The River of Consciousness
By Oliver Sacks
Published 2017 by Knopf Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0385352567
By Wesley Cohen
In January 2015, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Dr. Sacks had already written his memoir On the Move, which was published in April 2015. He shortly finished a book of essays about his thoughts on life and dying, Gratitude—this after twelve previous books on migraines, autism, ferns, phantom limbs, hallucinogens, and music, among other topics. In August 2015, Oliver Sacks passed away, and Gratitude was published posthumously the following November.
And yet, after collecting his life story and his thoughts on living, Sacks chose to write another book, published only now: The River of Consciousness. What subject was so important to Sacks that he couldn’t bear to leave this book unwritten?
As it turns out, everything. The River of Consciousness begins with an essay discussing Darwin’s botanical studies, before moving on to “Speed,” which borrows from H. G. Wells and William James to consider the perception of time in professional athletes, in people with post-encephalopathic catatonia, how time shifts under the influence of drugs, and even the experience of time for insects and plants. Sacks goes on to investigate the consciousness of earthworms and jellyfish, accidental plagiarism, hearing loss, and colorblindness.
Although Gratitude was meant to be Sacks’s final offering, his “posthumous gift” to readers, the dominant sense in The River of Consciousness is that of awe. Sacks approaches his various subjects with obsessive detail and nearly childlike curiosity, laying bare the wonder of each topic. Nothing is too distant, too old, or too small for Sacks’s careful attention. The descriptions here—of a young Oliver borrowing his cousin’s camera to photograph the “time-blurred wing beats” of a bee, of the communication habits of octopi and facial recognition in wasps—are specific and enchanting. Reading these pages feels like an antidote to cynicism and overwhelm, as long as the reader can look away from her Twitter feed long enough to settle in. Again and again, Sacks demonstrates our great fortune to be alive, to explore the natural world, to have sight and memory and health. Even when these fail, there is beauty and mystery to be found: in the book’s most personal essay, “A General Feeling of Disorder,” Sacks describes his brutal recovery from a procedure intended to extend his life by a few months, but also describes his joy when his exhaustion lifts, “a physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania.”
The River of Consciousness also spends time with Sacks’s heroes, mainly Darwin, Freud, and William James. Readers learn of these famous scientists’ less-known pursuits: for Darwin, his decades of botanical study, for Freud, his research in neuroscience. Throughout his career, Sacks was beloved by his readers for his compassion and personality while writing on neurological research and the experiences of his own patients. Whatever the book, Sacks shows up in his own work as a full, complicated, real person, charming readers into following him through hospital wards and into jungles. Here, Darwin and Freud enjoy similar treatment, expanding from archetypes into men with struggles and obsessions and stories. Sacks references other scientists constantly, as well as writers and artists from Wagner to Rebecca Solnit. The bibliography for this book is nine pages long. If The River of Consciousness is to be taken as a message or a gift for Sacks’s readers, then it is an abundant and expansive one, as each essay contains numerous reading suggestions, a road map to future discovery. The world of science, Sacks shows, is not a stodgy institution but a network of hopeful and fallible actors.
Common themes from Sacks’s previous work run through The River of Consciousness: the perception of time, language, creativity, and imitation. But unlike his past books, which often take up a specific topic—say, the intersection of neuroscience and music in Musicophilia—and exhaustively present every side to the reader, these essays explore their subjects and then set them down. There is no one theme or argument in The River of Consciousness, although topics, examples, and quotes may show up in one essay to be repeated in a new context a hundred pages later. In this sense, The River of Consciousness reads as a brief catalogue of its author’s favorite people and ideas, the things Sacks wanted to touch upon a final time before leaving.
The River of Consciousness feels a bit like a goodbye to the world, with all its wonder and history and unanswered questions, and an inheritance for those of us who remain. Perhaps, after making a gift of his gratitude, Sacks wanted to give his readers the gift of his passion as well, to lay these essays out in front of us and say here are the things I loved, here are the things that enchanted me, and to leave them for us to admire, to wonder at, and perhaps to pick up and explore on our own, now that he is gone.