Danse Macabre

There’s a sad front-page article in today’s New York Times about frontotemporal dementia, a family of degenerative brain diseases that gradually destroy not only various skills and cognitive functions, but also the essential nature of a patient’s personality. These diseases are stark reminders that what we are — that all of what we are — is a transient pattern woven in the matter of the world, a dance of atoms and energy that persists briefly, then subsides.

What is constant in all of this? What gives continuity to the “self” that connects yesterday to today to tomorrow, that makes promises today that must be kept days or months or years hence? Nothing, it seems, but the dance. The “dancers”, the individual atoms and molecules and cells and squirts of neurotransmitters — those come and go; what carries our past forward into the present and the future is nothing more than a dynamic and ephemeral configuration, like the waves of the ocean or the Great Red Spot.

These personality-annihilating illnesses are so particularly heartbreaking because they attack and destroy one of our most cherished illusions, the foundation upon which we orient ourselves in relation to others: the grounding of individual personhood in the continuity of identity. Our institutions, and indeed the social instincts from which these institutions arise and take their form, assume this continuity as their axiomatic bedrock — but as these diseases demonstrate, the ground is not so stable, and for the person whose spouse simply is no longer the person she married, the effect is surely as devastating, and as terrifying at the most primordial level, as an earthquake.

9 Comments

  1. Did someone get out on the gloomy side of bed this morning?

    Yikes …

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Chris says

    Huh. And here I thought the dissolution of the individual in the cosmos was a good thing. Go figure.

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  3. This must be the blog’s promising new direction . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Promises, promises …

    Good one, HJH.

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Tough crowd!

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    As for new directions: all I know is that I’d been spending too much time on politics and how the world is going to hell and Western civilization is collapsing. It was getting unhealthy, and I didn’t want to dwell on it so much.

    That said, the world is still going to hell, and Western civilization is still collapsing, and I still care about those things – so I’m certainly going to continue to bring that stuff up. But there are plenty of other interesting things to write about. I thought this was one of them.

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  7. We aren’t trying to be tough on you, Mal; at least I’m not (can’t speak for any evil-doers who might be, however).

    It’s called commiseration.

    :)

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink
  8. I’m all for commiseration, and glad to help it along!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm, it is interesting, and it gives me one more interesting thing to worry about, plus it comes with its own consolation, to wit, if it does happen to me, I won’t realize it since I won’t be me for long anyway!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted May 6, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

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