The warder of the brain

As we start this textual journey together, I have no idea whether there will be any jokes (even those of the barely detectable variety which tend to adorn GofaDM) or whether it will stand only as a failed attempt to exorcise some of my existential angst.  Perhaps if we held hands, it would make the journey through the trauma to come a little easier.  I’m afraid this hand-holding will have to be metaphorical as I have neither the time, budget nor inclination to visit each of my readers individually (few of them though there be).  I suppose that if there is sufficient demand, I could arrange to have my hand cast and realistic-feeling copies made available for a suitable fee.

The title returns to a style which was once common on GofaDM, sourced as it was from my copy of the OUP’s Dictionary of Quotations (2nd Ed.).  It is doubly appropriate to today’s content: firstly it is a description of memory – which will form the meat of the post once we finish wading through this first slice of bread.  Secondly, it is a quotation from Macbeth (spoken by his “good” lady wife), which I studied for O level English Literature, but not one that I remembered (though other parts of the same speech I can recall).  So, let us all screw our courage to the sticking place and meet the meat.

I believe it is uncontroversial to say that our memories are vital to our sense of self.  It is only by his memories that the man who woke in my bed this morning feels himself to be the same chap who was banished to the Land of Nod last night (for the avoidance of doubt, yes I am referring to myself in the third person again).  Using inductive reasoning to trace this process back through time, the author writing this post is joined in an unbroken chain to all of his younger selves (well, not quite all – a certain fog always obscures the very early years of life).

It is also known that our memories are plastic things – unlike the fixed, unchanging elements of a modern computer (or so the manufacturers would like us to believe, but I’m sure I’m not alone in harbouring some doubts about this).  Each time we recall a memory, the very act of recall changes it by creating new associations based on our “state” at the time of recall.  I’m not even sure that unrecalled memories are safe: surely our brains, in an act of housekeeping vandalism, might chose to repurpose the apparently unused neurones to serve some more current need?

As a result, over time our memories might less resemble some mighty tapestry of our lives and more a collection of disordered tatters held together by some spurious feeling of unity and a self-penned personal mythology.  The historical narrative which joins the current author to his younger selves starts to look more like a game of Chinese whispers than the unbroken chain of links described above: at every stage a little is lost, a little confused and a little added.

This temporal dissociation has been brought into particularly sharp focus by recent events.  As part of the construction of The Library, I have been trying to recall some of my childhood reading.  I could remember reading about the adventures of Mary Plain and Olga de Polga but not the names of the specific books I may have read.  Today’s internet search engines (and the curious, archival nature of the human species) mean that images of the covers of many books through the ages can be viewed, and I assumed these would initiate an avalanche of memories.  More a very small slump as it transpired: I have very strong memories of the cover of Just Mary – but nothing else meant anything to me at all.  Trying to be positive, it may be that very few covers of exactly the right part of the 1970s have yet been uploaded – but I suspect the relevant data in my brain has just been dispersed beyond recall.

Still, I comforted myself, my childhood was a very long time ago (40+ years) and my brain was still forming.  So some loss of detail should not come as an enormous surprise and I should resist the urge to descend into a blue funk.  This approach worked until yesterday evening when a more serious absence in the fleshy tablets of my memory became apparent.  On Sunday, I shall be heading to the capital and one (of the many) delights that will fill my time in the city will be a Graham Park Walk.  Graham Park is the primary character in the more realist elements of Iain Banks’ novel Walking on Glass (1985) and walks through London from Theobalds Road.  I read the book (more than once) in the early nineties and I remember (or think I remember) being somewhat obsessed by it.  I think (or I think that I think) that I could even quote chunks of it (and knowing me – if I do – probably did).  In order to revise before the walk, I started re-reading the book yesterday evening and found I remember none of it: nothing at all.  It is almost as though I’ve never read it – all I could recall is that the castle is very old and that the action occurs in two places (the real world and the castle).  It is as though a huge chunk of “me” has been excised and I didn’t even notice its loss.  A little over a decade ago, I used to work very near the places covered by the walk and often passed its landmarks – but even then, there was not so much as a flicker of recognition.  So the data theft must have happened at least fifteen years ago, and thus it is far too late to report it to the authorities.

I found this deeply shocking, that something which I remember as being very important to me is now only a memory of a memory: a faint shadow cast by a distant, and invisible, light source.  The 1991-me would be horrified, though might grudgingly respect the fact that 2015-me can recognise Iain Banks’ style in the writing, even if he has forgotten the content.  I fear the two of us, were we to meet via some time travel accident, would be strangers to each other.  His head is full of memories that I have lost, and mine full of memories he has yet to form.  How much more have I lost, and lost so effectively that even the fact of its loss has been lost?  Perhaps this affects me particularly strongly as part of my personal myth is that I have a good memory.

Whenever I think about memory, my mind turns to Odin and his two raven companions.  If Muninn is in such a parlous state, is Huginn similar afflicted (and I just haven’t noticed)?   In the years directly after leaving university, I used to re-prove the Monotone Convergence Theorem (of Lebesgue Integration) in my head to go to sleep.  Now, I couldn’t even prove the Dominated Convergence Theorem assuming MCT (I do realise this might be quite a niche reference).  I find myself pondering how much of my personal resources I should use to reclaim or buttress old memories rather than laying down new ones.

This post is growing way too long, already the start of it will be a fading memory for most of us, and so I should attempt to draw it to a close before universal Darkness covers all.  In time, the stress of my not-so-recent loss will fade and itself be lost – which I suppose might be reassuring?  I have come to think that the self which I like to imagine exists as a continuous thread through my life is more of an ad-hoc fiction maintained by my brain in a desperate attempt to hold things together.  Like a recently formed scab on the knee, it is probably best if I don’t pick at it for fear of making a mess.  So I shall make a conscious choice (if that is even a thing) to try and believe in the fiction of my self (or at least act as though I do).

Hey, we made it: you can let go now!

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