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The First Time Oliver Sacks Saw Heaven (1964)

My friend Oliver Sacks was at home, hoping to glimpse the color of heaven. It was 1964. He was in his kitchen in Topanga Canyon, preparing a cocktail. It wasn’t an ordinary cocktail, being part amphetamine (“for general arousal,” he told me), part marijuana (“for added delirium”), and part LSD (“for hallucinogenic intensity”), and his plan was to gulp, wait … and then command heaven to appear.

A color portrait of neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks
Portrait of Oliver Sacks, Photograph by Joost van den Broek, Hollandse Hoogte, Redux
Portrait of Oliver Sacks, Photograph by Joost van den Broek, Hollandse Hoogte, Redux

Oliver was not a believer. I’m sure he didn’t imagine a heaven with white clouds and angels darting about. White wasn’t his color. If heaven existed, he thought it would be bluish—not a pale blue, but “true indigo,” a rich, intense, deep blue that he had never seen. Nor had anyone. The great painter Giotto had tried to paint heaven in indigo. He worked with a number of powders but hadn’t found the right formula. Oliver imagined it to be an “ecstatic blue,” bluer than the lapis lazuli stone favored by the ancient Egyptians, a blue inspired by the seas of the ancient Paleozoic (“How do you know that?” I asked. “I just do,” he said). He wanted, desperately, to see it.

This was a brazen desire. True indigo is the unicorn of colors, maybe hidden from us, Oliver thought, “because the color of heaven was not to be seen on Earth.” But he would try.

He swallowed his cocktail. He waited for 20 minutes. Then he turned to a blank white wall in his kitchen and shouted (“To whom?” I asked. “Eternity,” he said), “I want to see indigo now—now!”

Sha-Zaam!

All of a sudden “as if thrown by a giant paintbrush,” Oliver remembers that a “huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob” of color appeared magically on the kitchen wall. It was a miracle of blue. It was, he says, “luminous, numinous; it filled me with rapture.” It stayed in place for a very little while, and then, just as suddenly, vanished.

Where Have You Gone?

Come. Gone. He looked around, puzzled, as if his prize had been “snatched away,” and yet … he had seen it. He knew that, “yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up in the brain,” and having had a first “sip,” as he called it, he eagerly wanted more. So he went hunting. He visited museums, walked beaches, looked at gems, at shells. One time, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he got another very short glimpse in the sheen of an Egyptian jewel, but when he turned away and then looked back, he found only “blue and purple and mauve and puce—no indigo.”

That was 50 years ago. He never saw indigo again. Unless (and I can’t help thinking this), now that he’s left us, (Oliver died this week), he may be up there floating in an indigo-rich Paleozoic sea, surrounded not by angels but by pale blue cuttlefish, his favorite cephalopods. And looking up at him, winking quietly, I see a small crab, very much alive, that may be the only creature on Earth to experience Oliver’s favorite color all the time. I recently made this discovery (that heaven may be hiding here) in a poem by Mark Doty.

I wish I’d shown this to Oliver. A few years ago, Mark came upon a half-eaten crab on a beach somewhere, turned over its shell, peeked inside, and saw this:

an overturned crab shell lying on rocks reveals the beautiful indigo color inside
Photograph by Gregory Wake, Flickr
https://www.flickr.com/photos/gregwake/

A Green Crab’s Shell, by Mark Doty

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like—

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
—size of a demitasse—
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this—
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

Mark Doty’s poem comes from his collection, Atlantis, published in 1995 [published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1995 by Mark Doty.] Oliver Sacks wrote about his search for indigo in his book Hallucinations and we talked about it together on “Radiolab.”

14 thoughts on “The First Time Oliver Sacks Saw Heaven (1964)

  1. Indica indicates intoxicating India invigorating denim infused in indigenous Indigofera and, indeed, inflamed indium incited into indigo incandescence.

  2. Another iteration…

    Indica indicates India industriously inundating denim in indigenous Indigofera and, indeed, inflamed indium incited into indigo incandescence.

  3. Shame I didn’t know Oliver’s quest for Indigo. Instead of taking a drug cocktail we could have just used Photoshop to make a monitor any colour he fancied by dialing in the sRGB values.

  4. As I was reading this my thoughts turned to Joni Mitchell’s song Turbulent Indigo, and then to Van Gogh . . . who knew something about “living in Turbulent Indigo” I wonder, did Dr. Sacks ever hear Joni’s song ? did he ever lose himself in one of Van Goghs “storms” and in his dying moment perhaps he saw the light coming to wash him in waves of that elusive blue, he had for so long, been looking for?

    1. Perhaps he wanted it to be also alive and beckoning to him. To behold the beauty of something he searched for and in the finding of it to recognize for it to see him as a true seeker of beauty. Of a thing so rare and beyond his reach that it was his quest. What a lovely man we are fortunate that he was with us for a season until, I hope he awoke on a beautiful shore of warm golden sands and basking under his own indigo sky.
      own

  5. You can come close to indigo if you will search images of Crater Lake, Oregon. No photo can really do the lake’s color justice.

  6. Greg, that is a very nice colour but, as I understand it, Oliver Sacks’ quest was not for the physical colour but the experience of the colour. Like the difference between hearing a sound and hearing music. The ecstatic immersion in the experience while perceptions are altered is difficult to convey to those who have not taken certain drugs or been affected by certain insanities. The perfect indigo is a combination of a perfect colour and a perfect time looking at the colour.

  7. In 2007 I wrote Oliver Sacks a letter on the subject of color, and to my absolute surprise he wrote back!

    I had recently discovered that I had red-green deuteranomaly, which was a shock considering that I was already an exhibiting visual artist. While researching my condition I read Dr. Sacks’ book, “The Island of the Colorblind.” It was completely fascinating.

    Eager to express my appreciation, I wrote Dr. Sacks about a group of paintings I was creating which would exploit my own color-deficiency to produce imagery which would be invisible to me but visible to the “color-normal.” His reply was canny, encouraging and helpful, but I was even more impressed that it was apparently hand-typed on his cream-colored personal stationary (!). Such was the dedication Dr. Sacks had to his work that he would respond to a complete stranger on a subject of common interest.

    (I made the paintings, and I still have the letter.)

    Now, as I re-read Dr. Sack’s essay on drug use, in which he described the indigo incident, it strikes me how important color was in motivating his work. As a painter, there is probably nothing more personal to an artist’s style than the way one sees and uses color. Sacks’ experience was no less profound, in fact he himself relates it, via his hallucinogenic drug use, to his genesis as a writer.

    I’m sure he’s swimming in blue now.

  8. I think I understand Dr. Sacks immersion into the color-concept of “indigo”. As he has passed, I hope he found his indigo again, and that it again fills him with much joy.

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