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Photograph by Pete Ryan, National Geographic Creative

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.

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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:

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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.”