Invasions of the Mind

By Arthur, Chris | Contemporary Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Invasions of the Mind

Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review

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. …

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