I was pained this week to see a column in the New York Times (here) announcing the pending death of Oliver Sacks. Sacks wrote the news himself, so of course the report was both sharp and humane. Ever since Awakenings and The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he has proven that a scientific imagination can bring much to the observation of human nature. It is good to be reminded of that fact, since the stereotype scientist is of a man who is logical, abstract, and utterly bewildered by ordinary human behavior.
You can see the stereotype in the current film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. In the movie (not necessarily real life) Turing laments the tendency of people to use words that do not say what they actually mean, and yet somehow everybody else manages to understand what the words implied. Oliver Sacks has no trouble understanding what people mean.
One of Sacks' strengths is that of a narrator who sees things whole. As a scientist, he checks the details and the logic, making sure he understands the individual pieces of his account, but when he sets the pieces together, he startles you with an unexpected portrait.
Many of Sacks' stories are about wounded people: a man who can no longer learn and is repeatedly surprised by a photo of the earth taken from the moon; patients who have been immobile as statues are recalled to life and grab hold; people who can never remember a face and people who can never forget one. In all these stories the people are without some ordinary human power and yet they remain perfectly human. Logical systems that are missing a function are broken; wounded humans are still humans. Oliver Sacks knows that and, thanks to his prose, we readers know it too.
And now Sacks has been shorn of the standard human notion that our particular death is still a long ways away. Naturally he portrays himself too as human. A month ago he thought he was in robust health, and then he got the news of liver cancer.
"I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective," writes Sacks in a line that reminds me of Breaking Bad's Walter White: "I feel awake." That alertness may well be a common response to death grabbing your shoulders and looking you in the eye; although in Sacks' case I have the impression that he has been awake and whole for most of his life.
It would be nice if the rest of us were awake and whole. Working on this blog has its joys, but it is also a steady reminder of what an anti-humanist age we occupy. Language studies would seem prone to a sense of humanity; after all, only humans use it and only humans need it. But these days people tend to be blinded by our technological marvels.
Machines don't have emotions, so they don't know why anything matters, but without emotion machines have become better chess players, so some anti-humanists suppose life would be better if we were less like us and more like machines. Oliver Sacks, who, even when facing death, writes of the importance of an emotion like gratitude and the enjoyment of silliness, knows better and tells us better.
Machines don't ever see the big picture, so they never become distracted and make logical mistakes. In dying, Sacks writes, he feels the need for such focus but he also embraces "perspective," and seeing the unity of things. "Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts." No, mechanical focusing on the atoms of a scene for him.
I still get mad when I think of an anti-humanist tract that dismissed natural language as a kluge, a haphazard tool that doesn't work anywhere nearly as well as PASCAL, FORTRAN or the other artfully designed computer languages. Try translating Oliver Sacks into C++ and you will see quicker than you can say oops, that natural language does things that cannot be attempted by a programmer. Better yet, check out the list of books by Oliver Sacks, find one that you somehow missed, and read it. That will be putting language to its best use.