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A Novelist in Shadowland
August 17, 2007 3:47 PM   Subscribe

"Mem, mem, mem." A fascinating memoir of global aphasia -- total language loss -- following a stroke, by British poet and novelist Paul West.
posted by digaman (40 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
My mom had this. And it's heartbreaking to watch. I remember at one point she couldn't think of the word for spoon. Or the words to describe a spoon. But she wanted a spoon.

She had been an english teacher.
posted by miss lynnster at 4:18 PM on August 17, 2007 [3 favorites]


To have this happen to me is a great fear of mine. I greatly sympathize with West's condition, and I found the first part of this article (the italicized part written by his wife) fascinating and unnerving, brief though it was.

However, when I got to the excerpt of West's memoir, I almost immediately lost interest. I can appreciate flowery prose, but it seemed to me as though his writing was intentionally overwrought; as though he could banish the aphasia by making his statements more complicated and treacly than necessary. I would have liked to read his story told in a simpler light, but perhaps he thought that would have been a surrender to the effects of the stroke.

Thanks for posting this.
posted by Shecky at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2007


I knew that the left hemisphere processes positive feelings, the right negative ones; unopposed, the remaining right hemisphere could spark dark angry emotions for the rest of his life.

What?

I'm pretty familiar with the right brain/left brain stuff and I'd never heard this. Is this the result of new research?
posted by delmoi at 4:28 PM on August 17, 2007


My Grandpa has some of this following his big strokes 8 years ago.

He's gotten better, little by little, ever since. It's changed his personality immensely and most agree for the better. The old hardass is gone, and all that remains of that guy isthe hallmarks of his vocabulary: for a very long time he only had Millie, Yes, No, Thank you, Shit, and Goddamn. "Shit, Yes!" can say a lot, you know. Millie was everyone, too.

We travelled out to Gram and Grandpa's 50th wedding anniversary in South Dakota, and everyone was there. He got the microphone, and struggled silently for a minute. Then, my old SR-71 test pilot, Air Force Colonel, cattle rancher, strict, even cold, father of five girls, whiskey, marlboro reds and cowboy boots Grandpa, tears in his eyes, said all anyone needed to hear. Thank you. Thank you, Millie. Shit.

Later notable additions to the vocab were Hot Shot, Whenoowe eat? and Meat. In this phase, he told us the exciting story of landing the SR with wide eyes, outstretched arms and a pshiew! noise, plus some self-referential pointing and "Hot Shot! Goddamn!"

He still give up sometimes, but I love figuring out what he's asking me. Like do I play the stock market, or did I have a good time in Mexico

This also brought about a wonderful tradition: Christmas Charades. I LOVE my Grandpa. Goddamn.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:39 PM on August 17, 2007 [34 favorites]


The brilliant and underrated poet Robert Duncan wrote a beautiful poem called "Doves" about H.D.'s stroke, collected in his book Roots and Branches.
posted by digaman at 4:39 PM on August 17, 2007


delmoi writes "I'm pretty familiar with the right brain/left brain stuff and I'd never heard this."

Pretty well known. Right-frontal-brain stroke victims are pretty nonchalant about their injury, often claiming they have no problem, and confabulating rationalizations to explain why they aren't moving their left sides or whatever.
posted by orthogonality at 4:39 PM on August 17, 2007


I would have liked to read his story told in a simpler light, but perhaps he thought that would have been a surrender to the effects of the stroke.

Shecky: It gets more coherent later on. The section titled "PLAINBALL" for example, is fairly straightforward.
posted by delmoi at 4:44 PM on August 17, 2007



Yeah, I got the sense that the first part of what he wrote was an expression of his inability to find words and though it was probably far more frustrating to write, it remained frustrating to read.

The left/right positive/negative mood distinction stuff is to do with the frontal regions of the brain and is relatively recent.

Obscenities seem unusually likely to be retained despite brain damage-- it is almost as though they are expressions that don't require much cortex and are essentially sheer emotion.
posted by Maias at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


In Defense of Purple Prose
posted by Kwantsar at 5:10 PM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]


Maias writes "Obscenities seem unusually likely to be retained despite brain damage-- it is almost as though they are expressions that don't require much cortex and are essentially sheer emotion."

"Stored" in a different brain area, I think. That's why people with Tourette's spew whatever the curses in their native language is, or why neurotypical people shout "shit" or "Jesus" when they stub a toe. And why some aphasics can still sing lyrics to songs. And why it's possible to be aphasic for only certain categories of words (e.g, tool, animals, names, whatever).
posted by orthogonality at 5:11 PM on August 17, 2007


It really does get better, to those who gave up. I had the same thought.
posted by blacklite at 5:16 PM on August 17, 2007


i think it's excellent writing. thank-you for posting.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:22 PM on August 17, 2007


Thank you for linking that, Kwantsar. I think I had seen it once before, a long time ago, but I appreciated it much more this time around.
posted by blacklite at 5:28 PM on August 17, 2007


Right-frontal-brain stroke victims are pretty nonchalant about their injury, often claiming they have no problem, and confabulating rationalizations to explain why they aren't moving their left sides or whatever.

That's what my father was like.

Good post, thanks.
posted by languagehat at 5:29 PM on August 17, 2007


Previously on MetaFilter. A similar thing happened to Dr. Jill Taylor.
posted by mrbill at 6:10 PM on August 17, 2007


Is there a name for the similar experience of failing to find the correct - or even reasonable or sane - word when you need it the absolute most? Panic induced selective aphasia?

Because I really hate that. It's probably cost me a couple of jobs and at least one girlfriend.
posted by loquacious at 6:29 PM on August 17, 2007


Great post. Words are my livelihood and this is a very real fear of mine too.

Ambrosia, that was an amazing story.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 6:31 PM on August 17, 2007


delmoi: I'm pretty familiar with the right brain/left brain stuff and I'd never heard this. Is this the result of new research?

Here's an example:

Previous research suggests an association between frontal electroencephalographic (EEG) asymmetries and both positive and negative emotion reactivity. Specifically, right frontal EEG activation is associated with emotions of negative valence in both infants and adults, whereas left frontal EEG activation is associated with emotions of more positive valence.
posted by DarkForest at 7:00 PM on August 17, 2007


About ten years ago, Paul West published a non-fiction memoir about his experiences as a migraineur. Are the migraines and stroke somehow connected? West had particularly vivid auras before his headaches. Just wonderin'. (This man is such a good writer, by the way, that if he didn't have such a bland name, he'd be a household word.)
posted by Faze at 7:11 PM on August 17, 2007


My mom (who has Parkinson's) has largely lost nouns--proper names, objects, abstract nouns, anything. She comes up with some whizbang adjectives, though ("capacious?") and it's startling. She has a Ph.D. and an M.Div., and a lifetime of doing double crostics and reading Browning, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
posted by Peach at 7:17 PM on August 17, 2007


I found his writing brilliant, moving and fascinating. The word-play, the tone, and the poetic style of the early part struck me as well suited to his experience. I really like this post, digaman - thanks.

Ambrosia Voyeur, your tribute to your Grandpa is quite lovely and touching - my eyes filled and my heart swelled reading it. It paints a quite remarkable portrait of your Grandpa - and also of you.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:16 PM on August 17, 2007


Thanks for this post digaman.

What a staggering shock it must have been for Paul West, "He grew up amongst a family that loved books and considered the written word to be sacred." Reading about hom on on your Wikipedia link , makes me want to read his work. "Themes from his works usually center around psychic abuse, failed relationships, and societal inadequacy. However, there is a strong sense of self-discovery and survival amongst these themes. His works are an outpouring on his view of the human condition." Interview with Paul West.

Having survived a stroke last September 16th, experiencing difficulty in communicating and the scariness of becoming a stroke victim vegetable, any personal writing about surviving a stroke interests me. Reading and writing here in Metafilter helped me get my speech and writing function back on track again.

As I scrolled down the page I came to the name "Diane Ackerman" and realised the man who had the stroke was her husband. Diane Ackerman is one of my scientist/writer/thinker/polymath heroes. She's awesome, her writing/thinking is exceptional, visionary. Wow, to have a stroke with Diane Ackerman as your wife. I can only think his loquacious verbosity is a giant yahoo in the face of being wordless and mute, a reveling in every syllable claimed back from abject paralysis.

Congratulations on his recovery. If you're reading this Paul, please look into taking calcium-magnesium citrate. It may help.
posted by nickyskye at 8:31 PM on August 17, 2007 [4 favorites]


Congratulations on your own recovery, nickyskye.
posted by digaman at 8:52 PM on August 17, 2007


Thanks for this post. I used to work for a local lit mag in Ithaca, Paul and Diane were frequent subjects and occasional contributors.
posted by sonofslim at 9:09 PM on August 17, 2007


Great post, digaman.
posted by homunculus at 9:23 PM on August 17, 2007


AV: your gramps flew Blackbirds. That's so cool. They only made, like 32 of those planes, ever. They were the fastest, highest-flying aircraft ever built. Mach 3 at 80,000 feet, wrapped in titanium and capable of outrunning missiles. That's so fucking cool.

/derail

posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:30 PM on August 17, 2007


All: Thank you.
BitterOldPunk: I know! Edward D. Payne, FYI.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:48 PM on August 17, 2007


Very, very interesting. And very, very unsurprising that the husband of Diane Ackerman is a defender of purple prose. I can't stand that overwritten underthought kind of writing. Too much focus on making things sound pretty, not enough focus on making them right-- an unforgivable habit in nonfiction.

My feelings about Ackerman aside, the West excerpt is fascinating. Did he write like that before the stroke, anyone know? Despite all its fancy verbiage, it has a distinctively unfluent (some might say... aphasic) ring to it.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 10:58 PM on August 17, 2007


Reading this today really resonated with an article I read in yesterday's Guardian about Edwyn Collins and his recovery from a stroke.
posted by Myeral at 2:16 AM on August 18, 2007


>Is there a name for the similar experience of failing to find the correct - or even reasonable or sane - word when you need it the absolute most? Panic induced selective aphasia?

Rather boringly, it's mostly known in scientific literature as the "tip of the tongue phenomenon". It seems to be universal - there's a phrase for it in a lot of languages (most mentioning the tongue). I should imagine pressure or panic makes it worse.
posted by terrynutkins at 3:04 AM on August 18, 2007


Did he write like that before the stroke, anyone know?

He was the opposite of a terse, Hemingwayesque writer before the stroke. The American Scholar article is actually hard for me to read, because it is really a garbled version of his old style, unsupported by the power of his full intellect. But the glory of his pre-stroke style was that the language was exhileratingly over the top -- but never "underthought."
posted by Faze at 6:29 AM on August 18, 2007


Did he write like that before the stroke, anyone know?

read kwantsar's link. and rtfa - at the end he talks about "rapscallion Calibanesque language of a substitute"; it's pretty clear that he's using what he has. and that what he has, has changed. the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:31 AM on August 18, 2007


Thanks, Faze. :)
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 8:58 AM on August 18, 2007


As a hypochondriac, this petrifies me.
posted by semmi at 9:16 AM on August 18, 2007



"Tip of the tongue" difficulties are also known in research as 'word finding" problems, which is also boring.

But this is a common side effect of SSRI antidepressants and some other meds.

Glad you are better, Nickyskye

Btw, I believe I did read somewhere that there is a link between migraine and stroke risk. There is also a link between being abused and/or traumatized and high blood pressure and via that, stroke, sadly enough.

I'm with the terrified hypochondriacs here, too.
posted by Maias at 9:55 AM on August 18, 2007


metafilter : expressions that don't require much cortex and are essentially sheer emotion
posted by vronsky at 11:17 AM on August 18, 2007


What cortex is not run by emotion?
posted by semmi at 11:20 AM on August 18, 2007


Why is the print version of The American Scholar set beautfiully in what looks to me like Mrs. Eaves, while the header on the website is a mishmash of faux italic Times Roman and some Lucidiaish calligraphy garbage?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:30 PM on August 18, 2007


Is this Wittgenstein's dream, ""Rationem ex vinculis orationis vindicam esse?"
posted by semmi at 3:03 PM on August 18, 2007


This is a terrific post. Although a bit hard to get through at the beginning (which, as Maias points out above, makes sense considering what he was attempting to convey), the piece gets much better as it goes and I admit that by the end I was tearing up a little as I read. I think it takes some time to catch the rhythm of his words and suss out what he's trying to say.
posted by LeeJay at 4:05 PM on August 18, 2007


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