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The River of Consciousness looks back on Oliver Sacks’s life in writing

Nature is always more complex than we expect, and Sacks’s gift is to convey this sense of wonder.

There is a Ukrainian saying that “It is no crime to steal a man’s wife or his book.” I have never understood the meaning of this but I did come to understand that it is not wise to lend books you especially like. I bought Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings in 1973 immediately after publication, as I had so enjoyed his first book Migraine (a condition from which I suffer myself). Both books disappeared from my shelves many years ago – in my enthusiasm I must have lent them to persons unremembered. Awakenings showed Sacks at his best (and made him famous) – a detailed account of the extraordinary experiences of post-encephalitic patients, frozen in both space and time, and briefly rescued by the drug L-DOPA.

He went on to write many more books in a similar vein – such as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars – in which the predicaments (and sometimes insights) of people with neurological disorders such as autism and Tourette’s – were depicted in precise and compassionate prose. They were in marked contrast to the impersonal case histories with which most modern doctors describe their patients. More than any other medical writer, he introduced the public to the idea that people with neurological illnesses are no less human than “normal” people.

As a young doctor Sacks wanted to be a research scientist but proved a dismal failure at laboratory work and found that his true vocation was working with patients with neurological disorders and writing about their experiences. There could be at times an obsessional element to his love of obscure medical literature reflecting, perhaps, the slightly obsessional personality he revealed in his autobiography On the Move – addiction to amphetamines, weight lifting (he was a 1961 California record breaker) and long-distance motorcycling (up to 1,000 miles at weekends).

Sacks died in 2015. The River of Consciousness is his last book, published posthumously, and is a collection of essays delving into the history of ideas and not a book of detailed case histories. It is, in a way, a summary, a looking back on a life’s writing.

As the editors say in the introduction, Sacks was a polymath who could range over many fields of art and science. Names fly thick and fast, especially Darwin, William James and Freud – but also Cantor (“my favourite mathematician”), Wagner, Edelman, Pinter and Pope. This puts the reader at a slight disadvantage as they are unlikely to be as well-read as Sacks. Might the history of science be truly similar to Eldredge and Gould’s evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium? Is it right to compare music students at Juilliard with young scientists? Does chaos theory explain migraine? Reading these essays at times left me feeling pulled in different directions, uncertain as to whether I felt inspired or embarrassingly dumb or just dubious.

The book takes its title from the chapter of the same name. The psychologist Stuart Sutherland famously wrote (in the 1989 International Dictionary of Psychology) that consciousness “is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon… nothing worth reading has been written on it”. Sacks reprises some of the early writing that Sutherland dismissed so pithily – Hume, William James and Bergson – before discussing the flood of writing on the subject since Sutherland.

I must confess that I feel that there is still considerable truth in what Sutherland wrote. Consciousness is entirely subjective and cannot be observed or measured (other than by yourself, so any experiments in altering your own consciousness will disrupt your ability to observe or remember it). This limits what can be written about it, and theories of consciousness, and how it arises within nervous systems, must necessarily remain essentially speculative. It remains to be seen whether the two massively financed current projects into brain structure – the Connectome in the US and Blue Brain in Europe – will shed any new light on how brains generate consciousness.

Other chapters are about the fallibility of memory and the mystery of creativity, especially when viewed through the prism of the autistic savants Sacks made famous. Two chapters are about the way that the division between plant and animal life is not as clear-cut as is often thought. It is worth reading the book for one chapter alone – on Darwin and flowers. “It is hardly an exaggeration,” wrote Darwin in The Power of Movement in Plants, “to say that the tip of the radicle… acts like the brain of one of the lower animals.”

Sacks also discusses Darwin’s work with earthworms and his description of their “mental qualities”. Kandel’s ground-breaking work on memory formation by synapses, Sacks reminds us, was carried out on Aplysia, the giant sea snail. You do not necessarily have to believe in talking to plants, or that worms can think, to accept that nature is always more complex and full of surprises than we expect, and Sacks’s great gift is to convey this sense of wonder. “I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological antiquity,” he writes, “and [in] my biological kindred with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me… allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning.”

This book will remain safely on my bookshelf, strongly recommended but not lent. 

Henry Marsh’s most recent book is “Admissions: a Life in Brain Surgery” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

The River of Consciousness
Oliver Sacks
Picador, 256pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist