sept 07



Last month’s Harper’s included an essay from Paul West that originally appeared in The American Scholar. After his stroke, as his wife explains, he “had suffered brain damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form. Global aphasia, it’s called — the curse of a perpetual tip-of-the-tongue memory hunt. He understood little of what people said, and all he could utter was the syllable ‘mem.’ Nothing more”

She then encouraged him to write, the “first aphasic memoir.” The result is sad and fascinating. Parts, as can be expected, are simply perplexing mush, but, like good poetry, sometimes the abstracts reveal more than any clinical language could about the mysteries of language:

[You] disentangle the least bit of wiry fluff that has been haunting your tongue for half an hour, and assign it to the unwilling project of the human mess… 

I turned my thoughts next to the ghostly hand that dangled uselessly at my side, paler than it had been, and with an odd look of failure about it that I had not noticed before. Could it have withered during the process? Stranger things have happened to a victim of a stroke. It was the same inert apparatus, but somehow more useless, as if it had been ratcheted down a peg or two. In the tremendous lusting ovation of the stroke proper, I rapidly formed an adverse view of my jaw, temple, and hand, wishing them all far away and put to the good uses of someone else who was not too proud of what he brought to the human encounter…

Milling around me there are all sorts of verbal alternatives both nonsensical and full of meaning, to some of which I have permanent access without speaking. I wonder if one can safely execute a lifetime using the language of dumb show. I know of one woman in New York who has successfully done it for years. It is a matter of the breaks. I would, of course, prefer to speak the English that I know and revere, but I think I can see past gobbledygook to a pure and vivid English, instead of starting every sentence five or six times, writing sentences that lose heart halfway through in a futile clutter of grossly amalgamated syllables.

This is interesting to me as West’s essay indicates he has Wernicke’s aphasia, speech in long sentences padded with little meaning and neologisms. However, his wife describes his symptoms as that of someone with Broca’s aphasia, which is the capacity to think coherently, but incapacity to speak more than brief words or phrases. I once used to see a veteran at a bar where I worked, who had this condition. It was deeply frustrating for him, and a little scary for me, when he tried to tell a story about a boat, with lots of hand motions, facial expressions, pointing, and uttering not much more than “boat….red…boat…water…boat…boat.”

I’d have to brush up on neurology but I didn’t realize both aphasia conditions work together. West’s condition was very poor, but his wife explains why he still managed to write, “Because he had wordsmithed for seven decades, he had forged dense thickets of brain connections for language. Also, he could be diabolically determined.”

Also in the same issue is a chilling transcript from Kathleen Weinstein, who taped a conversation with her car hijaker before he ultimately murdered her. Rather than being sordid 48 Hours-style territory, the resulting dialogue is touching, but ultimately – as we know the outcome of it – bleak. The then 17 year-old asks Weinstein about the book she’s reading. It’s about Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. She gives him a minute-long lecture on it as he has a gun pointed at her, and he seems interested. “Why don’t you change your life?” she asks him. “If you could have things be exactly like you wanted them to be right now, what would you do? You’ve got your whole life?” she asks again, offering to help him get into college or buy him a plane ticket.

Posted by site admin at 1:44 pm |



Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman is liveblogging his Iraq visit. Today he writes about the Baghdad “Joint Visitors Bureau” hotel:

I’m sitting on a gilded chair, writing on a gilded table. The floors beneath me are marble, and the chandeliers above are sparkly and crystal. The only reminder that I’m in a war zone is the pair of man-high concrete barriers I can see out my window. “It’s Sunday, man, you’re working too hard,” a national guardsmen just told me. Welcome to Baghdad.

Not all that far away, Marine grunts are going weeks without showers or toilets, chomping on rations – and generally maintaining a positive outlook on life. I got my laundry done by a Philippino maid. Yesterday, I listened to a salsa band play in the chow hall, while I supped on alu gobi and navratan vegetable curry.

Then again, that’s the place where contractors literally use hundreds of thousands of US dollars as toys. Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone quoted former CPA official, Frank Willis in a Senate testimony about Custer Battles: “Yes – $100 bills in plastic wrap … We played football with the plastic-wrapped bricks for a little while.” 

Posted by site admin at 1:24 pm |



Last year, Britain’s highest court relaxed their strictly enforced libel laws, but evidently, it was not enough. Kelly Torrance investigates an actual book burning by Cambridge University Press. Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz didn’t like what was said about him in “Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World,” (even though the book mentions him only 10 times, “nine of which are in passing.”) This isn’t the first time Mahfouz has pressured a publisher. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed — and How to Stop It,” “cannot be published in England, and the judge awarded the businessman damages, which Miss Ehrenfeld has refused to pay.” But he doesn’t just target UK publishers. The “New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post haven’t mentioned the ‘Alms for Jihad’ case: All three have settled with Mr. Mahfouz in the past.”

Posted by site admin at 12:52 pm |


My new column is up on Brainwash. It’s about real and fake suicides on LiveJournal and Theresa Duncan’s bizarre blog-based cult-following.

Posted by site admin at 11:19 am |


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