I’ve just finished Michael Ignatieff’s 1993 novel Scar Tissue. It’s on Andrea Charise’s “Aging and the Arts” course list (see previous post), and concerns two brothers and their mother’s memory loss and death. One brother, a doctor/researcher, responds clinically; the other, the narrator, a philosophy professor, submerges himself deeply — at the cost of his family — into all the conundrums of selfhood that loss of self in Alzheimer’s and dementias involve. An ideal book for a class, I thought, so much here to resonate with, wrestle with, discuss.
Ignatieff is a good writer. I remember how I savoured his nonfiction The Russian Album many years ago. (“Reminiscent of our Mennonite past,” my friend Sarah Klassen said, recommending it.) Scar Tissue didn’t work for me as well, not as a novel, that is. The characters never quite transcended diverse positions around the dilemmas of neurological illness. (“I began to think my mother as a philosophical problem,” the narrator says). I wished Ignatieff had mused on stoicism, the relation between selfhood and memory, the difference between giving up and letting go, etc., with the more compelling integrity of memoir. (After all, the book grew out of his own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.)
What haunts me in Scar Tissue, though, is the narrator’s stark and subterranean fear, the mother’s illness “passed from cell to cell…the dark starbursts of scar tissue [in the brain]…the inheritance,” taking hold also within him by the end. I recognize that fear. But haunting too is a curious beauty when this “form of dying in which everything familiar becomes strange” is done, plus the vision of some kind of wondrous illumination/knowledge possible even within the blinding journey itself. That felt almost optimistic.