Friday, February 20, 2015

`There Is No One Like Anyone Else, Ever'

A day after writing a story about a 26-year-old graduate student who died last fall of cancer, I learned my friend the novelist Roger Boylan has suffered a stroke and Dr. Oliver Sacks has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Many have similar stories, similar days, of course. Mine just means I’ve lived long enough to outlive a few of my contemporaries, some of them much younger than I. At age eighty-one, Sacks has lived longer than most of humanity. He is grateful for the gifts of longevity and health, and his inevitable melancholy is tempered with cool medical realism: 

“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 no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for 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.” 

Like his friend W.H. Auden, Sacks, trained as a neurologist (Auden’s father was a doctor), is a devoted reader of the Oxford English Dictionary. Abrupt is common; abruption, virtually erased from the language. The OED gives “the action or an act of breaking off or away from something; an interruption; a sudden curtailment,” which reads like a genteel, almost euphemistic definition of death.  Among the citations is Dr. Johnson in his “Life of Cowley": “Thoughts, which to a reader of less skill seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption.” The OED’s second definition, labeled “Now chiefly Med.,” is “snapping, breaking; breaking or tearing away (esp. of portions of a mass),” which is even closer to Sacks’ usage. He implies an essential unity among us, at least the members of a generation, and the death of each diminishes all. 

In “Dear Mr A …,” his contribution to W.H. Auden: A Tribute (ed. Stephen Spender, Macmillan, 1974), Sacks recalls Auden’s departure in 1972 from New York City, his adopted home for decades, and his return to England: 

“Wystan’s departure in April affected me like a sudden darkness, the eclipse of all light and reality from the world. I knew him to be a man mortally ailing, and when he left I mourned his death in advance. I suddenly realized what I had never properly realized or avowed before, that Wystan had been a beacon for me, a reality-bearer, so that his departure subtracted reality from my world … and it was only very slowly that the void was filled, and that there is a Wystan-shaped space which will never be filled.” 

In 1971, Auden dedicated a poem to Sacks, “Talking to Myself,” in which the speaker addresses his body as “You.” Here is the final stanza: 

“Time, we both know, will decay You, and already
I’m scared of our divorce: I’ve seen some horrid ones.
Remember: when Le bon Dieu says to You Leave him!,
Please, please, for His sake and mine, pay no attention
To my piteous Don’ts, but bugger off quickly.” 

In “Rocket and Lightship,” a prose meditation from his collection of the same title (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015), the poet-critic Adam Kirsch writes: “Writing, not philosophy, is the true practice of death—it translates the self into print as a rehearsal for the time when the self disappears and print is all that remains. A writer has succeeded if, when we read his obituary, we are surprised to learn that he was still alive.” 

Writers are given an advantage over their fellows. Daily, we practice death like an unending audition, and some of what we love most survives us.

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

A beacon, a reality-bearer... What a great compliment that was...