Oliver Sacks’ Final Interview: A First Look

It’s been near­ly a year since the poet lau­re­ate of med­i­cine, author and neu­rol­o­gist Oliv­er Sacks, took his final bow as a sen­tient being on this beau­ti­ful plan­et, suc­cumb­ing, at 82, to metas­tases of ocu­lar melanoma which spread to his liv­er.

The New York­er marks the occa­sion by pub­lish­ing Sacks’ fel­low neu­rol­o­gist and author Dr. Orrin Devin­sky’s rec­ol­lec­tion of their long­stand­ing friend­ship. Devin­sky paints a vivid pic­ture of an excep­tion­al­ly com­pas­sion­ate man, who felt a kin­ship not only with starfish, jel­ly­fish, and octopi, but also humans in both finan­cial and emo­tion­al need.

The piece becomes even more pow­er­ful in light of Sacks’ final inter­view, above, part of film­mak­er Ric Burns’ upcom­ing doc­u­men­tary, Oliv­er Sacks: His Own Life.

Sacks pep­pers his remarks with aston­ish­ing bio­log­i­cal tid­bits, a com­pul­sion that delight­ed his friend Devin­sky on their fre­quent ear­ly morn­ing bike rides along New York City’s west side.

(Palatal myoclonus—or rhyth­mic pulsing—in the palate, eardrum and strap mus­cles are ves­ti­gial evi­dence that humans once had gills!)

(The dandelion’s name evolved from dent de lion, French for lion’s tooth, a struc­ture the spikes on its ser­rat­ed leaves could be said to resem­ble. Also, cer­tain dan­de­lion species repro­duce asex­u­al­ly, and Sacks had no fear about eat­ing an unwashed spec­i­men he plucked from the ques­tion­ably san­i­tary grounds of River­side Park!)

The mus­ings that war­rant the melan­choly piano and strings accom­pa­ny­ing Burns’ excerpt are of a more per­son­al nature. Sacks’ was total­ly immersed in his cho­sen sub­ject. His moth­er was a com­par­a­tive anatomist and sur­geon, and his boy­ish inter­est in the hard sci­ences is what led him to biol­o­gy. A life­time of sci­en­tif­ic obser­va­tion and clin­i­cal inter­ac­tion only add to the poet­ry of his thoughts on death:

My gen­er­a­tion is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abrup­tion, a tear­ing away of part of myself. There will be nobody like us when we are gone, but then there is nobody like any­body ever. When peo­ple die they can­not be replaced. They leave holes that can­not be filled. It is the fate, the genet­ic and neur­al fate of every human being to be a unique indi­vid­ual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. Even so, I am shocked and sad­dened at the sen­tence of death, and I can­not pre­tend I am with­out fear. But my pre­dom­i­nant feel­ing is one of grat­i­tude. I have loved and been loved. I have been giv­en much and I have giv­en some­thing in return. I have read and trav­eled and thought and writ­ten. I have had an inter­course with the world, the spe­cial inter­course of writ­ers and read­ers. Above all, I have been a sen­tient being, a think­ing ani­mal on this beau­ti­ful plan­et, and this in itself has been an enor­mous priv­i­lege and adven­ture.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oliv­er Sacks Explains the Biol­o­gy of Hal­lu­ci­na­tions: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

A Fas­ci­nat­ing Case Study by Oliv­er Sacks Inspires a Short Ani­mat­ed Film, The Lost Mariner

Oliv­er Sacks’ Last Tweet Shows Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Mov­ing­ly Flash­mobbed in Spain

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her lat­est com­ic con­trasts the birth of her sec­ond child with the uncen­sored gore of Game of Thrones. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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  • Bill W. says:

    Dan­de­lion greens are very good. We used to col­lect them from our lawn, wash them off and make a sal­ad with them, adding chopped wal­nuts, raisins, and a rasp­ber­ry-vinai­grette to it. Very tasty, and cheap (free).

  • Pauline Mancino says:

    I’ve always want­ed to pluck a dan­de­lion & taste it.
    Now is the time.
    Won­der­ful­ly enjoyed Oliv­er Sacks thoughts…sad to feel the loss of such a man & his gen­er­a­tion which includ­ed my
    Won­der­ful par­ents, loy­al, ded­i­cat­ed & lov­ing. Thank you.

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