On the Move:
Oliver Sacks' magnificent memoir is a bit of a tease
by Drew Rowsome
Oliver Sacks newest, and tragically last, book is titled On the Move: A Life. The cover is a photo of the doctor, more familiar as a grey-haired kindly eminence grise, astride a motorcycle, clad in black leather and the cockiness of youth. The epigraph is a Kierkegaard quote,
Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards
and the first sentence is,
When I was at boarding school, sent away during the war as a little boy, I had a sense of imprisonment and powerlessness, and I longed for movement and power, ease of movement and superhuman powers.
Sacks previous books, from the bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat on, are highly readable accounts of his more unusual patients and are filled with a deep compassion, understanding and humour. To have that insight and understanding applied to a memoir, especially upon learning that Sacks would be writing for the first time about his sexuality (I, like most of the world, had no idea he was a gay man), was a tantalizing prospect. While On the Move is a wonderful engrossing book, be forewarned that it is a memoir only in its chronology: Sacks seems capable of great empathy and sensitivity for his patients, family and friends, but seems very disconnected from his own emotions.
As well as the sexuality revelation, Sacks casually mentions (several times) that he has prosopagnosia, which is an inability to recognize faces or differentiate between them. Whether this is part of what inspired him to specialize in neurology, specifically perceptual disorders, is never addressed but seems logical. There is a brief paragraph where he talks of going to gay bars but being lost in the sea of identical faces - it is horrific and sad, even more so as he doesn't explain how that felt, only that he stopped going.
Sacks has every right, especially considering the era he grew up in, to be discreet about his love and sex life. He does come out in the first chapter and describes in detail his parents' horrified reactions. They are treated with compassion, but we don't learn how Sacks felt. His story continues, meandering and throbbing with a very gay longing. There is a long section taken from his notebooks that describes the truckers he encounters on a cross-country bike trip. It is absorbing, and tangentially erotic, but it is about the truckers, not about Sacks. The pattern continues throughout the entire book, we meet many intriguing characters but we never meet Sacks.
From the photographic evidence included in On the Move, Sacks was quite a looker. He lived in San Francisco, was a habituant of Muscle Beach, became a competitive weightlifter, was briefly a drug addict, and must have had many opportunities for sexual adventures, even in repressive times. He also, again quoting from his journals, seemed to have the desire. His descriptions are all ripe with subtext,
He had a vigorous, alert, and handsome face, with a straight nose, firm lips, and a clipped moustache. He could have been a British calvary office; he could have played small romantic parts on screen or stage. These were my first impressions.
... he was very different from the others. He had a huge head of curly hair and a huge curly beard and moustache, so very little of his face was visible except for the tip of his nose and his laughing, deep-set eyes. He was broad, barrel-chested, with a belly of Falstaffian proportions; he was one fo the best bench pressers on the beach.
He had a husky, athlete's body, with powerful shoulders and thighs, and flawlessly smooth milk-white skin.
Sacks may not have been able to recognize faces but he certainly had the lingo of '60s gay softcore porn down pat.
Sacks does describe a few encounters and romances before, without explanation, stating that he didn't have sex again for 35 years (though he does then document, but not delve into, an outburst where he blurted his sexual frustration out of sheer frustration). In his last few years he did find love and settled into a partnership that seems to have brought him happiness.
Perhaps Sacks lack of self-reflection, odd in a memoir and bizarre in context as a psychologist/neurologist, is from his British upbringing in a time when gay was just not spoken of. Or perhaps On the Move was just never completed to its penultimate form. While there is not a page in the entire book that is not absorbing, there are wild shifts in tone, casual references that beg an explanation, footnote or digression, and shaggy dog stories that raise more questions than provide insight (there is a long passage about the joys of bonding with a feral cat who is then given away with nary a sentence explaining why or how that felt). Sacks writes about his difficulty in completing any of his books. He describes how he drove editors - in one case literally - over the edge with endless revisions, rewrites, footnotes and an inability to create a coherent narrative.
It is quite possible that On the Move was, being completed while Sacks was dying, just never polished or given the depth that a memoir of such a fascinating and great man deserves. Or perhaps he was so caught up in the one thing that he tells us gave him joy, that it no longer mattered whether the manuscript was a memoir or a collection of anecdotes or even just a hot mess. One may not learn any prurient details of Sacks' life, but one does get a clear and concise and never boring, overview of how the brain translates what we perceive. Whatever Sacks intentions were, there is much comfort in learning that he enjoyed the process of creation,
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to a place - irrespective of my subject - where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
And On the Move, in its odd repressed and rambling way, gives as much pleasure and joy, is as absorbing to read, as it was for Sacks to write.