Journal Article

‘The quicksand of forgetfulness’: semantic dementia in <i>One Hundred Years of Solitude</i>

Katya Rascovsky, Matthew E. Growdon, Isela R. Pardo, Scott Grossman and Bruce L. Miller

in Brain

Published on behalf of The Guarantors of Brain

Volume 132, issue 9, pages 2609-2616
Published in print September 2009 | ISSN: 0006-8950
Published online May 2009 | e-ISSN: 1460-2156 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awp100
‘The quicksand of forgetfulness’: semantic dementia in One Hundred Years of Solitude

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This multidisciplinary article compares the pattern of memory loss described in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to that exhibited by patients with semantic dementia (SD). In his renowned novel, García Márquez depicts the plight of Macondo, a town struck by the dreaded insomnia plague. The most devastating symptom of the plague is not the impossibility of sleep, but rather the loss of ‘the name and notion of things’. In an effort to combat this insidious loss of knowledge, the protagonist, José Arcadio Buendía, ‘marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan’. ‘Studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use’. The cognitive impairments experienced by Macondo's inhabitants are remarkably similar to those observed in SD, a clinical syndrome characterized by a progressive breakdown of conceptual knowledge (semantic memory) in the context of relatively preserved day-to-day (episodic) memory. First recognized in 1975, it is now considered one of the main variants of frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Writing within the realm of magical realism and investigating the power of language as a form of communication, García Márquez provides beautiful descriptions of the loss of ‘the name and notion of things’ typical of the syndrome. He further speculates on ways to cope with this dissolution of meaning, ranging from ‘the spell of an imaginary reality’ to José Arcadio's ‘memory machine’, strategies that resonate with attempts by semantic dementia patients to cope with their disease. Remarkably, García Márquez created a striking literary depiction of collective semantic dementia before the syndrome was recognized in neurology. The novel also provides an inspiring and human account of one town's fight against ‘the quicksand of forgetfulness’.

Keywords: semantic dementia; Gabriel García Márquez; One Hundred Years of Solitude; magical realism; neurology and literature

Journal Article.  4105 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neurology ; Neuroscience

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