By Martin Conway


Images of the self exist in every memory. The analogy between memories and a hologram is a good one, although what is seen through the shards of mental glass that are memories is not only something from the past but also something from the present. The rememberer exists now and the memory is constructed from different fragments glued together by more abstract knowledge of one's life, reflecting a self that is past and a self that you may or may not like to meet again. Discrepancies between what we were then, what we are now, and what we may become drive our use of memory, a use that often lies outside conscious control—which is why a poem can surprise us with what it makes us feel and what memories those feelings may be based on.

But poetry, other types of art, and, indeed, everyday experiences, can only be emotionally responded to and brought together with our past when memory and the self are not too discrepant. Consider a young man with the narcissistic delusion that he is a famous rock guitarist. A belief he holds even though he knows he cannot play a guitar. He is deluded because although in some sense he knows his belief is 'wrong', that it is contradicted by his memory, for him memory no longer carries the weight it once did in anchoring the self in reality, in a remembered reality. Consider too the patient with brain damage to the frontal lobes who confabulates a past consisting of fragments of memories but now configured or 'glued together' in ways wholly incorrect. The confabulations of such patients are sometimes referred to as 'honest lies', they are not delusions but rather attempts to make sense of reality after one's ability to manipulate knowledge into self-coherent forms as failed.

Extreme cases? Maybe. W. N. Herbert's poem catches neatly the idea of discrepancy, the idea of all the selves we're not and all the selves we are. Memory is the database of what we call the 'working self': a repository of currently active goals, models of the self, and beliefs about ourselves, what we are, what we want to be, and we ought to be. The working self and knowledge of that past are locked together in a dynamic embrace that when broken, in pathology, brain damage, and dementia, releases a self set free from the past. But when the self is not anchored in the past there is no tangible future, the goal structure falls apart, and the discrepancies between the different domains of the working self dissipate. When memory is negated, when it becomes 'is not' rather than 'is', the self can be anything.

THe WorkinG SeLf the naked man with briefcase descending three flights of lighthouse stairs his neckmuscles held by a hatstand of stress and a new version of the Inferno blackening his cerebellum in which the only dead are his poetic texts and those of all the writers he has ever loved wanting to be asleep with all the fervour of the truly middle-aged is not the naked man running into the midnight sea at Teignmouth with the surprisingly large-breasted girl he will not sleep with later in the sand all the car-load of friends all following The Wedding Present from gig to gig all stoned and half-undressed and sleepily silenusian in the cold cupping sand is not the student standing with a white-furred uvula in the campanile of his newly-smoking throat before the galvanised facade of Milan cathedral on his first morning in Italy, before visiting the Brera, the Uffizi, focusing on the lens as it falls from his spectacles and smashes

90 w. N. hERbERT AND mARTIN cONwAy on the delicious pasticceria icing of the paving stones is not the seventeen year old staring at Rossetti's loganberry compote of a dream of Dante and the corpse of Beatrice remembering the final cold corner bust up by the bridge by the Post Office where he stood for hours knowing she would never feel the need to come back not knowing that he would never speak to her again or know her whereabouts or children or the moment of her death is not the boy visiting a grandfather he hadn't seen so long he almost had begun to think of him as dead and dreamed about it endlessly after the rapidly-following death the slow hand touching the bandaged throat, the querulous witty voice the dark conspiratorial spectacles, always not dead after all but still with him, talking is not the boy who dreamt that all his classmates sat in darkness in a circle and the circle was so large it seemed to contain all the people of the multis at Trottick, all the people in Dundee perhaps all the people in Scotland and in the centre was a figure, cowled like a monk, rotating in the darkness with an index finger pointing and revolving like a planet in an orrery and when the figure pointed straight at him woke up in the dark moon-streaked fourth-floor bedroom for the first time clearly alone

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