Invasions of the mind

Invasions of the mind – memories

Chris Arthur

Often, without warning and for no reason I have ever been able to detect, my thoughts are invaded by some segment of the past. If our yesterdays drop like stones in the mind’s unfathomable waters, sinking ever deeper as they are shorn of the fleeting buoyancy of the present, this periodic invasion seems to reverse the process. Suddenly, and usually from considerable depths, a perfectly preserved image appears again, floating face down in the pellucid pool of the present, demanding that I turn it over and re-examine the face of some event that is part of my life story, one of the billion little building blocks from which my individual history has been made. Occasionally these revenants are so bloated with time and distance that they are almost unrecognizable, and the mind has to struggle to find the lineaments of any familiar features. More often they are so perfectly preserved that memory seems possessed of the power to resurrect as well as to store and preserve (and also, of course, to lose) time’s endless supply of cadavers.

Many memories are bidden back to mind simply in response to some variety of quite obvious stimulus, something which acts like a hook or a net trailed across our remembrance. Smells are famously potent in their stimulation of recall; when old friends meet they often trawl the past together and pull in quite remarkable strands of recollection from their shared histories; re-visiting places which have figured significantly in our lives – the homes we grew up in but then left, the schools we once attended, a favourite holiday location – can release a deluge of remembrance. I am not concerned here with memories which have such easily identifiable and (at least to some extent) predictable and controllable triggers, but with those rogue splinters of the past which appear in the mind spontaneously, their arrival traceable to no obvious sequence of cause and effect.

So, in the middle, say, of cooking a meal, attending a meeting, driving to work, or some other wholly mundane activity, I will suddenly find myself thinking about the colour and consistency of the sand spread on that narrow path at the zoo beside the zebra enclosure. I will feel myself walking on it again – though the actual event happened nearly forty years ago – see, as if it was beside me, the texture of the coat my mother is (was?) wearing. The zebras, gorillas, elephants – all the obvious claimants to a place in my remembrance – play no part in this shard of memory which instead, inexplicably, retains images of sand and tweed. Or, while shopping, gardening, watching TV, reading a paper, waiting for a train, my mind will be filled with vivid memories of a ferry journey between Scotland and Ireland (a route I must have travelled over a hundred times). Not the crisp vista of a clear winter sea- and landscape, the snowy mountains of Galloway disappearing into eventual haziness as the Irish coastline gradually solidifies out of the distance; not the first time I saw gannets diving, when I was about ten, and watched them entranced for almost the whole crossing. Instead, memory will direct my attention to the crumbling marine paint on the rails of the promenade deck, or to the smell of pipe tobacco from an old man standing beside me, oblivious to my presence, smoking as he gazes fixedly towards the horizon. Or perhaps while talking to a friend, a snatch of conversation from years ago will be replayed as if it was on tape, the exact timbre and expression of the voices perfectly preserved.

Faced with these little time-ambushes, when present consciousness is suddenly confronted with a piece of history dropped squarely in its path, it sometimes seems that memory continually chews on the cud of the past and that part of this process of perpetual temporal digestion involves re-directing certain moments towards the present, as if renewed scrutiny might extract from them some piece of nourishment missed the first time round. For months at a time these memories will be drawn from a particular time in my life, then the focus will change and another period will come under the spell of seemingly random recall. In whatever hidden chambers of the psyche it occupies, memory seems to keep one eye on packaging the fleeting present, an ever-efficient, tireless archivist, while reviewing with its other eye reels of material from the past.

At the time of writing, the period undergoing review appears to be the early 1970s. So, as I compose these sentences, fragments of my life as a student blow in occasionally across attempted concentration, like the downy airborne seeds of some great bank of fireweed that has rooted in my mind and which grows bigger moment by moment, as the scorching conflagration of the present burns itself out on successive strips of time’s acreage. I am at a loss to account for the winds and air-currents that ripple through the laden flowerheads, making now this seed, now that one, drift back into mind. Whatever the origin of such turbulence, though, it is clear that memory plays a key role in determining the micro-climate of the psyche.

Along with memory’s flotsam, bits of old dreams are likewise apt to escape from the dark expanses of vanished sleep and plummet towards the gravity and light of present waking. They remain in the mind for a while, reminding the erstwhile sleeper of their existence, before vanishing again into the mysterious vaults of remembrance. Some dreams seem particularly prone to such involuntary return, though they don’t seem possessed of any particular significance beyond their strange persistence in coming back to mind. Stealing into consciousness repeatedly, their haunting remnants are like someone’s efforts to communicate with me in a language I only barely recognize and of whose rudiments of meaning I am almost wholly ignorant.

The few people with whom I have discussed the intimacies of the private thought-worlds which we all variously inhabit, are unsurprised by these sudden invasions of present consciousness by fragments of memories and dreams. It seems a common enough phenomenon. Rarer, though not sufficiently rare to make me feel that chill of mental uniquess which might foster suspicions of madness, is the experience of a similar invasion, only this time by what I think of as pseudo-memories, little fictions set resonating in the imagination’s fertile echo-chambers. It is difficult to name these invaders more precisely. ‘Imagined biographies’ is one label that often comes to mind, though I am increasingly uncertain as to whether it describes them accurately.

Usually these excerpts from manufactured biographies, pieces of imagined lives, glimpses through other people’s eyes, are cast in the opposite emotional key from the one I happen to be experiencing. If I am in the grip of some mood of self-preoccupied despair, for instance, a splinter of some sunny carefree moment in another life will tumble into mind. It might be of a boy in pharaonic Egypt, playing happily with friends in the warm Nilotic mud, a tableau of sheer uncomplicated fun, its participants unheedful of much beyond the pleasure of just being; innocent of all the terrible weight of history which slowly and remorselessly sinks contentment and calamity in the uniformity of oblivion. Or I might suddenly glimpse things from the (imagined?) perspective of an Inuit hunter after a successful kill, sledging a butchered seal back to his family, warm with the knowledge that they will sleep with full bellies for the next week.

Conversely, if life seems gentle and contented, the outlook rosy, I may suddenly be haunted by the terror and anger of an innocent man in a condemned cell, half an hour before his public execution. Or I might feel some nameless famine-struck father’s sense of utter frustration, despair, pain as he watches his wife and children die, recognizes the inevitability of his own death too and wonders if he will have the strength left to bury his family before dying, unmourned and unnoticed by the world. Or I will momentarily share the terror of a girl in eleventh century Kiev as the Mongol army breaches the city’s walls and begin their merciless rape and pillage. Likewise, if I am preoccupied with some absolutely up-to-the-minute technological gadget, a scene from prehistory may appear unbidden on the horizon of my thoughts, making me review the paltry arsenal of tools which stands between paleolithic being and extinction.

These snatches of imaginary biography do not necessarily follow the rule of emotional inversion. A glimpse of dreadful anguish may occur in the midst of some pain of my own. Nor are they necessarily rooted in the past, they can also – though more rarely – give access to the perspective of some parallel life which is unfolding at the same time as my own. So I may be visited with the perspective of a homeless South American street-waif, ravaged by poverty, drugs, prostitution, thought of as vermin and living in fear of summary extermination. Or I may feel a terrorist’s warped logic leading the mind into seeing some atrocity as heroic, or momentarily imagine (feel?) a dancer’s poise and confidence in their mastery of movement (though beside such lithe athleticism I must appear almost moribund). Such individuals – imagined? plausible? real? – are felt as time-twins, albeit oblivious to their multiple shared occupancy of the moment. They are alive now, concurrently with me, breathing the same air in the same niche of history.

Just like memories, there are those flashes of imaginary biography whose provenance is wholly unmysterious. If we visit a place heavy with history, a castle or battlefield, say, where some dreadful cruelty was done in years gone by, which of us will not picture in their mind (in however confused, incomplete and inaccurate a fashion) the feelings of the people concerned? It needs no grand site like Culloden, Ypres or El-Alamein to fire our empathy, the smallest of sparks will do. Visitors to tiny Rathlin Island, for example, alerted to the massacre which happened on these unremarkable few acres just off Ireland’s north coast, will surely be moved to feel some tremor of identifying terror as they stand in the very place where hundreds were put to the sword. The tranquil peacefulness of the scene today, some four hundred years after the event, cannot altogether smother such instinctual fellow-feeling.

Our empathy can likewise be sparked by what we read in the papers or see on television news bulletins. Which of us has not felt for the refugees, the starving, the injured as they trek miserably across the strange voyeuristic spaces created by the media? Indeed such is the burden of pain and grief brought incessantly to our attention by the headlines, that it has become a commonly voiced concern to wonder if some blunting of compassion, a deadening of the ability to feel for others, may be being fostered by our enormous media-consumption.

Again, as with memory, it is not these traceable, explainable incursions of other lives that interests me, but those which have no seeming link with the present, which are just suddenly there for no reason, dropped into mind at random. What do such other-life-shards consist of? Where do they come from? What causes them? Why these particular pieces and not some others?

No doubt psychologists could account for every type of invasion which momentarily disturbs the topography of my mental landscape. Their explanations might be couched in terms of biochemistry, personality, biography, even diet. Perhaps such analyses would contain some interesting points, but no matter how insightful they might be, I suspect they would be of little use in that effort at self-understanding which we all periodically engage in. For my ongoing attempt to map the perplexing contours of the self, I incline more to the rustic wisdom of commonsense, as evidenced in the comments of friends. By and large, they accept the intrusion of bits of memory and dream as a commonplace fact of mental life. This is a widely shared experience and does not need much comment beyond the voicing of agreement. The imagined biographies, though, are sufficiently unusual for various hypotheses to have been volunteered.

Some put them down simply to the imagination. Not that they are naive enough to suppose that this most astonishing of mental faculties is either straightforward, or that it operates unaided. Rather, they see it working on selected pieces of information which have been variously gleaned over a lifetime. Whether from reading, conversation, film, TV, museum-going, or any of the other scores of information-intakes to which I enjoy access, my mind has built up sufficient raw material for the imagination to construct with formidable credibility a thousand different human scenarios. Life in ancient Egypt, the terror of the Black Death in medieval Europe, trench warfare in the First World War, Aborigine culture in nineteenth century Australia, the outlook of a wandering ascetic in pre-Buddhist India . . . Given my age and catholicity of taste in reading, the imagination would certainly not be short of raw material from which to manufacture lives in scores of historical settings.

Another explanation offered for these unexpected, unprovoked invasions of imaginary biography suggests that they too are pieces of dreams, but of dreams which I have forgotten. Shorn of any conscious remembrance of having dreamt them, they appear to ‘belong’ to someone else rather than to me; they seem like pieces of other lives rather than any part of my own. The range and vividness of remembered dreams, and the knowledge that a huge amount of dreaming goes unrecorded by consciousness, is enough to lend considerable weight to such a theory. No doubt the dreaming mind (drawing on God knows what resources) has the potential to recreate and mimic thousands of seeming lives.

Other friends incline to what I see as a more fantastical solution, but one which has about it a strangely compelling interest (which, given my scepticism, I find it hard to account for). They suggest that these stray pieces of what seem to be other people’s lives are in fact memories of previous existences. Far from being imagined, they are remembered. They are not dreams or fictions but memories. The propagators of this theory (which of course only works for those fragments that are from the past; it cannot account for any that are from ‘concurrent lives’) would have me accept some grand scheme of rebirth. From a myriad of previous incarnations ‘my’ other selves occasionally semaphore, via memory, some evidently urgent but fundamentally incomprehensible signals into my present manifestation (for what am I meant to do with some shard of a centuries dead Egyptian boy’s perspective? Why should some flash of nineteenth century Aboriginal consciousness be of any concern to me now?).

Whether imagined, dreamt, remembered, or stemming from some other source altogether, the perspectives offered by these glimpses into other lives is at once humbling and inspiring. Humbling because they act as a reminder of how limited my individual experience is. If the range of possible fates is thought of as a hugely elongated piano, beating on its keyboard thousands upon thousands of notes, I am mindful of living within the compass of a narrow (and mostly straightforwardly harmonious) register. My life will not add to the grand human sonata more than a trill of unremarkable notes. Think of the tunes that others have played (or have had played upon them)! Think of the sublime melodies, the altogether hellish discords that have resonated through some biographies! (The humbling is mixed with a definite sense of relief; I have no desire to have been, or to be, a virtuoso of suffering.)

The inspiration comes from sheer amazement at the complexity, scale and variety of human experience. And if that astonishing diversity is widened yet further, to take in the vista of other species too, the total tonnage of sentience, animal and human, from the beginning of time right up to the present, one is surely drawn close to a sense of awe. For the mind concretely to conceive of such a totality is, naturally, impossible. But it is possible to think some little way in that direction, to let the imagination carry us towards some sort of apperception of the whole, of consciousness in toto. And this is to take one into realms of ultimacy which simultaneously create a sense of wonderment and destroy all the little models so neatly and painstakingly constructed and fought over by theologians. Taking even a sip of this cocktail of experience, imagined yet very real, who would seek to confine its taste to some such cosy notion as ‘God is love’? The idea is preposterous in its bland facileness. It suggests no real ingestion of the awesome, gruesome flavours of existence. Who can say it with conviction as they meditate upon the reality of what has happened and what happens and consider the individual life-stories that constitute the fabric of history?

The God-mongering indulged in by scholars seems often to be based only on the small compass of a comfortable, intellectual existence. Are those who indulge in it unwilling to dream, remember, imagine? It often seems that theology’s sublime, but in the end stultifying, pictures have all been hatched in safe book-lined rooms by men curiously unexposed to the raw numen of otherness. To attain any reasonable measure of credibility, I would propose that the period of incubation for any idea of God should include some time in the blast furnace of imagining, dreaming, remembering, or whatever faculty it is that reminds us of other times, other places, other lives. Conceived merely in the cool confines of the intellect, how can such an idea be much more than some poor wraith of logic?

It is suggested in the Buddhist Sutras that each of us experiences everything, a plenum rendered possible if one allows that, in some sense, we – and that locution is already unsatisfactory – live many lives. As a verse in the Samyutta Nikaya puts it: ‘Any suffering one witnesses in another being has been undergone by oneself at some time’. So the Buddha bled and butchered at Buchenwald; we have all felt in our rabbit eyes the caustic tears of science; each of us has been burnt on every witch’s pyre (each one is/was/will be our pyre); we all occupy every torture chamber, each dungeon; no condemned cell is outwith our net of experience. Even the most ecstatic joy, the most complete fulfilment is within the reach of the seemingly damned and dispossessed. There are no spectators; everyone eventually participates in everything. There are no winners, no losers. Everything, across a span of unimaginable aeons, is balanced up.

I profoundly hope that the universe is not run according to some such merciless principle of absolute equality. Whilst I would be happy enough for this safe moment of essay writing/reading to offer succour to someone else (me? you?) caught momentarily in a mire of anguish in another life, to think that the walls of time and person might somehow be permeable is frankly terrifying. Alas, my one-time confidence that the boundaries of the person are safely staked out by the unnegotiable markers of birth and death, no longer feels quite so secure as it once did. A thousand little invasions have slowly eroded my bulwarks of safe assumption and now give rise to a chilling sense of possibilities which, were they to be realised, would stretch the fragile tessitura of identity beyond breaking point.

[Chris Arthur’s essays have appeared in a range of publications, including The American Scholar, The Centennial Review, The Northwest Review and The Threepenny Review.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group