The Fabric of Memory

One of the most elemental proofs of our aliveness is breath. Breath is a temporal rhythm that runs throughout our entire lifespan as an unbroken chain, but is also a rhythm that connects us with the rest of all human and animal life.

You will probably have noticed too how the rhythm of breath is much like the rhythm of the sea on the shore. Can you hear it? Perhaps you can make your own breathing sound like it?

When we go to sleep, breathing deepens, but we join a sleep along with millions of other sentient beings across the landscape. It is as though there is a fabric or patchwork of sleep across the land in which we are just one patch. It is this idea of there being a fabric that I want to develop a bit more today.

The substance of the fabric that is particularly of interest for me today is memory. To help to illustrate the points I’m going to make today I would suggest to take a few minutes to have a go at the following exercise, which is very simple. Enter into a peaceful space and try to pull out the first random memory that comes to mind – it can be anything at all, from any time of your life. Write a word or two down to represent that memory. Then consider a memory that is immediately linked to from that memory. Again write a couple of words down to record it. And then consider another memory that is immediately linked to or associated with that memory. And record that too in a few words. Clearly this process could go on ad infinitum so just a few minutes reflection is enough.

When I tried this the first memory that came to mind was of my Dad playing piano in the dining room at the farm when I was fourteen. I was just learning music myself. I remember the sun pouring in which gave it a heavenly feel. There was a serving hatch between the kitchen and the dining room which was abruptly shut by other family members the moment Dad started up. From there I remembered carrying a huge guitar amplifier from my Mum’s house up to the high school to show my Australian guitar teacher. I remember it had a familiar smell. I noticed that my mind could now go in many directions, so I have to choose one. I had a flying V guitar which was dated even in 1996 but which would look patently ridiculous now. Then I remembered that as a teenager I had a milk round, and that on cold days my hands would go so numb I couldn’t open people’s gates. Travelling between different streets I used to ride on the back of the milk truck on an upside down crate….

What impresses me is the specificity of the memories. One memory gives way to another, and what makes these memories so precious is their detail – their richness and clarity. The revelation is that these memories are there, lying dormant, perhaps for decades, until the spotlight of consciousness comes along to animate them again. We also see that in our own central nervous system every single detail of memory is connected to a vast number of other details and memories through association – that our memories are stored like a vast four-dimensional web. I imagine the central nervous system as like a vase made up of tens of thousands of crystals – when one beam of light enters it is passed on again and again throughout the crystals.

We are the most incredible time capsules.

But this exercise offers a vivid illustration of what I am calling presently the fractionality of being, a concept which will take some unpacking. By fractionality I mean that everything we experience is a fragment or a fraction of a much greater collective experience.

I have a world of memories I hardly ever revisit – almost infinite details on things that feel like they should be valuable in some way, rather than simply being useless. I remember the same things other people do, but from my own perspective. I remember, for example, how schools were in the 1990s, and of milk delivery, and a little bit about pop music at that time, and British agriculture also. We’re all experts by experience – if someone were to do a study about schooling in the 1990s I could provide a rich and detailed account based on the memories I can recall.

But whilst my own (or your own) memories seem remarkable in their specificity, what is also remarkable about them is their incompleteness. I can remember the dining room at the farm and Dad playing the piano in 1996, I do not know about how the sound was experienced by those in the kitchen, on the other side of the serving hatch. Nor do I remember the agricultural work done in the yard - I was not a part of it. Nor do I remember the original purchase of the piano, its placing within that room – it happened before I was born. Likewise I have no memory of the building of the house, and my thirty-something grandparents moving in there with their young family. I remember the space but would require my grandparents to complete the story. Thus my memories are and can only ever be fragments or fractions of a more universal memory.

Likewise any one library is a memory store – though it houses only a fraction of all the books that have ever been written. And yet through the books in that particular library we have access to that imagined eternal library.

Have you ever been to Notre Dame Cathedral? I had a go at drawing it with a pencil, even though my drawings are a tiny fraction of the quality of drawing produced by others:

The small circles in this sketch represent people who have ever visited the Cathedral and the larger circles represent the range of memories they retain from their visit. Of course in reality we will remember not just the view from the outside but also fragments of memory from the inside: perhaps you remember tight little stairwells that went on forever, or standing at one of the balconies, or the incredible ornate sculptures carved into the stone. Whilst each individual memory of the Cathedral is made up of fragments, to the extent that our memories link and overlap, a much more ‘solid’ blueprint of Notre Dame begins to emerge. I imagine this being more like a virtual reality recreation of Notre Dame in which all the special details are ‘held’ together as the user explores it.

When someone dies their own personal treasure trove of memories is, to a larger extent, lost. A gap appears in the web but the web continues. It's the same with breathing- when I die all the breathing of the world continues but mine stops. In a sense then when our own treasure trove is lost there is still enough solidity about the blueprints that our own memories held up that the blueprints of images like the Notre Dame Cathedral persist as strong and as vividly as before.

Imagine all the books that we have about the Ottoman Empire – if one of those books was banned, by some capricious and malevolent dictator, who then banned another, and then banned a third, nonetheless there’d be still be a vast library of books available to represent the Ottoman Empire and the history would barely seem to have been impoverished at all.

Not all memories are of such common points of reference. The memories of a marriage are vastly dependent on the memories of the two people who are part of it. Which makes those attempts to preserve memory- stories, photographs, diaries, letters, books, songs, paintings etc. especially important. However memory of the particular marriage will resonate strongly with collective memories about what marriage is. By a similar token, James Joyce once observed: ‘I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.’ In the particular in contained the universal. I therefore think about Plato’s realm of forms and Jung’s archetypes.

Take another archetype – the oak tree. Most of us have some internalised sense of an oak tree. If asked to imagine an oak tree I imagine all of us could come up with something: I guess all of us would see the familiar architecture of the tree – the trunk rooted in the soil, the branches off in all directions, the green leaves on the branches. Perhaps some of us see the more particular qualities of the oak: the ribbed trunks which reveal the age of the tree in their girth, the lobed leaves of the oak, or the acorn. For me, although I know these features I don’t think of one particular oak tree – I’ve ‘met’ enough oak trees over the years – and seen even more in books – that my internalised sense of the oak tree is made up of layers and layers of particular instances combined to form one mental image of oak. And yet if I died it would hardly be any loss at all to the collective knowing of oak.

It would furthermore be wrong to take from that that my knowledge of the oak is built up from my personal experiences of it. I have seen them often but once upon a time it took my Mummy or Daddy to tell me that what I was looking at was a tree, and that that solid tubular bit going vertically was a trunk, that those spindly bits plunging into the soil were roots, and that the green things hanging off the branches were leaves. Without being shown I may never have come to realise that the acorns were seeds – the vehicle through which the tree came to reproduce. To discover this for myself would have been a discovery of Copernican significance in terms of my understanding of the world. Without education I would not have known of transpiration or of photosynthesis. So my knowledge of the oak was ‘drawn from’ a fabric of knowledge about oak that I was born into. By someone showing how those pre-existing ideas about oak could be mapped onto my sensory experience of oak I came into consciousness of oak. It is as though I downloaded knowledge of the oak from the collective cloud of knowledge onto my personal hard drive.

The reason I think that’s significant is because when we notice our thoughts, our internal commentary - when we think about our thinking - we work on the basis that our thoughts are ‘free’, that they spontaneously generate inside our heads. We are still, like Descartes, dualists who believe that mind inhabits matter. But I think closer to the truth is that the thoughts that circulate in our minds are fractions of thoughts that originate within a fabric of memory that we hold collectively. (The architecture of central nervous systems too is shaped according to DNA which itself an ancient form of chemical memory). Two people, in two different parts of the English speaking world, who have just finished reading the same book, might be asked about that book. Whilst they would no doubt offer many unique and personalised observations about it, there would be distinct structural similarities in what they said about it. I believe all thought is like this.

The reason I think this is significant is because one of the greatest sources of terror when we think about mortality is the permanent loss of consciousness. All those apparently spontaneously generating thoughts will be snuffed out. But what if we were able to locate the origins of our thoughts somewhere outside of our own cranium? I’m left with a reverie of individual human minds being tethered to something much greater; to a fabric which reaches down into human being and animates us, so that we are life-full beings rather than empty shells. This is what I suggest was known in the Abrahamic faiths as the breath of life.


​© 2020 by John Hills

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