Archive for February, 2019

Oliver Sacks’ crabby last note

Oliver Sacks was unsurpassed as an author of extended medical case-studies; he was also a marvellous memoirist. His range of erudition was impossibly wide and deep, and the tone of his prose was tender, profoundly courteous, and delightful even when melancholy.

In his last published piece, called “The Machine Stops” – published posthumously this week in the New Yorker – his tone is entirely different. It’s crabby and pessimistic. It is like nothing else in his entire oeuvre.

I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come. …

I am confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort. …

As one’s death draws near, one may take comfort in the feeling that life will go on—if not for oneself then for one’s children, or for what one has created. Here, at least, one can invest hope, though there may be no hope for oneself physically and (for those of us who are not believers) no sense of any “spiritual” survival after bodily death.

But it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. …

When I was eighteen, I read Hume for the first time, and I was horrified by the vision he expressed in his eighteenth-century work “A Treatise of Human Nature,” in which he wrote that mankind is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” As a neurologist, I have seen many patients rendered amnesic by destruction of the memory systems in their brains, and I cannot help feeling that these people, having lost any sense of a past or a future and being caught in a flutter of ephemeral, ever-changing sensations, have in some way been reduced from human beings to Humean ones.

I have only to venture into the streets of my own neighborhood, the West Village, to see such Humean casualties by the thousand: younger people, for the most part, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.

The hope presented in the essay’s last words seems not truly felt:

Between us, we can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead.

(That is such a depressing sentence.)

As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.

Many years ago I capped off a story to my son Miles with the phrase “all’s well that ends well.” The story’s context made the meaning of this bit of Shakespeare come to life for him for the first time, Miles said. It was a pleasing moment for both of us.

That nearing his own end Oliver Sacks saw catastrophe not just coming but already here, barely rallying to convey even the flimsiest expression of hope – this stunned me (though it shouldn’t have) (we haven’t been taking care of our minds).

If you can’t exaggerate …

The renowned and divisive Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller would tell this little story about an exchange he had with the great Niels Bohr:

Some of us, including Bohr, were having a discussion about the spectrum and states of molecular oxygen. Bohr had some opinions, the details of which I have now forgotten, but which were in obvious conflict with the facts that were known. In this special detailed case, I knew the situation and tried to explain it. Unfortunately I could not do so to Bohr’s satisfaction.

He began his objection: “Teller, of course, knows a hundred times more about this than I.” With a lack of politeness occasionally seen among twenty-year-olds, I interrupted (with some difficulty): “That is an exaggeration.”

Bohr instantly stopped and stared at me. After a pause, he declared, “Teller says I am exaggerating. Teller does not want me to exaggerate. If I cannot exaggerate, I cannot talk. All right. You are right, Teller. You know only ninety-nine times more than I do.” He then proceeded with his original argument having dispensed with any possibility of further interruption.

I have never forgotten, nor have I often neglected to mention, Bohr’s wisdom: *If you cannot exaggerate, you cannot talk.*

This is one of my favourite stories. (I’m with Bohr, surprise.)

When I begin to lose hope …

… I hear people sing. I understand that this is a common sentiment.