This long pursuit, p.7
This Long Pursuit, p.7Richard Holmes
Clearly, such neo-Romantic aspirations for teaching biography require an ironic postscript. So here are my Ten Commandments for any other practising biographers who are already bravely teaching in the postgraduate seminar rooms of life-writing (or of Life).
Thou shalt honour Biography as living, experimental, and multifarious in all its Forms.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s Novel, for there are as many rooms in the Mansion of Non-Fiction as there are in the House of Fiction.
Thou shalt recognise that Biography is always at best a Celebration of Human Nature, and all its glorious Contradictions.
Thou shalt demand that it be greater than Gossip, because it is concerned with Historical Justice and Human Understanding.
Thou shalt require that it chronicles an outward story (the Facts) only to reveal an inward life (a Comprehensive Truth).
Thou shalt see that this Truth can be told, and re-examined, again and again unto each Generation.
Thou shalt greet it as a Life-giving form, as it is concerned with Human Struggle and the Creative Spirit, which we all share.
Thou shalt relish it as a Holiday for the Human Imagination – for it takes us away to another place, another time, and another Identity – where we can begin quietly to reflect on our own Lives and come back refreshed.
Thou shalt be immodestly Proud of it, as it is something that the English have given to the World, like cricket, and parliament, and the Full Cooked Breakfast.
And, lastly, thou shalt be Humble about it, for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the Last Word about the Human Heart.
There is a goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be, as they are twin sisters, twin powers, and walk on either side of us, disputing for sovereignty over us and who we are, all the way until death.
For example, right now I am a sixty-nine-year-old biographer, and writing this at a tin table under an olive tree, on the banks of a tiny streamlet known as La Troubadore. In April La Troubadore gushes over a bed of shimmering white shingle, through the young vine fields, until it vaults into the River Droude, a minor tributary of the Gardon.
Actually the Gardon is several rivers – Les Gardons – though no one can agree on quite how many. But they all flow out of the wild hills of the Hautes Cévennes, the two main branches emerging at Anduze and Alès (famed for its municipal fountains). Both are much subject to spring and autumnal flooding (la crue), and regularly carry off the cars and houses of the plain. They join forces further south, near Avignon, and as one mighty waterway sweep under the Pont du Gard, the noble Roman bridge built by the Emperor Augustus, with its fifty-three striding stone arches, one row balancing airily upon another, like some brilliant troupe of performing circus elephants, those creatures that never forget.
Paradoxically, this famous Roman bridge is really an aqueduct, and the river beneath it never becomes the Gard. Indeed, there is no River Gard at all, except possibly, momentarily, at the point where it goes under the Pont du Gard. I have heard a local fisherman quote Heraclitus on this subtle question. Certainly, when it comes out the other side, the river is still Le Gardon, and flows on down to join the stately Rhône near Arles and Tarascon, and so out into the Mediterranean, untroubled by its many identities.
Yet they change constantly. By August my sparkling young Troubadore is quite dry and silent. Its shingle is hot and dusty, like a line of white bones laid along a ditch. The cheerful Droude has dwindled to a fretful ghost, green and malodorous, skulking under the trees. Even the two muscular Gardons have fallen into a brown study, a long slack chain of slumbering rock pools, barely threaded together by a trickle of live water, marooning thousands of tiny distracted fish. So, it seems, are the seasons of Memory and Forgetting, forever alternating between flood and drought.
Here at my tin table, with the cicadas beating their jazzy Django Reinhardt sound, I am flooded with memories of the Cévennes of fifty summers ago. I arrived on the night train from Paris, with its dark creaking woodwork and circular windows, and the pink dawn coming up over Pont-Saint-Esprit and Orange. Getting out at Avignon, I was told that all the autocars were ‘en Grève’. I studied my map for some time to find this desirable place, Grève. Later it was explained to me that Grève was not a location, but a condition. To be en grève meant to be ‘on strike’. It now occurs to me that to be en grève could also be a state of mind.
So I hitch-hiked instead to Uzès, getting a lift in the van from the Cave Co-operative. We drove past the cimitière, to the Mas Saint-Quentin, where Monsieur Hugues was ploughing between his vine rows with his grey horse called Mistral. He completed his row and came over to the side of the field, pushing his cap onto the back of his head, and shook my hand with a certain caution. ‘Un jeune Anglais, pardée!’ I stayed with his family in the mas for the next five months, and, in a series of long walks westwards, discovered the Cévennes.
But just here memory falters, and runs dry. I see Monsieur Hugues so clearly at that moment at the field’s edge: the walnut-brown face, the outstretched arm, the shy glance from under the cap, the big old leather belt with the army buckle, and the red-check handkerchief pulled out to wipe his face. But red-check – was it? Or did that belong to the other farmer who, weeks later, I met in a high alpine field near Mont Lozère in the Cévennes, under a burning midday sun? The farmer who stopped his hay-making to give me an ice-cold swig of water from his canteen, tucked under the tractor seat, and wrapped in a damp cloth to keep it cool. A red-check cloth perhaps? Was it his?
Or was it even the neckerchief that belongs to Monsieur Rolland, the farmer who lives across the track from us now, an eighty-year-old who adores his vines, his dog and his grandchildren, and shakes my hand across the stone wall, bringing us grapes? Whose red-check handkerchief, whose walnut-brown face, whose eternal shy kindness of the Midi, am I actually remembering? And was that horse that I used to groom in the evenings in the courtyard of the Mas Saint-Quentin, to the smell of roasting chicken and rosemary, really called Mistral?
So here is Memory mixed with Forgetting, and maybe combined with what the neuroscientists call ‘confabulation’, or unconsciously making it up. Two sparrows dive down and brawl in the dust under the apricot tree. Little bursts of hot wind from the south scrape the big, heart-shaped leaves of the murier d’Espagne across the terrace. I listen to this drowsy orchestration of the leaves, the cicadas, the fountain, the tractor, the mid-afternoon bell from the village striking the Angelus. I fall asleep for a few moments while making these notes. I dream, something about rivers and flooding. But when I wake I cannot remember what it was. I find myself wondering if the rivers used to dry up like this fifty years ago, when I was young.
Later I discovered the answer in my battered copy of Napoléon Peyrat’s Pasteurs du Désert (1842). This was Robert Louis Stevenson’s favourite book about the Cévennes, which forms the haunting background to his Travels with a Donkey. Peyrat vividly recounts the history of the Camisard rebellion of 1702–05, and the memoirs of the visionary young soldier-prophets who came down from the hills to fight against their royalist oppressors on the plain. It was a Protestant insurrection against Catholic authority, but also a mountain people’s insurrection against the centralised power of the city and the plain.
In the opening chapter of Volume Two there is a passage describing the dashing Camisard leader Jean Cavalier. It recounts his successful ambush of the King’s dragoons at the Pont de Ners, just five kilometres from my olive tree, where the Droude meets the Gardon below Anduze. Peyrat also makes a remarkable observation about the fluctuating state of the rivers, and what it might symbolise:
In springtime during la crue, the Gardon often bursts its banks and sweeps like an inland sea towards the village of Boucarain. But in the growing heat of summer, all this mighty torrent shrinks back again to expose a hug
So the Gardon had always fluctuated violently; and sometimes even become the River Lethe too.
Here is something one of my students at the University of East Anglia, Marisse Clarke, told me about forgotten memories. Marisse was completing her MA in Life-Writing, and working on a project to reconstruct the domestic history of pre-war Norfolk. It was a jump-back of sixty years or more to ‘the pre-fridge era’, as she called it. There was lots of written material, especially letters and diaries, in the Norwich archives, but she was interested in something more direct and intimate, an oral history. Her main source became groups of old-age pensioners, many of them women, who met once a week for ‘reminiscence sessions’. Initially they were shy, their memories were very scattered, and it was difficult to get more than a few well-worn tales. On subjects such as ‘Christmas’, Marisse suspected many memories were made up of ‘fanciful images’, unconsciously adapted from popular Christmas tales, films or Christmas cards (confabulation again).
Then a colleague told her about the ‘memory boxes’ that had been taken along to other reminiscence sessions. A memory box typically consisted of a large suitcase containing a number of perfectly humdrum domestic objects from the 1930s – a bar of Lux soap, a box of Swan Vesta matches, an Ovaltine tin, a tortoise-shell hairclip, a small mangle, and so on. For a ‘Wash Day and Bath Night’ session, things like stone hot-water bottles and men’s traditional cut-throat razors were added – and the memory box itself became an old zinc bath.
According to Marisse, what many of us would regard as ‘old junk’ now became ‘little treasures’ of stored-up memory, with a high symbolic value. The effect of the memory boxes was often magical. The old women, many in their eighties, slowly began to handle, identify (eyesight not always so good) and discuss these familiar objects. Amazement was soon followed by laughter, delight, and not infrequently indignation, and even some tears. Each physical object would ‘trigger’ a long chain of recollections. Gradually an extraordinary stream of shared memories, anecdotes, jokes and stories would emerge. The flow – the flood – soon became unstoppable. It was quite unlike anything Marisse or her colleagues had heard before, and the memories had a knock-on or chain-reaction effect, each memory setting off another. Sometimes, it seemed, the evenings would explode into a party, a memory party.
This was the starting point for a brilliant MA dissertation on oral history, old age and community memory: Wash Day and Bath Night: Uncovering Women’s Reminiscences (2003). What did it demonstrate? Certainly that Marisse was a very good researcher, and knew how to wait, how to listen, and how to gain trust, like all good potential biographers. But also that memory and forgetting are subject to the law of association.
The concept of the association of ideas is at least as old as Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The argument was taken up by Hobbes and Pascal, and later elaborated by David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature (1738). Hume suggested that ideas were naturally linked by three qualities: ‘resemblance, contiguity in time or place, and cause and effect’. But it took an eighteenth-century doctor to transform these metaphysics into a scientific theory of memory.
One of the great, forgotten books of English Romanticism is David Hartley’s Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty and His Expectations, first published in 1749. Hartley was a successful physician who turned his hand to philosophy and psychology. Born in Yorkshire, he practised largely in London and Bath, where he developed a theory of consciousness based on his own medical observations of his patients. Hartley’s great originality was to consider memory primarily as a physiological process. It was something that occurred not only in the ‘mind’, but physically in the structure of the brain. Combining the empirical philosophy of Locke with his own views of the human nervous system, he argued that all memories were formed by ‘clusters’ or sequences of associated impressions and ideas. These were physiologically encoded in the brain in an enormous network of medullary ‘vibrations’, or smaller ‘vibratiuncles’, similar to electrical impulses moving through the brain tissue or ‘medullary substance’.
Although Hartley had not carried out dissections of the cerebral cortex, and had no effective map of the human brain (as we do today), his theories strikingly anticipate much speculative modern neuroscience. For example, Francis Crick’s study The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), with its characteristically provocative subtitle The Scientific Search for the Soul, proposes ‘40-Herz oscillations’ within the brain, and ‘reverberations’ within the cortex, as the possible basis of human consciousness: ‘Consciousness depends crucially on thalmic connections within the cortex. It exists only if certain cortical areas have reverberatory circuits … that project strongly enough to produce significant reverberations.’
In their most basic form Hartley’s associative clusters were linked to simple impressions of pleasure or pain, but they eventually organised themselves hierarchically. They evolved into all the higher forms of remembered knowledge, learning and reason. They evolved into notions of imagination, ambition, conscience and love. They even evolved into a belief in God, which Hartley called ‘theopathy’.
Hartley was a philanthropist, a vegetarian, a Christian and a believer in a mystical kind of Paradise. Yet in effect he was putting forward a theory of the entirely physical or ‘material’ evolution of the human brain. He saw no sign of the traditional division between mind and body. He detected no separate interjection of a ‘spirit’, a ‘divine spark’ or a soul. Memory was a form of electrical or chemical motion. As he put it in his famous Proposition 90: ‘All our voluntary powers are of the nature of Memory.’
Hartley also had an unusual theory of dreams. Far from being coded messages from the unconscious, they were simply part of the brain’s system of waste disposal. When we dream, we abandon the useless memories and associations of the day. Dreaming is a functional form of forgetting, which prevents the machinery of the brain from becoming overloaded. Without forgetfulness, we would become mad: ‘The wildness of our dreams seems to be of singular use to us, by interrupting and breaking the course of our associations. For if we were always awake, some accidental associations would be so cemented by continuance, as that nothing could afterwards disjoin them; which would be madness.’
These ideas strongly attracted the eighteenth-century scientist and free-thinker Joseph Priestley. Priestley was fascinated by various forms of chemical and electrical energy, and suspected that the human brain contained both. (He had a taste for daring innovations, and was the first to isolate, though not to identify, oxygen gas consumed in combustion.) In 1774 he edited a new edition of Hartley’s Observations with his own Preface. ‘Such a theory of the human mind … contains a new and most extensive science,’ he wrote. ‘It will be like entering upon a new world, affording inexhaustible matter for curious and useful speculation.’
But others were profoundly shocked. Thomas Reid, a Professor of Moral Philosophy from Edinburgh, observed that ‘the tendency of Hartley’s system is to make all the operations of the mind mere mechanism, dependent on the laws of matter and motion’. The horrific idea of human memory as a ‘mere mechanism’ inspired Reid to unleash a superb passage of polemic science fiction in his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785): ‘If one should tell of a telescope so exactly made as to have the power of feeling; of a whispering gallery that had the power of hearing; of a cabinet so nicely framed as to have the
It does not weaken Reid’s metaphysical outrage to observe that three hundred years later, most of these ‘absurd’ and incredible machines do exist. Certainly one could argue that the laparoscope (introducing carbon-fibre optics within the body), the mobile phone, the desktop computer and the MRI scanner demonstrate respectively many of the impossible features Reid describes.
More surprisingly, Hartley’s Observations deeply impressed a Romantic poet. In his extraordinary effusion of 1796 entitled ‘Religious Musings’ (a sort of intellectual tour d’horizon written at the age of twenty-three), Coleridge grouped David Hartley with Newton and Priestley as one of the three visionary English scientists who had truly glimpsed a ‘renovated Earth’. He described Hartley as the ‘wisest’ among scientific thinkers, who had fearlessly explored the human mind, and become (in a prophetic image)
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