Oliver Sacks’s Love Affair With Hogs
The gifted author/physician uses his passion for motorcycles to jump-start his memoir, and the resulting tale is an unforgettably passionate, joyous journey.
A writer as thoughtful, precise, and attuned to the beauty of meaning (and the meaning of beauty) as Oliver Sacks is never arbitrary. He had to choose somewhere to begin On the Move, the account of his 80 years of life. Given the vast compass of his experiences and interests, his work and his travels, his family and friends and professional accomplishments, it could have been at any number of fascinating junctures. He begins it with motorcycles. First, with their allure as viewed objects: a motor in a frame with two wheels that is nonetheless able to transform the human who mounts it into something otherworldly. It is a complex feat attained through the simplest means. As a boy he watched with longing the motorbikes move past his London window and dreamed of becoming the centaur such riders appeared. (In his mind, the romantic archetype of the motorcyclist conflated with that of the pilot and the cowboy.)
When his dream is realized at age 18, by defying his parents’ wishes and selling a safely earthbound car to get a BSA Bantam, his inaugural ride characterizes the course of every episode in his subsequent life: near-spill, save, resolution, discovery. Followed by renewed yearning to go farther, faster. Despite what might easily have ended in decisive disaster—via a stuck throttle—he instead received new direction. Forward. It made him, definitively, a motorcyclist.
He already was one before he bought the BSA (then a couple of Nortons, then BMWs). This is the way motorcyclists are. You are one in your heart, in your desire, in your DNA, whether or not you ever ride a bike. And you are a motorcyclist by possessing two quintessential qualities: a certainly solitary mien, combined with an impatience to get somewhere. The place is both guardedly internal and sensually external. It is a need to spend deep time alone just beyond the reach of gravity.
The young doctor who moved to California, after schooling at Oxford, a residency at Middlesex Hospital, a sojourn in a kibbutz, and a free-wheeling trek across Canada—how much happens in youth’s miraculously expansive time, a hundred thousand moments, each blazingly varied!—ended up in San Francisco, then Los Angeles. Which is as much as to say, within reach of motorcycling heaven. Once he got an R60 (the machine on which he is pictured in the cover photo, darkly handsome, muscular, and—it seems to me, though I might be projecting—visibly shy and inward) he would ride out alone each weekend. Across mountains and desert, into other states, he amassed mileage that would now qualify him as a bona fide long-distance rider although the name did not come into currency until later. He was alone with his bike, on the move. He would put 100,000 miles on this single machine.
The poem by Sacks’s friend Thom Gunn, bearing the same title as this memoir, is an achingly perfect evocation of the transience of motorcycling’s glories. That Sacks titles his book, and begins it, and decorates it, with images of riding is telling. Yet so is what comes next and next.
Ordering is the way we give meaning to the coincidental quality of life—it also ends up being the way nature does it, writers too. So the reader does well to note what the autobiographer chooses next to offer, after the almost bottomless need for pure movement. (This expressed itself at other points in his life in affections for swimming and hiking, which like motorcycling perform the same service of feeding both tireless imagination and center of calm). Books. Sacks is besotted with literature, not in its abstract sense, but in its concrete. Where it always begins.
Books are objects stored in places—sounds absurdly simplistic. But listen to Sacks’s rhapsodies to the Bodleian and Queens College libraries and the ancient books he discovered there, waiting for his hand to open to his private gaze the original foundation documents of science and philosophy, and you also hear a song to the genesis of a writer. He is someone who voyages to new worlds through the magic portals of precisely these objects, stored in places.
The qualities that made Oliver Sacks a natural motorcyclist, an essential paradox of a person—he who heads out in order to head inward, who by binding himself tightly to the earth through every sense seeks the frisson of escaping it—are those that made him a great neurologist, thinker, friend, and writer. He is ambitious yet prone to the vagaries of luck. (His intellectual feats of derring-do are no less hair-raising than the physical, which include lifting 575 pounds in a front squat, and coming out the other side of a formidable addiction to amphetamines. He won an important prize at Oxford … while drunk, in his worst subject, without preparation and writing only one-seventh of the exam.) His mind runs in such high gear he once bedecked a manuscript with three times its length in footnotes—the editor insisted he cut all but 12—yet whose writing is never less than fluid, personable. He is a self-described “timid and inhibited” man who cares most of all about connecting with others in the deepest ways: by empathizing so thoroughly he gets inside their brains.
Sacks is the doctor we all wish we could have. The one who listens patiently, endlessly, concerned about our experiences in the hospital as well as all that we experience without. (Working once in a locked ward with “difficult” cases, his desire to spring some of the prisoners, er, patients, got him fired.) Compassion above all marks his work, his interests, his books. He created his own genre, the case history as prose poem/medical mystery. Finally the writing embodied life itself: the mysterious complexities of how we work are explained by way of the myriad ways we break down.
Generosity is also the signal quality of the motorcyclist, among the kindest of people on the planet. “Motorcyclists were a friendly lot; we waved to one another when we passed on the road, made conversation easily if we met at a café. We formed a sort of romantic classless society within society at large,” the doctor writes. Yet there is a level of generosity that is uniquely Sacksian. I, for one, can vouch for it.
An unknown writer, embarking on her first book, sends a proof of it to an eminent author, the kind who is besieged by so many requests that he could spend several lifetimes fulfilling only those made by friends, those who have some standing to make a claim on his time. Those who have none? Good luck. Then she receives, freely and in demand of no return, a comment so laudatory she is forced to blush.
Now, at the thought of it, she weeps.
For this rare man will soon be on the move no more. Because, as he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in February that soon flashed around the interwebs to shock and sadness, he is to come “face to face with dying” before he feels remotely “finished with living.” The cancer that took an eye from him a decade ago is now back for the rest of him.
This memoir is thus timed well. Or, rather, badly. In it Sacks yields to little melancholy except that expected of an 80 year old who knows the road behind is necessarily much longer than that ahead. A tragedy especially for one who likes—no, needs—to venture ever on. It contains only one passage that is heart-crackingly elegiac:
“I sometimes wonder why I have spent more than fifty years in New York, when it was the West, and especially the Southwest, which so enthralled me. I now have many ties in New York—to my patients, my students, my friends, and my analyst—but I have never felt it move me the way California did. I suspect my nostalgia may not be for the place itself, but for youth, and a very different time, and being in love—and being able to say, ‘the future is before me.’”
It will possibly leave readers in tears. But in the way of every life on the move, the emotion soon yields to something new. Up ahead I see it: the wonder that we should have had such luck as to have had him at all.