The topic on my mind today is dementia. That is not what the adjective “simple-minded” has ordinarily referred to, but I have a plan for today.
I have kids (and step kids) who are going to read this, so I want to say at the outset that this is not a hand-wringing piece. I don’t see myself as any more demented than is normal for my age. I have friends who might read this if they are assured that there are no dementia jokes in it. Relax, guys: there aren’t any. And Bette, my wife, will surely read it and no matter what I say here; she will roll her eyes and wonder why she married a man who over-processes things so often.
I do have a metaphor in mind, however, and it has helped me think about dementia differently. The metaphor uses the musical form, “theme and variations.” Let’s start with my favorite. In 1733, George Frederic Handel wrote the Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat major. I haven’t ever heard it, myself, but I do know what the theme sounds like because in 1861 Johannes Brahms used it in his magnificent Variations and a Fugue on a Theme by Handel. We can leave the fugue aside for our purposes. What I know about the theme of Handel I learned in the opening bars of Brahms’ piece. Brahms gives us Handel’s theme, then he gives us 24 variations on that theme. That’s a lot of variations. Brahms was 28 at the time and 24 variations might not have seemed to be too many for a young man in his prime.
What do we lose as we are “un-minded?” There are all kinds, of course. To borrow a thought from Tolstoy, every sound mind is alike; every demented mind is demented in its own way. Some minds, as they lose their grip lose the ability to recognize faces. Others can’t remember how the rest of that song goes. Others just can’t recall the name of President Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior…you know, the one that said…what was it he said? One of the favorite pastimes of social groups made up of people my age is trying, collectively, to remember something that any one of us could have remembered without effort a few decades ago.
In this reflection on “un-mindedness,” I don’t want to think about forgetting things. I want to think about losing variations. Brahms died in his 60s, but imagine that he had lived longer and had gone through this de-menting process. He might have shrunk to 15 variations by the time he was in his 70s. Maybe he eliminated all the variations in a minor key. And then to only 5 variations when he was in his 80s. All the ones he has left have three beats to a measure and he can’t remember the ones with four.
In this highly fanciful narrative, Brahms has not really “lost” anything. If you play for him a variation that has four beats to the measure and is in a minor key, he will still recognize it. He hasn’t lost his hearing; he has lost his taste for some kinds of variations. Does that sound at all familiar?
I might lose my taste for narratives that don’t have a clearly identifiable bad guy, for instance. And by “narratives,” I mean books, movies, plays, conversations, lectures, and stories. And, following Tolstoy again, I might “lose my taste” in any number of ways. I could deny that there are stories like that. I could avoid them, knowing full well that they are out there. I could attack them by calling them bad names like, perhaps, “amoral” or “relativistic.” Or I could take up all the available narrative space telling, eliciting, and supporting stories of “the right kind,” i.e., those stories that really do have identifiable bad guys. This essentially pre-empts the space where that other narrative might have been unfolded.
Those are all indications that I have “lost my taste for” such stories. They indicate the variety of behaviors that really mean the same thing, but that show up differently in different people. And another way to say that same thing is that I am strongly attracted to these kinds of stories (not emphasizing the stories that no longer appeal to me) and I will name these stories by some good name. I will say they are stories of “moral clarity” or that they are “uplifting” or even that they are the stories that “made America great.”
If you are listening to me go on about stories of moral clarity, in the specific sense of confronting the bad guys, it might take you a little while to notice that there are no stories of good people doing good things and being praised for it. It would come to seem odd after a while. Consider the case of the nurturing grandmother who steers her talented grandson into the arts, when all his friends went first into drugs, then into the penal system. She doesn’t show up because that story does not represent any of the five remaining variations. If she went to the local drug lord and screamed at him that he was a bad influence in the neighborhood and he should leave her grandson alone, she would be accepted into the canon. Why? Because what I call “moral clarity” is really only about stomping on bad guys. It’s the stomping that I can still hear and still enjoy; it’s not the good and bad. And I might not know that about myself.
That particular example might not catch you and I don’t want to make myself the personal bearer of all the narrative distortions, so let’s talk about you. What if your thing is sex? You may know people who can read a beautifully written and creatively developed novel and remember only the two sex scenes. If you hang around this person—and if she were family, you might have to—you would get to hear this marvelous piece of literature attacked as “degraded.” For this person, sex is the filter; it is the spice. It is what enables her to taste, to take notice of, the book at all and noticing is only the necessary precondition for condemning it. The subtle colors of the grasses, below, would be “no real color.”
And this is just the attacking part. In the series I ran above, denying them, avoiding them, and pre-empting them were three other strategies. In the novel, the person who is losing her taste for variations, might deny that the sexual activity is really there (or that it is “just” about sex); she might avoid the novel herself and avoid anyone who might talk about the novel in a way that values its strengths; she might fill the conversational space with good stories, so that people who want to talk about their own notions of this story will have to shut her up or find another place to talk. This brings us back to Tolstoy and the notion that every demented person is demented in his or her own way.
Obviously, variations on today’s topic far exceed Brahms’s 24. There are people, for instance, who are fine with sex, but abhor violence. There are people who love religion unless it demands something of them. There are people who love the “affirming parts” of the world’s religious traditions and hate the “condemning parts.” There are people who like stories about anything, but become very wary when an actual topic begins to appear. There are people who are attracted only to positive things and people who don’t care that much about positive things, but who are actively repelled by negative things. Variations on this theme exceed, as I said, the 24 used by Brahms.
So where does that leave us? The idea that pushed me in the direction of this essay was that we easily recognize dementia when people forget names or the locations of the car keys or who Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior was. When the number of recognizable themes they are able to respond to declines from 24 (the magic Brahms number) to three or four, we don’t often call it dementia. When an argument or even a description painted in subtle colors is seen as bland and arguments constructed out of black blacks and white whites are demanded, we don’t often call it dementia, but I think it would make sense.
It is, certainly, simple-mindedness.
 I am actually working on one of those. I’m calling it “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
 Literally “out of one’s mind.” Still, as one of Stan Freberg’s Indians says, “Is all how you look at it.” Our much nicer word ecstasy means “standing outside” one’s mind and it is thought of very kindly in some circles.
 Probably the most famous line from Anna Karenina is “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think I would have said that there is a greater variation in kinds of unhappy families than there is in the kinds of happy families. That helps to explain why Tolstoy is quoted more than I am.
 It was James Watt. One of the famous quotes is: “My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.”