Tuesday, July 09, 2013

`My Emblem for the Cosmos'

Auden specifies that “Talking to Myself” (Collected Poems, 2007) is “(for Oliver Sacks),” not about him, and the speaker is addressing his own body in the second person, but these lines might have been written by (and, perhaps, about) the writer/neurologist: 

“Thanks to Your otherness, Your jocular concords,
So unlike my realm of dissonance and anger,
You can serve me as my emblem for the Cosmos.” 

Sacks is that rarest of physicians who possesses the capacity to appreciate “jocular concords.” His grand theme is our fate as humans – to have a mind housed in a body. He explores consciousness, and its dependence on the corporeal, with the dedication of the James brothers, William and Henry. Auden dates the poem to April 1971, a little more than two years before his death. The men were friends from the late nineteen-sixties, both the sons of physicians. Auden judged Sacks’ second book, Awakenings (1973), a “masterpiece.” When Sacks published a new edition of the book in 1976, he dedicated it to Auden and added a passage from his May 1969 poem “The Art of Healing”: 

Papa would tell me,
`is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.’” 

Sacks writes well, with clarity, precision and a doctor’s human empathy – qualities rare among writers let alone scientists. He’s relentlessly curious about the world, always gentlemanly, and erudite without pretentiousness, moving gracefully from Alexander Luria to Thom Gunn (another of his poet friends). In W.H. Auden: A Tribute (1975), a memorial collection edited by Stephen Spender, Sacks contributed “Dear Mr. A ….,” which begins with a recollection of helping Auden pack his library in New York City in 1972 as the poet prepared to return to England. They paused for a beer, “in timeless time,” saying nothing. Sacks writes, characteristically, in a parenthesis: 

“(Wystan, among so many qualities, had that rarest and most precious quality—he was a man one could be quiet with; we could sit together over a beer or a fire, not saying anything, not needing to say anything, communing without talking, silently imbibing each other’s presence and the silent, eloquent, presence of the now.)” 

Auden gives Sacks two books from his library (“my favourite books—two of them anyhow!”) – a collection of Goethe’s letters and the libretto for The Magic Flute he and Chester Kallman had prepared. Sacks writes: 

“The old Goethe was full of affectionate scribblings, markings, annotations and comments – as happens only with something as dear and familiar as a bedside book. Every few pages, in an exclamatory hand (very different from his usual minute and methodical hand) he had written `Dear Mr G!’ in the margins of the book; not `Dear Wolfgang’ – that would have been improper – and the sense of what was proper was as strong in Auden as the sense of dearness. Together they formed the corresponding poles of his character.”   

The same, of course, might be said of Sacks, who was born on this date, July 9, in 1933, in London. Happy eightieth birthday, dear Dr. Sacks.

No comments: