This idea is treated directly and beautifully in another essay in this collection, “The Fallibility of Memory.” Following the publication of his first autobiography, “Uncle Tungsten,” Sacks came to understand that his memories were not as reliable as he’d thought: After describing in high detail the memory of a thermite bomb that fell behind the family’s house in the winter of 1940-41, he was informed by his brother that he had not in fact been present for it, having been sent away to the relative safety of boarding school. The “memory” had been lifted whole from a letter their older brother wrote to them both, describing the dramatic event in a way that had deeply impressed Sacks at the time. And yet even after accepting the correction, Sacks found that the recollection lost none of its vivid power, having long been embedded as if it were a genuine primary memory. Neither psychoanalysis nor brain imaging can tell the difference between a true and false memory. And more than that, Sacks writes, “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”
Disconcerting as it sounds, Sacks, a genius at identifying the strength that springs from fallibility, locates in this imperfection our human gift for creativity. We may forget the source of what we read or were told, but we can absorb and integrate what others express so vividly that we may come to feel these things originated in ourselves. In an essay called “The Creative Self,” Sacks takes the idea further still, and suggests that a long period of “forgetting,” in which thought and experience become detached from their sources and sift down into the unconscious, is essential to originality. All of us appropriate from others and the culture around us, he writes. “What is at issue is not the fact of ‘borrowing’ or ‘imitating,’ of being ‘derivative,’ being ‘influenced,’ but what one does with what is borrowed or invented or derived; how deeply one assimilates it, takes it into oneself, compounds it with one’s own experiences and thoughts and feelings, places it in relation to oneself, and expresses it in a new way, one’s own.” To fill oneself with the consciousness of others, and then to forget deeply enough, and long enough, that the collective world can be welded to what is unique and original to oneself — this is as precise and moving a definition of creativity as I have come across. On page after page in this collection, drawing on the rich history of ideas he absorbed over a lifetime, Sacks illustrates how it is done.
Nicole Krauss is the author, most recently, of “Forest Dark.”