Sunday, June 2, 2013

"You see I've always been a rather dull-spirited winch": Ashbery & Alzheimer's

The link between Alzheimer's and Ashbery is sonic and metonymic, not actual. This week, Rebecca Mead has an essay in The New Yorker (May 20, 2013) about dementia care. Her article focuses on a retirement care facility in Arizona called Beatitudes, in particular on the director of education and research, Tena Alonzo, who practices compassion in her work with dementia patients. The article complements Norman Fischer's new book on Lojong, the practice of compassion, which he adapts from the Tibetan tradition into his own teaching of Zen. Alonzo's practice, as one might call it, is beautiful: she herself underwent a public bath in front of caregivers at Beatitudes. Another time she had staff members spoon food into each others' mouths to show them how discomfiting this is for residents. If compassion comes of discomfort, then Alonzo is its guru. But there, hanging in the midst of the page that begins with the comment of an Alzheimer's expert about Beatitudes is a new poem by John Ashbery, "Breezeway." "What was most impressive was not what was going on, but what wasn't going on--the absence of palpable distress," says the Alzheimer's expert. "Alas, it wasn't my call," responds Ashbery. "I didn't have a call or anything resembling one."

To the left of Ashbery's poem, a skinny column tells us about "a bird-like woman" who seems inconsolable. The staff tries everything, to no avail.  Perhaps chocolate will help, they say. Or lollipops. Demented patients often suck on their gums, like babies. "The days go by and I go with them," reads one of Ashbery's lines. "We have to live out our precise experimentation." The poem wanders, like an Alzheimer's patient still possessed of a cocktail of memory and imagination, and ends up with a divine Batman (he is a Him). 

We've been watching old sci fi episodes the past few evenings: The Outer Limits ("Paradise"), Eureka ("You Don't Know Jack"), and a Star Trek episode in which the crew succumbs to very quick aging, dementia. In each of these shows, the primary fear seems to be of sudden onset Alzheimer's. Characters in their 20 or 30s suddenly resemble 80 or 90 year olds. (Make-up workers had steady jobs for a time.) In the first two of these shows, the episodes end with the birth of a baby; in the third, Kirk is brought back from the certain death of the entire Enterprise (an incompetent captain takes over when Kirk loses his memory) through an adrenaline-based serum. It's part of a new hunch of mine that aliens and Alzheimer's are often yoked together, whether in science fiction (which I know precious little about) or in the way we talk about those among us who wander (the homeless, the "alien"). That last perception comes of Catherine Malabou's political and economic reading of what she terms "flexibility" and "plasticity" in conjunction with Alzheimer's. If the powers that be demand our flexibility (flex-time, the willingness to move, to change jobs, and so on), then our own plasticity (change that comes often of destruction) may point a way out of this late capitalist nightmare.

Sci fi television is hardly about compassion, but there are moments in these episodes where compassion seems almost to cure Alzheimer's.  This is especially true in the "Paradise" episode where only the old couple who really loved one another can create a baby (from an alien's egg); the other old women who appear as young vixens, instigate one night stands, return to old age and die rather suddenly. (Yes, there's also some old-fashionized moralizing under the surface here.) Mother hands her daughter (incapable of having children) a baby, then returns to her old age, now clear of the Alzheimer's. Of course this is compassion in the service of entertainment--having just read David Shield's Reality Hunger, I reminded of my own love of meaning over entertainment value--but it's an act of love that pulls us back from Alzheimer's.

That is a moment of fantasy.  Alzheimer's, through the machinations of science fiction, where imagined things happen in real life, is really cured. In our real life, that cannot happen. Ptolemy Grey cannot find his and his culture's past by way of a magic (and ultimately deadly) pill. The story, insofar as it remains story, becomes one-sided. Caregivers go along with stories, play with them, until even story fades. Then the narrative is that of the caregiver and someone for whom time has fled.  In the best case scenario, that narrative is one of compassion made of simple acts, like a kiss in the photograph at the top of the Meade article. The article shows us how we can care for people who can no longer care for themselves. Or, as Daniel Tiffany wrote on my facebook page, where I linked to the article, it shows us "how to care for anyone."

"Otherwise there's no dying for anybody,
no crisp rewards."  [JA]


A 2005 link informs me that Scotty, from Star Trek, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He died July 20th of that year.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

If only compassion could cure Alzheimer's.....