A diabetic woman awakens from a coma having forgotten the last ten years of her life. A Haitian immigrant has nightmares that begin bleeding into his waking hours. Noga Arikha began studying these patients and their confounding symptoms in order to explore how our physical experiences inform our identities. Soon after she initiated her work, the question took on unexpected urgency, as Arikha’s own mother began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
... gripping ... Like Oliver Sacks and the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Arikha structures her exploration of these larger questions around individual cases. Each is fascinating not only in itself, but also as an opportunity for Arikha to expand on the historical and social understandings of particular ailments, and of the evolution of those understandings ... Between these case studies, Arikha threads deeply moving accounts of her mother’s perplexing and ever more common condition, Alzheimer’s, and of the ways in which her mother remains fully herself in spite of her cognitive decline ... wide-reaching, and engrossing ... Fixed in time and in society, we tell our stories as best we can; for these patients, the doctors compile an external version of their stories. All accounts are of course partial and uncertain—but Arikha affirms that this makes them no less meaningful.
... the author’s mother becomes a recurring character in this extraordinary exploration of selfhood, which blends humane sensitivity with acute philosophical insight ... Ms. Arikha’s quiet but insistent call is for us to see ourselves and others holistically and not to separate out our subjective, social and biological dimensions ... Perhaps the most unsettling idea that Ms. Arikha’s consistently arresting book forces upon the reader is the one claiming that our ordinary experience of the world is always constructed, never simply given ... One tension that The Ceiling Outside leaves unresolved is the relationship between the “core self”—that is, the embodied sense of identity that enables us to recognize our thoughts and experiences at any time as our own—and the autobiographical self, the one that allows us to construct a sense of identity over time ... Ms. Arikha’s book illustrates, among much else, how an intellectual fascination with the world can be a saving grace, allowing us to step outside of ourselves and marvel at what from within is fraught and difficult ... Her book makes just these movements, seamlessly, thoughtfully. Life’s tribulations didn’t interrupt her philosophizing; they enriched it.