Sacks & Didion: A final few comparisons

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I am impressed with the continued overlap between these two reads. I finished the last 125 pages over the last three days, immediately following finishing Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Here are some passages from the remaining pages of Sacks that made me consider Didion’s writing and how these two pieces of literature intersect.

The first passage comes from the beginning of a chapter from The River of Consciousness that is titled “The Creative Self” (How appropriate for Didion!):

“Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.” (p. 129)

What better way to end my discussion on Didion and Sacks but with the primary activity of narrative? I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but how cool to be reminded that Didion’s book is such an example of ‘a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

The next passage I felt was a good one to share is from the first paragraph in the chapter titled “The River of Consciousness”:

” ‘Time,’ says Jorge Luis Borges, ‘is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river.’ Our movements, our actions, are extended in time, as are our perceptions, our thoughts, the contents of consciousness. We live in time, we organize time, we are time creatures through and through. But is the time we live in, or live by, continuous, like Borges’s river? Or is it more comparable to a succession of discrete moments, like beads on a string?” (p. 161)

I wonder how Didion would respond to this in the state she was in when writing Magical Thinking or when she was living through that time in her life. Time is simultaneously continuous, like a river, but also can be broken into snapshots. The chapter goes into memory, and recall, and the perception of time- it is a great read. I will not belabor the point, but suffice to say in the context of grief– the perception of time is something Didion spoke about, and would also recall memories (the movie theater comes to mind), much in a way that allows us to grapple with the question of how perception of time can impact the mind.

In the same chapter, a quote from William James on the perception of time furthers the connection:

“The knowledge of some other part of the stream [of consciousness], past or future, near or remote, is always mixed in with our knowledge of the present thing.

…These lingerings of old objects, these incomings of new, are the germs of memory and expectation, the retrospective and the prospective sense of time. They give that continuity to consciousness without which it could not be called a stream.”

Essentially, all our experiences inform the present– past experiences and future expectations– they sound inseparable to me.

“These lingerings of old objects” reminded me of Didion and the shoes she kept for John after he died; the stack of books she couldn’t bring herself to move. The concept of “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a hand wave to time perception already! Is not ‘magical thinking’ about perception?

And lastly, from the same chapter, a bit on the self, after Sacks describes what he can see from his viewpoint sitting on 7th avenue writing (a girl in a red dress, a man with a funny dog, etc), he brings us to the following:

“…These are all events which catch my attention for a moment as they happen. Why, out of a thousand possible perceptions, are these the ones I seize upon? Reflections, memories, associations, lie behind them. For consciousness is always active and selective– charged with feelings and meanings uniquely our own, informing our choices and interfusing our perceptions. So it is not just Seventh Avenue that I see by my Seventh Avenue, marked by my own selfhood and identity.” (p. 183)

Didion most certainly lives in this theme through much of Magical Thinking.

At the end of Sacks’s book, he talks about the politics of scientific discovery and the reality that some ideas do not survive for a myriad of reasons– they are suppressed, they are not in line with current thinking, etc. There are many examples of this throughout recorded history. But this idea of being forgotten, or missed, also reminds me of Didion at the end of her book– fearing the new reality where memories of John fade due to the very nature of time.

A very eye opening, mind bending twosome to wrap up the week. I’m not sure where I’m headed next, but I have swapped with both Teri & Jennie, so probably in that direction!

Total page count: 756 pages

5 comments on “Sacks & Didion: A final few comparisons”

  1. What a fine wrap-up to your dual-book reading. Time is a human construct which shapes our lives. And memory? Inescapable and fallible–what a combination.

    I’d recommend that you go Jennie’s way for your next read. ‘The Glass Universe’ is proving to be a rather dry read. I should have known better than to send you something I hadn’t yet read. I relied on good reports & ordered it for myself, too. I like astronomy and like the idea of women getting recognition for their contributions to astronomy, but I’d like to think that this book could have been written in a livelier style. Live and learn, as they say.

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    1. Thanks for your honesty Teri! I think what is especially nice about the book swap during the winter challenge is that one can take as much from the book as they like since we are counting pages. In the summer, your swap is 10% of someone’s read so we are generally quite thoughtful about (or try to be!) what we give to others in regards to the amount of time. Anyway, no harm done of course! As a scientist, I am looking forward to reading this 🙂

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  2. It’s so interesting to me how many overlaps there are in people’s reading and the things happening in my life. I observed my son in play a lot this week, constructing stories and along with it his world, attempting to navigate what makes a story worthwhile for others to hear and what is his worth in relation to his story. I have been guiding him in his concept of time, helping him navigate the concept in our constructed idea of it while verbally acknowledging that he has his own time that works perfectly and many adults have forgotten that when they learn to constrain time with minutes and hours on which obligations then seem a necessity to fill.

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    1. Oh gee I mentioned a bit about narrative as a fundamental aspect of humanity only briefly in my entry earlier today but Sacks goes into children and their storytelling and mimicking, etc– kids are amazing, esp Oscar 😍

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