Some years ago, I was commissioned to write and direct a half-hour film for one of the big motor companies – long gone now – based in the north of England. During my researches which involved, amongst other things, spending a couple of days being taken around their massive plant by a one of their technical guys, I was shown into an odd little room. It was rectangular, about six metres long by three wide, and about three high. There were no windows and just the one door. The walls and ceiling were completely covered in what I can only describe as being like the reverse side of hundreds of egg boxes – thousands upon thousands of small brown pyramids pointing out into the room. The room was an anechoic chamber. Not many of them around. But its name, I guess, is self-explanatory – i.e. as far as can be made possible, no sound whatever penetrates this room from the world beyond its closed door.
What its function was in a motor-manufacturing plant I’ve now forgotten. But I was so intrigued by the idea that my guide offered to let me spend ten minutes in that room, on my own, with the door shut. I jumped at the chance. He indicated to me the one item of furniture – a plain wooden chair – and left me sitting on it, saying he’d be back in ten minutes. The door closed behind him. Th e silence that immediately descended was so thick if felt almost as though it had hit me. In our normal, everyday lives we don’t encounter silence – not a real and total absence of all sound.
A very strange feeling came over me. Not only had the world around me suddenly changed quite dramatically, but it seemed also that my relationship with my own self was shifting in some odd way. Visually, my world was a claustrophobic, virtually featureless brown bunker. And the more I looked around at it, the more it took on a sense of being an intangible, abstract nothing. The only sounds I could hear were that of the blood pumping in my veins, and the strange creak of muscle and bone as I moved my head. Clap your hands or call out – and the sound seems to travel nowhere; it’s dead; it has the bizarre feeling of not having left your hands or to have emerged from your mouth. For nothing bounces it back. Then the mind, in an attempt to make sense of this, starts to go to some strange places – like – as nothing bounces it back, is that because there’s nothing out there anyway??
This is all seriously weird and disorienting. Some people apparently have come close to panic in these circumstances. I tried hard to get my head around it both at the time and since. And it was with something of a shock I realized that unless you’re one of those among us who are born profoundly deaf, your own view of yourself and who you actually are is dependent to an enormous degree on the echo – aural and visual – that constantly bounces back at you from the world around you. Take all that echo away and – well, who are you? Are you who you thought you were? And are you that person only because of your relation to the world around you?
OK, I’m John – or Joan – Smith and I’m twenty. Or forty. Fifty, whatever. But when I think about it, I wasn’t John or Joan until my parents gave me that name. Until then, I existed nameless. Yet still very much ‘me’. And I guess my name anyway, is no more than a convenient label; something by which others can identify me. And I can change it – in the UK at least. I can call myself pretty well whatever I like. If the fancy takes me, I can be known hereafter as Heironymous Buggins. So my name is not part of the essential ‘me’. So what is?
My job? (Assuming I’m lucky enough to have one) My three-bedroom house and my nice car? They’re part of who I am. Or are they? Like my name, those things can change. I could lose my job. Or do some entirely different job. Then maybe we’d move to the Outer Hebrides, get a camper van and sell the car. So those things are not part of the real ‘me’ either. And I suppose by the ‘real me’ I’m starting to think of as that something that has persisted despite all these changes. Because something has.
OK – got it! My memories! They are permanent. And mine. Nobody else’s.
I was just thinking of that wonderful summer holiday you and I had in Scotland.
It was autumn. Not summer. The trees were all those beautiful golds and reds.
I’ve never been to Scotland in the autumn.
Yes, you have – don’t you remember? – it was that summer when you had the operation on your foot and couldn’t drive for a couple of months so we put it off to October.
Ah no. You’re getting mixed up. That was the summer before. I know that because your mother came for a couple of weeks in the early part and the three of us spent a week at that lovely pub – The Crown – in Dorset.
Was that the name – ‘The Crown’?
That, or ‘The Kings Head’.
Mmm. You’re right.
Good to look back on lovely memories, isn’t it?
And so on and so on. What memories? What do we actually remember? What can we recall faithfully? Others there at the same event can be guaranteed to recall it slightly differently. And at best we recall bits here, bits there. Most of the things we remember, we eventually forget.
So memories are out. But ‘I’ – whatever that is – is still there throughout. In the spaces between the memories, that ‘I’ is still there in the background. Or the foreground – I’m not sure which.
But if memories are out – what does that leave me with? My body? That’s promising. My body’s been there from the time before I had a name, right up to this minute. And it’ll be there till I die.
Wait a minute – what have I just said? ‘It will be there till I die’. Sounds a bit like I think ‘I’ and my body are two different things. And anyway, why do I refer to it as ‘my’ body? Like ‘I’ own it. I use the word ‘my’ only for things that are mine; things I own. And if ‘I’ own ‘my’ body – like I own my computer and my bicycle – it’s clear that at some level of my being I see ‘I’ and this body as being separate. Oh dear. And as I think about it – the body I have now is not the body I had before I had a name. Nor is it the body I’ll have when I die. The reason being that the cells in the body are constantly being regenerated. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus about how often the whole body is replaced in this way. But it’s clear that the body I live in now is either wholly or partly a different one from the one I had before I was called John. Or Joan. Or whatever. Heironymous.
Where does that leave me? ‘I’ can’t be my body. I’m not my memories, my home, my car, my job, my name. All those things are just elements in a sort of story. Yet something – some will-o’-the-wisp – has persisted uninterrupted all the time from my birth through all these other events and changes across the years. And it’s here now too as I write this.