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Awakenings: not a murmur from the medical press


Awakenings proof and WH Auden's compulsions
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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By February of '73, Awakenings and its footnotes were in Colin [Haycraft]’s hands, and I had the first proof of the entire book. In February, I went to Oxford – I went to England – and I also went to Oxford to see Wystan who at that time had lodgings in Christchurch. I wanted to give Wystan the galleys of Awakenings, and he was in fact the only man who saw the galleys of Awakenings. It was a very beautiful day, instead of taking a cab from the station I decided to walk, and I arrived somewhat late. And when I saw Wystan he was swinging a watch like this. And he... and he said, 'You’re 17 minutes late'. One... Wystan was an exceedingly punctual man and... and expected extreme punctuality from others. But also, I think, his punctuality – his own punctuality – somewhat tormented him. And he told me of a recurrent dream which he used to have. There was a train to catch, very important train, crucial, everything depended on it. But obstacles kept arising. He got diverted, this happened and that happened, and he got more and more frantic and desperate. And then he saw that the... and heard and saw that the train had actually started, and it was too late to get it. And at that point he would have an immense sense of relief and he would wake up with an orgasm.

So that’s how it is when extremely compulsive people are liberated briefly from their own compulsions. I may have had my prolonged mental equivalent of an orgasm after having escaped the suicide threat and given the... the manuscript to Fabers. I really had a sort of orgasmic two months.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Faber & Faber, Awakenings, WH Auden, Colin Haycraft

Duration: 2 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012