This long pursuit, p.8
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       This Long Pursuit, p.8

           Richard Holmes

  … The first who marked the ideal tribes

  Up the fine fibres through the sentient brain.

  Many of Coleridge’s most subtle early poems, such as ‘Frost at Midnight’ (1798), with its complex patterns of memory association, are explorations of Hartley’s theories. Like a memory box, this poem contains a series of physical objects and sensations – an owl’s cry, a flickering fire, a baby’s cradle, the sound of church bells – which reverberate into an ever-expanding orchestration of memories. These also produce, like complex harmonies, several layers of past and future identity. The adult Coleridge becomes a child again; while the child remembers he has become a father; and the father blesses the child. It is no coincidence that the actual baby in this poem is Coleridge’s eldest son, Hartley, born near Bristol in 1796 and named in honour of the philosopher-doctor.

  Coleridge’s later Notebooks have many passages exploring the phenomenon of memory association, such as those connected with his beloved ‘Asra’, Sara Hutchinson. In an agonised notebook entry for 5 March 1810, when she was preparing to leave him, he wrote down an enormous catalogue of all the objects which by ‘the Law of Association’ reminded him of her – from a piece of music to a waterfall, from a bedroom door ajar to the delicious white sauce on a joint of meat. He described them as forming a powerful cluster of ideas, almost unbearably strong and vivid, ‘that subtle Vulcanian Spider-web Net of Steel – strong as Steel yet subtle as the Ether – in which my soul flutters enclosed with the Idea of your’s’.

  Here Hartley’s ‘vibrations’ have been subtly transformed back into a ‘flutter’ of the soul; a word that also occurs at a key place in ‘Frost at Midnight’. In this beautiful and observant passage, Coleridge uses the faint flicker of convected air above his fire (the mirage-like ‘film’, not the visible flame) to produce a remarkable image of human consciousness itself. It is essentially unstable, dynamic and playfully inventive.

  … the thin blue flame

  Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;

  Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

  Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.

  Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature

  Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,

  Making it a companionable form,

  Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit

  By its own moods interprets, every where

  Echo or mirror seeking of itself,

  And makes a toy of Thought.

  Coleridge would go on to dedicate three entire chapters of his Biographia Literaria (1817) to the history of Associationism ‘traced from Aristotle to Hartley’. In one place in Chapter 6, he remarked that Hartley’s theory of memory could be compared to ‘a broad stream, winding through a mountainous country with an indefinite number of currents, varying and running into each other according as the gusts chance to blow from the opening of the mountains’.


  In one form or another, the theory of Associationism remained hugely influential throughout the Romantic period. The radical idea of memory as a physiological process was seen to provide a possible link between human consciousness and the rest of the living world, however remote. Coleridge had written of ‘dim sympathies’ with ‘companionable forms’. More than seventy years after Hartley’s Observations, the great chemist Sir Humphry Davy was exploring Associationism in connection with freshwater fish in his book Salmonia, or Days of Fly-Fishing, published in 1828.

  He was investigating the mysterious memories of fish, which he regarded as quite as interesting a phenomenon as those of human beings. For example, once a trout was caught and thrown back into the river, could it remember being hooked? Could it remember the pain of being hooked? Could it feel – or remember – pain at all? And if so, was trout-fishing inherently cruel? This seems an astonishingly modern question: ‘But do you think nothing of the torture of the hook, and the fear of capture, and the misery of struggling against the powerful rod?’

  Davy debates these issues in a series of dialogues, which gain an added poignancy from the fact that he himself was ill, in pain and near death at the time he wrote them. ‘My only chance of recovery is in entire repose,’ he wrote from the shores of Lake Constance in July 1827, ‘and I have even given up angling, and amuse myself by dreaming and writing a very little, and studying the natural history of fishes … I now use green spectacles, and have given up my glass of wine per day.’

  He concludes that although a trout may not feel pain in a human sense, it does remember being hooked, and afterwards may subsequently ‘refuse an artificial fly day after day, for weeks together’. Davy thought the reason for this was that the trout associated the pain with the place: ‘The memory seems local and associated with surrounding objects; and if a pricked trout is chased into another pool, he will, I believe, soon again take the artificial fly. Or if the objects around him are changed, as in Autumn, by the decay of weeds, or by their being cut, the same thing happens.’


  One afternoon about five years ago I was walking around a favourite flowerbed in Norfolk, which my beloved Rose and I had dug and planted from scratch. Every plant and shrub was an old friend – iceberg roses, Hidcote lavenders, blue hydrangeas, magnolia, purple berberis, red-tipped photinia, Japanese anemones, scarlet crocosmia, white potentilla. Then I came to a pleasant, green-tufted shrub which had once been the size of a modest pincushion and was now more like that of a plump chaise-longue. I had often fed it, clipped it, hoed uxoriously under its skirts. I had, frankly, often wished to sprawl full length on its springy, inviting mattress of minute green foliage and tiny white flowerets.

  But on this particular afternoon I gazed down at its familiar, cheery, hospitable shape and realised that I had totally forgotten its name. For several uncomfortable minutes I stared blankly at it, reaching into the pocket of my memory and finding it alarmingly empty, just as if I had suddenly lost a set of car keys. Only when I turned to walk back up the lawn, and was momentarily distracted by the flight of a pigeon above the beech trees, did the name ‘hebe’ spring effortlessly to mind.

  Of course this is a common phenomenon among the late-middle-aged. (Is it called ‘nominative aphasia’? I can’t remember.) It applies particularly to the names of specific things – people, places, books, or – as in my case – plants. It can be combated, especially by child-like mnemonic devices. ‘Hebe-jeeby’ has rarely failed me since. Nevertheless, it tends to spread steadily and insidiously once it has begun. No one has quite explained its causes. I know a computer expert who calls it the ‘disk full’ effect; while others speak of ‘senior moments’, or hardening cerebral arteries, weakened synaptic links, alcohol, tea-drinking, metaphysical distraction, existential anxiety, incipient dementia, or just the middle-aged mind generally ‘on other things’ – though not necessarily higher ones.

  This kind of forgetting certainly belongs to the goddess who has no name. Yet it is not so much a failure to remember – more a failure to recollect. The missing word, the absent object, has not really disappeared; rather, it has become temporarily and mysteriously unavailable. Moreover, the act of recollection works in a curious way. When I actively tried to recollect, it was as if I was constantly on the brink of remembrance, or stuttering with a word, or slipping back from the last few inches of a rope-climb. But the moment I stopped trying, the moment I looked up and admired the pigeon in his evening swoop over the beech trees, the word ‘hebe’ arrived without effort, without strain, like a free gift.

  Coleridge was one of the first to describe this phenomenon of ‘active and passive recollection’, in his Biographia. It also appears in the remarkable Chapter 6, where he compares the mental law of Association with that of the physical law of gravitation: ‘it is to Thought the same, as the law of gravitation is to locomotion’. Sometimes we actively strive for memory, sometimes we passively yield to forgetfulness. When someone is ‘trying to recollect a name’, he uses ‘alternate pulses of active and passive moti
on’. The surprising analogy Coleridge gives for this mental process is that of a tiny water-beetle paddling its way up the surface of a stream. He adds that a very similar active-passive is at work in the composing of poetry. The passage, with its impression of Coleridge himself bending over the surface of the water (or the mind), minutely observant, half poet and half scientist, is itself a kind of mnemonic image:

  Now let a man watch his mind while he is composing; or, to take a still more common case, while he is trying to recollect a name … Most of my readers will have observed a small water-insect on the surface of rivulets, which throws a cinque-spotted shadow fringed with prismatic colours on the sunny bottom of the brook; and will have noticed how the little animal wins its way up against the stream, by alternate pulses of active and passive motion, now resisting the current and now yielding to it in order to gather further strength and a momentary fulcrum for a further propulsion. This is no unapt emblem of the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking. There are evidently two powers at work …


  The power of what has been forgotten can sometimes be as great as that which has been remembered. In Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Old Man’, the unnamed bush that stands outside his cottage door has a tiny leaf with a dark, bitter, haunting smell. It evokes something he can never quite place or explain. Each time he rubs it between his fingers, the scent sweeps him back to the borders of a primitive memory, which is never quite rediscovered:

  As for myself

  Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.

  I, too, often shrivel the grey shards,

  Sniff them and think and sniff again and try

  Once more to think what it is I am remembering,

  Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,

  Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,

  With no meaning than this bitter one.

  I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray

  And think of nothing; I see and hear nothing;

  Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait

  For what I should, yet never can, remember …

  Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

  Thomas’s poem also reminds one of the peculiar power of smell to summon up – to call back – specific memories (especially of places). I have an aftershave which instantly recalls a certain room in a motel in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, in California.

  Marcel Proust observed in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu that the smell and taste of things are ‘more faithful’ than visual images. They remain suspended in the mind for a long time, ‘like souls ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment to come amid the ruins of all the rest; they bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection’.

  That was written in 1913, as Proust reflected in Paris on the extraordinary power of the madeleine dipped in the tisane to call back the memories of his country childhood in Combray. It has become the classic literary reference to the power of smell and taste to summon memories. But five years earlier, in a dark lane near the River Thames, another equally powerful summons – with the force of ‘an electric shock’ – had already been recorded:

  We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s intercommunication with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word ‘smell’ for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal at night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of those mysterious fairy calls from out of the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, while as yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recover the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him.

  This of course is the Mole from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), trudging along one freezing December night on his way back to Ratty’s snug riverside burrow, when suddenly ambushed by olfactory memory. He too does not know for some moments what he is smelling, only that its associations are bewilderingly strong. Then finally comes ‘recollection in the fullest flood’. What he is smelling is ‘Home!’ and his own past life there (back in the spring). ‘Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him in the darkness!’

  Smell can be piercingly direct in its transporting power. In his autobiography, Something of Myself (1937), Rudyard Kipling describes a very particular, pungent kind of woodsmoke, made up of burning tar, old ammunition boxes and railway-sleepers, with which he says he could move an entire battalion of men (and a lion cub) to the veldt of South Africa, by reactivating their memories of the Boer War. Yet the precise action of smell on the human memory still remains mysterious.

  In October 2004 the Nobel Prize for Physiology was presented to two American scientists, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, for a brilliant paper on the connection between the nose and the brain. They established that the human nose has nearly a thousand separate ‘receptors’ (ten times more than a fish, though forty times less than a dog). These have complex connections with the cortex, involving no less than 3 per cent of our genes. They form unique clusters, or ‘olfactory patterns’, which are capable of holding ‘memories of approximately 10,000 different odours’, a truly astonishing resource. Yet when asked, in the course of an interview for the BBC World Service, what light their prize-winning work threw on Proust’s experience, Richard Axel answered simply, ‘None at all.’

  In her popular science book The Human Brain: A Guided Tour (1997), Susan Greenfield concludes, in a way that David Hartley would surely have recognised, that ‘Memory is a cornerstone of the mind.’ But, writing as a Professor of Pharmacology, she still emphasises how little can be said definitely about the relationship between its ‘phenomenological and physical’ functioning. There is no generally accepted theory of how the brain produces the mind, or the mind generates consciousness, or of how consciousness depends on memory. The human brain has one hundred billion cells, and their infinitely complex interaction remains much more mysterious than the functioning of an entire galactic star system. Perhaps there is something oddly reassuring about this.

  Neurological experiments have proved that there is a short-term memory (which seems to be connected to the hippocampus, and lasts up to thirty minutes). There is also a separate long-term memory, which may last over ninety years, and seems to be distributed throughout the cerebral cortex. Amazing feats of memory have also been accurately studied and measured in the performance of chess-players, musicians, actors, sports aficionados (entire Wisdens committed to memory) or autistic patients. One vividly recalls the sweating Memory Man’s public performance in the dramatic finale to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935); though it is easy to forget that he does not in fact appear in the original novel (1915) by John Buchan.

  Nevertheless, the actual way in which a single, discrete memory (if there is such a thing) is ‘recorded’ in the human brain remains bafflingly obscure. Writing of Wilder Penfield’s open-brain surgical experiments in Canada in the 1950s, Greenfield observes, ‘The clinical cases reported by Penfield would also suggest that memory is not stored simply: it is not laid down directly in the brain. Rather, as seen in Penfield’s studies, a cache of memories would be more like a nebulous series of dreams. One immediate problem was that the memories themselves were not like highly specific recordings on a video and were a far cry from the memories on a computer. Another problem was that if the same area was stimulated by Penfield on different occasions, different memories were elicited. Conversely, the same memories could be generated from stimulating different areas. No one has yet shown definitively how these phenomena can be explained in terms of brain functioning.’

  Nevertheless, the basis of all memory still seems to be conceived as the establishment of ‘associations
’ through clusters or ‘networks’ of neuronal links: ‘We know that long-term memory is accompanied by an increase in the number of presynaptic terminals, and we know that memory involves establishing new associations.’ Chemical transmitters, voltage changes and synaptic ‘circuits’ have partly replaced Hartley’s speculative ‘vibrations’, although the old imagery of flood and drought is still hauntingly present. Explaining the role of calcium in forming a neuronal connection, Greenfield writes of the glutamate receptor cell ‘opening the channel for calcium ions to flood in’, and subsequently of the ‘large influx of calcium’ strengthening the synapse by releasing ‘a chemical cascade within the target cell’.

  Neuroscience also recognises many types of forgetting, though most of these are pathological. They include numerous kinds of brain damage; various forms of post-traumatic amnesia; Korsakoff’s syndrome (based on severe dietary deficiency); alcoholic blackouts and lapses; Wernicke’s aphasia, in which speech itself is unlearned; Parkinson’s (in which the brain forgets physical coordination); and of course Alzheimer’s, which is not a natural consequence of old age, but a very specific degenerative disease of the medial temporal lobe.

  Forgetting as a more positive, constructive, or even healing process – both for individuals and for whole societies, such as post-Apartheid South Africa – has begun to receive more attention. And then there is always the ‘benign protective amnesia’ of old age, as reflected in Groucho Marx’s memorable aside: ‘I never forget a face, but in your case I’m prepared to make an exception.’


  Old age brings one particularly enigmatic feature of the lifelong exchange between Memory and Forgetting. It is the striking, but apparently paradoxical, fact that as old people begin to forget their immediate past, they often begin to remember their distant childhood with startling vividness. What possible metaphysical or physiological explanation can be given for this phenomenon?

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