The Palimpsest Self

I was becoming concerned that GofaDM was at risk of becoming insufficiently pretentious: a risk I believe that today’s title should lay firmly to rest in its grave with a mistletoe stake driven through its heart.

Where an ancient city has continued on the same site over the centuries (or millenia), each new version of the city is constructed on, or from, the bones of its ancestors.  Sometimes, a city’s ossified past intrudes into the modern world but more often the past lies concealed beneath the thin veneer of the present day.  When the modern world requires the city to be excavated for some new project, the lost past is re-discovered: transfigured by its long interment.  Pieces of the past are lost, disarticulated or found transformed beyond recognition.  Each new disturbance further alters the hidden past, while those incursions above ground, and that find themselves incorporated into the modern city, are themselves more consciously changed to serve new narratives.

As I grow older, I increasingly feel that my very self is a palimpsest of a whole sequence of past selves.  Each new self effaces its immediate predecessor but each erasure is only partial and revenants continue to live a quasi-life as part of the current self or buried just below his all-too-shallow surface.  While the older the revenant, the less of a role it has in what passes for my current personality and sense of identity, it is clear that some elements of past selves were scored very deeply into my neuronal parchment and can still be read, albeit imperfectly, through all the later over-writing.  Sometimes you have only to shine a metaphorical light with the right combination of wavelength and angle at the self to find that long buried – and assumed lost – aspects can be returned to life.  However, as with the excavations in the city, each such delve forever changes the item recovered: exposed to the daylight of conscious scrutiny it cannot help but become the subject of new links that could never have been part of its original existence.  Living is a continuous process of data corruption: a process from which only the most trivial of ‘facts’ can hope to remain unaltered in their essentials.

I feel that modern life has rather accelerated this process of corruption.  Recordings of the past, available since the arrival of the camera and gramophone and growing ever more ubiquitous, provide a recollection that is so much richer in content than anything that my brain, at least, can manage and so they tend to supplant my ‘actual’ memories.  The new memories tend to lack the affect of the original – or at least are associated with a very different context – and I do wonder if they further corrode the, already unreliable, hard drive between my ears.

In general, I find that I am very poor with the recall of visual memories and when I attempt to do so, the scene collapses even while it is being reconstructed.  This does not prevent me from recognising places, people and things with ease (mostly) – but does mean that if I wish to draw (or paint) something I do need to be looking either at it or an image of it.  It also means I am rubbish at any meditation that requires me to visualise something: however simple.  I am much better with words and numbers as they are, at some level, a much less rich data stream to both store and retrieve.  This, finally, brings me to within a gnat’s crochet of the inspiration for this post, having allowed myself to be carried in a rather unexpected direction by the gravitational force of the weight of my own pretension.

As a younger (and actually young) person, I watched a lot of television (subject to its more limited availability in those distant days), listened to a lot of radio (mostly comedy of one form or another) and read a lot.  The whole ‘going out and doing stuff’ life that I now live has accreted slowly over time and only recently has reached a level where I find myself expecting friends to stage an intervention at any moment.  What remains of this earlier, more home-bound, life and self seems to be most readily accessed (and degraded) through the words and voices that I heard back then.

On Saturday, I headed off to Chichester and its Festival Theatre to see Wireless Wise: an exercise in nostalgia for Radio 4 listeners of roughly my age and social class.  It was lovely to see Charlotte Green and the Reverend Richard Coles in the flesh for the first time and to see Alistair McGowan for the first time since the early nineties: when I saw him playing a pot plant in the Nick Revell Radio Show at the now long gone Paris Studios in Lower Regent Street.  However, the nostalgic highlight was to see Richard Stilgoe for the first time in very many years – probably since the 1980s.  He reprised a few songs and a poem from Stilgoe’s Around and his earlier Traffic Jam – dating from my time at secondary school.  I’m not aware of any of these shows being repeated since soon after first broadcast but, despite the passage of time, I could still recall an alarming quantity of the words.  In at least one case, a stock “meme” in my brain was finally pinned down to his paean to the rather ersatz schwarzwälde kirschtorte available in the UK in those dark days.  Why my brain had chosen to store, and not over-write, so many of his lyrics for so long – whilst having largely disposed of any ready route to access this knowledge – must remain a mystery for the neuroscientists among you to solve.  My brain seems to have dumped huge amounts of knowledge of my own existence while carefully preserving the lyrics to someone else’s comic songs for almost 40 years.  I’m not saying it has made the wrong choice, merely an unexpected one: evolution is certainly a rum old cove.

Richard also still performs his party piece of collecting random words – and now notes – from the audience and creating an astoundingly witty and musical song in a matter of minutes.  Not bad for a man of 75, particularly given the rather unpromising material he was provided: would that I could boast a fraction of his utility at 52!

It was a lovely afternoon, shared with friends, but I do try not to spend too much of my life wallowing in the soothing, half-remembered joys of the past.  There will be plenty of time for that when I am finally captured by the ‘men in white coats’ and incarcerated in an institution considered sufficient to the long term care of my oddly functioning brain: closeted away from sharp objects and the general public, lest I further infect them with my foolishness (the public rather than the sharp objects, though the latter could become an interesting project as the internet-of-things expands).  So, I had intended to swiftly return to my obsession with the live and the new – but the past does not release the middle-aged chap from its clutches quite so easily.

I have been ambushed, once again, by Radio 4 which this week has run a series of short essays under the title James Burke’s Web of Knowledge.  James Burke’s TV series of the late 70s and early 80s were an important part of my young life – fostering my interest in science and history – and his voice can still drill deep into the sedimentary layers of my earlier selves.  Way back in 1978, I spent a significant portion of my meagre pocket money on the book to accompany his TV series Connections.  Embarrassingly, I have yet to get round to reading it: still, it’s only been 40 years and one mustn’t rush into these things…

I can’t help but wonder much more random junk and how many more fragments of past selves, most of whom seem quite inexplicable to my current self, my brain is hoarding?  Like Ratatoskr hiding nuts ready for the Fimbulwinter, does my brain believe that these will be of some value in some future where new memories are hard to come by?  Francis Fukuyama was probably neither the first, nor will be the last, to forecast the end of history but I’m not aware of anyone predicting the memory apocalypse (amemorygeddon?).  In a world short of new memories, this blog will become a goldmine and I may finally be able to monetise it: enjoy it now, while it remains free!

Feel free to continue the lunacy...

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