Oaxaca Journal documents physical travel, a trip taken, a journal kept. The River of Consicousness time travels across ideas that are wide-ranging and far-reaching toward an understanding of systems both physical and of the mind. A truly renaissance man, Sacks seems always to be looking simultaneously at details and the big picture of our understanding and of what makes us human, a holistic approach to physical science, neuroscience, creativity, and consciousness.
Many of you will know Dr. Oliver Sacks from his book, Awakenings, or the movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. He was a prolific writer, often writing out of his observations and experiences from his medical practice, but not always.
The first book by Sacks’ that I read, Oaxaca Journal, is an adventure story, detailing his travels with the American Fern Society. The trip was “an introduction to a people, a country, a culture, a history, of which [he] knew almost nothing – this was wonderful, an adventure in itself… .” Sacks was a serious amateur biologist, an enthusiastic traveller, and also a lifelong journal-keeper. He had a keen eye for detail, was exceptionally curious, and he had an ability to weave a tale that keeps readers turning pages. He was anything but “a passive, impartial, observer.” For example, on this trip, he skips a bus tour to sit in the plaza, sees and analyses:
Tourists, pale-faced, awkward, uncouthly dressed, instantly stand out from the graceful indigenes… .
Writing, like this, at a café table, in a sweet outdoor square…this is la dolce vita. It evokes images of Hemingway and Joyce, expatriate writers at tables in Havana and Paris… . I love to write in an open sunny place, the windows admitting every sight and sound and smell of the outside world. I like to write at café tables, where I can see (though at a distance) society before me.
Oaxaca takes us on treacherous bus rides, roadside stops to examine ferns, inside a chocolate factory, and into plazas where children call “Peso, peso… .” We discover with him.
The River of Consciousness
We are also with him as he travels across eras – from Darwin’s ideas about evolution and his garden experiments in biology to the philosophy of the ancients right up to modern science and neuroscience on systems of the body and the mind.
Sacks is a weaver who could create a tapestry from disparate sciences and make sense of them, not just for scientists. One of my favourite chapters in the book is called “The Creative Self,” in which he explores play, mimicry, and imitation. “All of us,” he writes, “to some extent, borrow from others, from the culture around us. Ideas are in the air, and we may appropriate, often without realizing, the phrases and language of the times. We borrow language itself; we did not invent it.” And he also writes of the importance of incubation, “the hugely complex problems performed by an entire hidden, creative self,” often that come to us in the moments just before or just after sleep. And he says of creativity:
…that state when ideas seem to organize themselves into a swift, tightly woven flow, with a feeling of gorgeous clarity and meaning emerging – seems to me physiologically distinctive, and I think that if we had the ability to make fine enough brain images, these would show an unusual and widespread activity with innumerable connections and synchronizations occurring.
This, I suspect, is what the whole book might be about: the “innumerable connections an synchronizations” that occur across disciplines – arts and sciences.
For creative connections, playful curiosity, and a world of original ideas, one of Oliver Sacks’ fourteen books might be exactly where to turn. Oaxaca and The River of Consciousness provide just a glimpse.