Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Neurologist and his Mother

Andrew Scull:
In 1951, when Oliver Sacks was eighteen and about to go up to Oxford, his father, a general practitioner beloved by his patients, decided to have a conversation with him about his sexuality. Oliver had no apparent liking for the opposite sex, and on being quizzed about this, confessed that he preferred boys, but added "I have never 'done' anything". As he recounts in his memoir, the next morning his mother confronted him: "You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born". She then proceeded to ignore him for days, and during the rest of her long life, never again alluded to the matter. Sacks tries to excuse her as a child of her time and culture. She was born and raised an Orthodox Jew, and for nearly two decades more, homosexual relations remained a criminal offence under English law. . . . Sacks writes: "My mother did not mean to be cruel, to wish me dead . . . and she probably regretted her words". Sadly, one cannot be sure. Such is the power of prejudice. And I suspect that at his very core, Sacks is not sure either, and that his whole life has been shadowed by this knowledge, the hatred he felt directed at him by someone he deeply loved and whose approval he desperately needed but could not have. Indeed, he immediately says as much: "her words", he informs us, "haunted me for much of my life."

It is not just that such an intimate condemnation of something that was central to his identity "played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality". Perhaps it also lies behind the decade and more of self-destructive behavior that on many occasions came close to killing him (and might well have brought about the demise of patients entrusted to him as a fledgling physician, since much of the time he was addicted to and high on a variety of drugs and hallucinogens).
From the June 5 TLS.

This makes me wonder again about the part played by trauma and misery in shaping the careers of hugely successful people. Oliver Sacks may have endured decades of lonely, guilt-ridden celibacy, self-treated with dangerous drugs, but his books have given vast pleasure and glimpses of deep understanding to me and millions of others. Would a happy, well-adjusted man have written them? Richard Feynman thought that the best physicists were people who had experienced some awful loss that made them turn away from the world and live mainly in their own heads for years afterward. The miserably mad artist has become a cliche -- this same issue of the TLS includes a review of a collection of scholarly articles about David Foster Wallace, whose suicide seems to have solidified his reputation as the most serious American writer of my generation.

Joyce: Joy and woe are woven fine.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I think that a large part of why traumatized artists garner a certain appeal is because they speak to similarly traumatized audiences. A happy, well-adjusted person is no less capable of creating great works, but they are perhaps less inclined to focus such works on the same topics, thoughts, and perspectives.

Clearly there have been a number of very successful non-traumatized artists throughout history, but presumably their works have appealed most to similarly non-traumatized audiences. Trauma doesn't make better art - it just makes different art, which different people identify with to differing degrees.

If you have a somber personality, you're more likely to appreciate somber art, literature, music, cinema, et cetera. Meanwhile, if you have a cheerful disposition, you'll probably enjoy similarly cheerful movies, songs, books, paintings, and the like.

Obviously there are exceptions, and it is entirely true that opposites can and frequently do attract. But overall the general tendency to gravitate toward the works of like-minded individuals seems, at least to my mind, quite evident.

From my own example, I'm a reformed pessimist who turned to embrace optimistic thinking, but who will never quite escape the scars and influences of my earlier cynicism and bitterness. Seemingly as a result, I'm able to enjoy all kinds of media, both of a darkly unpleasant nature and of a sweetly innocent one.

In comparison, my significant other has always been a healthy, well adjusted optimist, and consequently has little taste for the more tenebrous materials I sometimes delve into. Meanwhile, I have several more pessimistically minded close friends who suffer from histories of personal troubles, for whom some of my regular fare is sickeningly saccharine.

Thus if it actually can be shown that certain more troubled artists have indeed historically drawn larger audiences than their better adjusted counterparts, I'm inclined to imagine that might be explained simply by the audience for their material simply being larger. After all, healthy and well adjusted people seem to almost always be in short supply.