Truth, Beauty, and Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, May 1988
Dominique Nabokov
Oliver Sacks, City Island, the Bronx, May 1988

Readers of The New York Review, to which he was a regular contributor over many years, need no introduction to Oliver Sacks. A number of the pieces in Everything in Its Place, his second posthumous volume, which collects published and unpublished work, first appeared in these pages, as did a number of those in the first posthumous Sacks volume, The River of Consciousness (2017), which is dedicated to Robert Silvers, his editor at the Review. Everything in Its Place is, in some senses, a slighter book than that one, which Sacks himself put together before his death. The pieces in it are generally shorter, some barely more than fragments, but this is not a mere Sacks smorgasbord: it has a distinct identity of its own and covers a remarkably wide range of topics, none of them unknown to his regular readers, but unified by a particular tone. To describe it as valedictory would be to oversimplify, and many of the pieces were written long before Sacks’s death in 2015, but consciously or unconsciously the editors have fashioned the book in such a way that we are left with an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile.

There are echoes here across the whole of Sacks’s voluminous oeuvre—tales differently told, glancing allusions to people encountered elsewhere, fragments of autobiography. The book is divided into three sections: First Loves, Clinical Tales, and Life Continues. The opening piece, “Water Babies,” a celebration of swimming in the author’s life, is exquisitely composed, a prose poem in all but name, and a reverie so euphonious that it might well lend itself to musical setting in the manner of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s superb rendition of the opening of James Agee’s A Death in the Family:

We were all water babies, my brothers and I. Our father, who was a swimming champ (he won the fifteen-mile race off the Isle of Wight three years in succession) and loved swimming more than anything else, introduced each of us to the water when we were scarcely a week old…. We never “learned” to swim.

We see the infant Sacks already at one with the natural world. Water is his natural habitat: he sees that his father, “huge and cumbersome on land,” becomes transformed, “graceful, like a porpoise,” and he himself—self-conscious, nervous, and also rather clumsy—is likewise transformed:

Swimming gives me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it becomes at times a sort of ecstasy…. The mind can float free, become spellbound, in a state like a trance. I have never known anything so powerfully, so healthily euphoriant—and I am addicted to it, fretful when I cannot swim.

Sacks mentions, almost casually,…

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