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Posts Tagged ‘Memories of Amnesia’

Memories of Amnesia—or, Is Your Brain Out to Get You?

Monday, February 22, 2010 @ 11:02 PM  posted by Mark

Today begins a week-long series I’m calling Sickness, Death and Other Inconveniences, whose theme you’ve no doubt already gathered. Since the body is our vehicle through this world, its splendid daily operation, occasional breakdowns and eventual and inevitable failure fascinate us. Even a common illness like a head cold (from which I’m now suffering, and which inspired this series), can seem like a harbinger of death and cause metaphysical reflections. (Perhaps I just need a better grade of chamomile tea. . .)

As our organ of primary understanding and the seat of our self-awareness, the brain holds a special place in the pantheon of the body, and not just its literal special place in the bony bowl at the top of our spines. The brain’s illnesses pose potentially unresolvable paradoxes about the nature of identity itself and about the accuracy of our understanding of the world. Memories of Amnesia, a novel of brain damage and its effects, by neuropathologist Lawrence Shainberg, addresses issues of mind and body and the curiously circular self-awareness of a mind investigating its own brain.

The narrator, brain surgeon Isaac Drogin, notices early on in the novel that he is suffering symptoms of a brain irregularity that he commonly diagnoses in his patients. When Drogin asks a colleague to examine him, his fears are confirmed—Drogin has a progressive brain disorder—and he begins a highly self-conscious observation of his own deterioration, in which he is both doctor and patient. The problem, for the reader, is that Shainberg’s narrator has told us that the condition he suffers from makes his grasp of reality unreliable, so it quickly becomes unclear whether or not anything Drogin observes about himself and his surroundings is true, despite the accurate and complicated jargon that the doctor uses to describe his condition.

The novel’s highly readable medical passages take us behind the scenes in the theater of surgery and in the grand opera of the self, describing neurosurgical procedures with disturbing clinical accuracy and explaining correlations between brain chemistry and thoughts with uncanny metaphysical insight. Sometimes, as you read, you become so aware of your own brain processing the language you’re reading that the language itself become secondary to your thoughts about yourself processing it. The ultimate paradox of the book—that the brain constructs a self that the self cannot find in the brain, even when the self is a neurosurgeon—comprises the main metaphor of the book, which is the hall of mirrors that modern self-consciousness has become.

Shainberg handles the philosophical implications of his story with perverse wit. Once Dr. Drogin decides that a belief in a Self separate from the body is the ultimate neurological function, he declares war on his own brain: in order to prove that he really does exist apart from his brain and that his sense of identity is not merely an illusion of his own neurology, Drogin attempts to undermine his brain’s functioning and liberate himself from it.

His wife, who may or may not be named Martha or Marjorie or Marcia, cheers him on. “You’ve got more courage than anyone I know!” she says. “You’ve challenged your brain! Rebelled against the tyranny of thought! The whole charade of language and memory.”

The doctor’s rebellion leads to an extraordinary climax, in which narrative point of view, the concept of the self and even observable reality are all called into question. Memories of Amnesia begins off-kilter and grows more convincingly askew as it progresses, until, when you put it down, the world of the book seems normal and the world around you seems to have shifted.

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