"I could call this the history of my family as the history of our characteristic illness. I could also call it the history of an illness as the history of one family", says Michael Ignatieff at the outset of his novel Scar Tissue. Although the author has built himself a reputation as a scholarly historian, biographer and culture chronicler, this book is by no means a vapid academic exercise. To the contrary, in barely 200 pages the author paints a very personal and infernal journey to the extremities of human life.
The book can be read in different ways. First it is a detailed account of the dynamics of a particular pathology. The narrator describes step by step how his mother is overpowered by a mysterious illness and how it gradually dismantles her personality. Here, Ignatieff's prose can be very moving. The description of his youth is suffused with a fragile, arcadian light, contrasting effectively with the searching, melancholy figures of father and mother. The dramatic clair-obscur is tastefully woven into the fabric of the whole novel and lends a poetic tension to the work.
Additionally, the confrontation with a devastating neurological illness forms the basis for a compelling philosophical investigation. In this sense, the book draws the contours of a few classical questions in personality theory. What is a person? When has someone reached the point of psychic regression where the 'I' has been dissolved? Can human identity be reduced to a particular neurochemical balance, or is there more than only organic substance? In Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff explicitly confronts two distinct philosophical positions - materialism and idealism - with the mystery of life and death. The narrator, philosopher, and his brother, neurophysiologist, are proxy for these two different types of rationality: "As my father used to say, 'Your brother has a propositional intelligence.' Meaning he had a way of reasoning that viewed ordinary life and its problems from an altitude of 40,000 feet. Whereas, my father said, I had 'an autobiographical intelligence', which was his way of saying I had a scatty female mind, interested in gossip and personal details and stories and character, things he didn't have time for.' So, a Platonic, conceptual and scientific way of thinking and an Aristotelian, pragmatic and context-sensitive rationality are crushing their teeth on the abyssmal problem of fate and death. Maybe, at the end of the story, we are witness to some sort of synthesis: "Human identity is neurochemical. Infinitely small amounts of neurotransmitter fluid, microscopic levels of electrical charge make the difference between selfhood and loss. Sanity is finely poised. Fate is measured in pica-litres. On the other hand, fate is beautiful. Feel the slow beating descent of its black wings.'
The book's finale may seem a little contrived: pushed completely out of his existential balance, the narrator undertakes a radical quest for selflessness, an intentional destruction of his own person, into a state of pure emptiness. However, it seems to me this is another level at which Scar Tissue can be read: ultimately, in its appeal to the symbolism of death and rebirth, the story develops a logic akin to an initiation rite. Ignatieff's state of pure vacancy and selflessness corresponds to the embryonic condition, a prerequisite for each regeneration (Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane is useful background reading here). On the final page, the author prepares for the final part of the journey: "But I know that there is a life beyond this death, a time beyond this time. I know that at the very last moment, when everything I ever knew has been effaced from my mind, when pure vacancy has taken possession of me, then light of the purest whiteness will stream in through my eyes into the radiant and empty plain of my mind." And then back to the magnificent motto from the hand of John Milton:
"So by this infirmity may I be perfected, by this completed. So in this darkness, may I be clothed in light."