I gazed intently at this, and as I did so it resolved itself into a miniature but microscopically detailed battle scene... I saw hundreds, thousands of men - two armies, two nations - preparing to do battle...  I lost all sense of this being a spot on the sleeve of my dressing gown, or the fact that I was lying in bed, that I was in London, that it was 1965... after awhile the scene started to fade... it had been dusk when I took the morphine, it should be darker still. It was ten, I now realized, but ten in the morning. I had been gazing, motionless, at my Agincourt for more than twelve hours."
He goes on to recount other wacked-out drug experiences but really, how can you top staring at your own sleeve for twelve hours?

But finally he goes on to credit amphetamines for kicking off his career as a writer of neurological phenomena.

I was curious to see that Sacks has had his share of critics for his recounting of case histories, according to Wikipedia:
Although many characterize Sacks as a "compassionate" writer and doctor, others feel that he exploits his subjects. Sacks was called "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career" by British academic and disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare, and one critic called his work "a high-brow freak show"
But the biggest critic of Oliver Sacks is my daughter. When she was doing a work-study program while at Rutgers in the late 1990s, Sacks came to speak at the college and my daughter had to be his go-fer. She reports that he was incredibly fussy - for instance, a room had to be cooled to just the right temperature or he could not inhabit it. I pretty much can't talk to my daughter about Oliver Sacks and his work due to her grumbling all during the conversation.

Which is a shame because who wouldn't be amused by this New Yorker essay from trip-master Sacks?