How can I possibly resist the final thoughts of the sensitive, intelligent, articulate Oliver Sacks. It is a slim little hard cover cloth-bound edition, gold-embossed, and the blurb on the back is an insight into life at its most clear:
“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Gratitude contains four small essays, some published before and others not, that contain the high and low; the everyday and the death’s-door-insight. It feels like a privilege to hold a volume of dying thoughts, especially those of such a learned person. There is a necessary cut-through clarity, a mandatory crystallisation: if you don’t find these things in your life now, there are no more chances.
When I read Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, I had to grapple with the detail, fascination, compulsion. He was a scientific storyteller with a gentle sincerity and clinical eye. His case notes were respectfully and educationally transformed into stand-alone short stories. But in Gratitude as he reflects on his own life, Sacks’ eye struggles to place the same analysis on himself. It is touching, and honest, and says something about his own human nature. It is almost as if he does not know where to start, cannot place the meaning. But this does not lead to a feeling of loss or confusion, but fullness. A life definitely, passionately lived.
“I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild disposition. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions…Over the last few days I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connections of all its parts.”
Do not expect grand pronouncements, sweeping statements, total closure. But, perhaps, expect to be affected, to become sad. It is so intimate, reading the words of a man telling the story of his own life. He opens his book with “I am now face to face with dying,/ but I am not finished with living,” so of course there is a simple tragedy here. I also feel a sense off loss. This great mind, bestowed and utilised to such meaningful ends in our world, is now gone. I feel gratitude also that I get to read his world, that he has contributed to the world I have lived in.
But perhaps this is all a little heavy for what this book actually is. It is light, full of implicit thanks; four short essays giving space for their writer to meditate on what it is like to face death. Not a deliberate memoir or a strict lesson of the meaning on life, Sacks is a smart, sad, dying man. It is a beautiful little volume of thoughts, a privilege to have shared with us; I am grateful for Gratitude.