Thank you and goodbye Oliver Sacks

By David Walsh

Sometimes I find myself, in conversation, filling in a detail concerning an aspect of neurology. It might be the nature of colour blindness, or the clinical manifestations of synaesthesia, or the pain engendered by a misrepresentation of self. When I do this I’m occasionally, even often, right. And if I am, that’s not a credit to me. It’s a credit to Oliver Sacks, who studied these things, and understood their nature, and wrote about them, and revealed the burden of those who suffered.

He didn’t write to show off. And he didn’t write to educate. He wrote to entertain. I read all of his books, and I was most majestically entertained. So those things I learned, I learned without effort, because of all the writers I’ve ever read, Oliver Sacks is the easiest to read. The words are a window, and the view is grand.

Two years ago my daughter, Grace, was struck on the head by a rock. Her recovery entailed, amongst other things, overcoming neurological deficits that induced dyscalculia and anxiety. Her lovely teacher, Philippa Herron, patiently helped her through this most difficult time. Jemma, Grace’s mum, suggested an Oliver Sacks book would be an appropriate gift to thank her. She was right; an Oliver Sacks book is always an opportune gift, but in this case it was most apropos. I prevailed on a mutual acquaintance to ask Mr Sacks if he would autograph a book. Although we were strangers, a delightfully dedicated copy of Awakenings arrived in the mail.

To thank him I responded with a copy of the Mona catalogue, Monanisms. And within it, I inscribed the following jingle:

I’ve read around
I must admit,
Cheats abound
Also in lit.

I did you wrong,
No leg to stand on.
I was hallucinating,
Now I’m awakening.

Although I roam
I’ll come back,
And write a poem
To say, ‘Thanks
For each tome,
Doctor Sacks’.

The fellow who helped me out with the autograph, Lawrence Weschler, eulogised Doctor Sacks to the Wall Street Journal thus: he ‘conducted a master class in how to die, after having conducted a master class in how to live’.

Oliver Sacks showed the humanity of literature. And the humanity of science. And the humanity of humanity.

Goya and The Disasters of War

-By Elizabeth Pearce

We own one small etching by Francisco Goya, part of his famous series The Disasters of War. It has recently gone on display in the museum.

Esto es peor (This is worse); plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Esto es peor (This is worse);
plate 37 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

My colleague Jane Clark writes in her ‘art wank’ text that Goya is referencing not just the Napoleonic invasion and occupation of Spain, but violent conflict in general. In our plate, she writes, ‘the mutilated body of a Spanish fighter is impaled like ghastly fruit in a tree’. The nude figure

derives directly from the antique: the Hellenistic marble Belvedere Torso sculpture which Goya had sketched during a visit to Rome years before.  Where 18th-century cognoscenti saw ruined antiquities as evidence of a noble Classical past, Goya saw ruin as ruin and human nature as unchanging. There is no glory here. War, he suggests, is as timeless and innate a human trait as art.

I know about Goya mostly via a pair of young-ish British artists called Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose sculpture, Great Deeds Against the Dead (1994), we recently sold. The Chapman brothers obsessively revisit Goya in their work; ‘like a dog’, as they put it, ‘returns to its vomit’.

Great Deeds Against the Dead

©Great Deeds Against the Dead, 1994, Jake Chapman & Dinos Chapman
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!); plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) Made 1810-20; first published in 1863 Francisco Jose de Goya

Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (An heroic feat! With dead men!);
plate 39 from the series known as Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War)
Made 1810-20; first published in 1863
Francisco Jose de Goya

Evidently, Goya is the kind of artist that makes a permanent mark on the mindscape of his descendants. What kind of mark? That’s impossible to say, because acts of creativity multiply upon inception, mingle and spawn, in ways that are not easy to discern.

I’ve recently been reading a great book (meaning one of universal significance) called The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, an account of the way man’s pleasure in his own skill and knowledge has drawn him ever upwards toward the heights of empathy and liberty of which he is capable. (We can talk another time about where all the women were during this ascent; I think watching Dr Phil). Bronowski’s is a nourishing, optimistic view of our kind, but he is at pains to point out that human cultural evolution is not a series of finished, polished cultural artefacts – the arch, the plough, the Theory of Relativity – but a ceaseless unfolding, a repetition and multiplication of ideas that infect the minds and behaviour of the human species as a whole.

Goya’s idea, here, is especially infectious. And that idea, as I see it, is not simply that ‘war is bad’, nor even that humans are capable of terrible acts of violence towards each other, although I agree that this is an important part of what he has to say. For me, Goya is telling us something astonishingly modern about ourselves, something he had no right to see so clearly at the turn of the nineteenth century, and something that is capable of fundamentally (gradually) changing who we are: violence is a kind of de-humanisation. I mean that in the general sense, in that to hurt someone is to deny their equal claim to life and liberty, their freedom from unreasonable pain. But I also mean that to be human is to be forever striving to balance what you want for yourself – the latent violence of your base desire – with what you want for the human race. It is in that way that being human is itself a process; a quick, and not a static, state. At our best, the spatial metaphor for the human condition might be a ladder, an ascent; at our worst – as we see, here, through Goya’s eyes – it is a dreary circle, terror numbed by repetition. Consider the titles of the Disasters of War etchings, sampled at random from the eighty-two in total:

The way is hard!
And it can’t be helped.
They avail themselves.
They do not agree.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There is no more time.
Treat them, then on to other matters.
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.

Goya began the series at the age of 62; it was only published in 1863, thirty-five years after his death. For him, the weight of human suffering was too great; his career in many ways marks his descent from firm faith in order and reason into chaos, fear and disillusionment. But in the process he shows us that which sits at the seat of the human ‘ascent’: self-knowledge.

 

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