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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Monday, 31 August 2015

The Eye's Mind

For many years now I have sought opportunities to talk to people about how they think, by which I mean whether they have access to visual imagery. Most do - in fact I have yet to come across anybody who hasn't, though the question often prompts discussion about just what is meant by visual imagery. My impression is that very few people have really considered their thinking process, and generally assume that everybody thinks in more or less the same way they do. The discussions are usually non-productive, mainly, I think, because language is inadequate to convey mental experience in any way which allows two people to communicate effectively.

So, I was pleased to read recently that a research project has started in to the phenomenon of "aphantasia" - the name suggested by the researchers for a lack of visual imagery. See http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/research/neuroscience/theeyesmind/ for more information including an interesting presentation summarising the experience of a number of visual artists.

I have no visual imagery now (I am aphantasic!) but I think I did have some visual imagery as a child and young person. I can remember having had visual daydreams and have recently recalled an experience from my mid-teens when, during an history exam, I can recall that I "saw" pages of text sort of hovering in front of me and was able to copy it onto my answer paper. I also think that I have visual imagery in dreams, though I rarely remember dreams - perhaps that is because I lack visual imagery in waking life?

So what do my thought processes consist of? What am I doing when I access a memory? It seems that language is at the centre of my thinking; my sense is of an almost constant internal monologue (sometimes a dialogue) which I am "hearing". I do in fact feel as if I can hear sounds in my head so I have a mind's ear if not a mind's eye. It would be interesting to know if those people who have strong visual imagery also have an auditory imagination, or is there some trade-off between the senses? I also have a strong spatial sense; it is as if I can "feel" the physical relationship between things even though I can't see them. As for remembering, if I try hard to bring say a person to mind then it is as if I am hearing myself describe them, usually unsuccessfully.

I find this a fascinating topic and am looking forward to the outcome of the Exeter research project, though I suspect it will throw up more questions than it does answers.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The meaning of music

I have never understood music. By that statement I mean that I have never felt engaged or moved by music in the way some other people seem to be. I have often heard people say how important music is in their lives, that they could not "live" without it, and it seems to be very hard in the modern world to get away from music. I just find it annoying, and cannot remember the last time I purposely listened to a piece of music of any sort. There are some songs (usually 1960s/70s pop songs) which carry me back in time, but it seems to me that it is the association that is significant, not the music itself. I have tried to embrace various types of music over the years and have occasionally almost convinced my self that I enjoyed them, but it never lasted.

Image result for orfeo powersSo, all the more strange that a novel I have just finished makes me feel that I have been missing out on something special. The novel being Richard Powers' "Orfeo". It has as its central character an avant-garde modern composer; not simply a composer though, but a man who is musically literate to a degree I had not conceived. I can only guess that Powers himself is similarly gifted which makes me feel doubly envious - surely it is unfair that the man can write so well and understand music! The book traces the life of the composer Peter Els from childhood to age 70, detailing his relationships, (small) successes, frequent failures, uncertainties, mistakes and personal losses. Above all though it is an account of his immersion in music. Woven into Els' story, in the compass of a conventionally sized novel, are ideas about obsession, the recent history of America, mental illness, ageing, art ....... And sometimes Powers' imaginative use of language leaves this reader at least breathless with wonder. Perhaps words and music for Powers are inter-related? What can it be like to be Richard Powers?

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Blindfold

Image result for Hustvedt BlindfoldI have felt more intrigued by this book than by any I have recently read. It was in fact a rather painful read being an account in the first person of a young woman's experience of mental instability - I can only surmise from the powerful sense of authenticity that the author (Siri Hustvedt) has herself experienced something similar.

It is a short novel but contains a great deal to challenge the reader - the nature and role of memory; what is "normal"; questions of gender and sexual identity; moral uncertainty. It seems that in the novel Iris, a very intelligent but highly insecure post-graduate student, is looking back over about 8 years of her life at various events, incidents and relationships which she presumably considers to have been formative. We are given no indication of her mental or emotional state at point of narration, though it might be guessed that the recollection is some form of therapy.The structure is disjointed, and probably intentionally so, to reflect the mental state of the narrator. Strange names appear, such as "Mr. Morning" and "Paris" (a man); the narrator's name is Iris Vegan though she uses pseudonyms at various times. 

The whole novel is an act of remembering and a central theme of the work is about the nature of memory - do we remember things as they were or are memories primarily a construction? It is not impossible that the whole novel, presented as Iris's memories, are in fact simply her fantasies. Much is made of Iris recalling in detail, at a dinner party, a particular painting and giving a minute description of it, but failing to remember a significant element. So her account of her experiences may also be unreliable.

Why is the novel titled "The Blindfold"? Certainly there is an incident involving a blindfold but it seems no more significant in itself than various other things that happen to Iris. Perhaps there is an implication that her cumulative experiences have resulted in a new clarity of vision about herself, as if a blindfold has been removed? At various points in the novel she sees herself in a mirror and seems surprised that what she sees does not correspond to how she thought of herself, though this seems to have little effect on her behaviour.

There are hints of sexual ambiguity at various points in the novel - Iris herself adopts a semi-male identity for a period. It is implied that some of the male characters may in fact be bi-sexual, and some others are borderline deviants. There is a disturbing scene in a mental ward where she imagines (?) being sexually assaulted by an elderly female patient. Iris is presented as being sexually active, sexually interested, and attractive, but sex is not enough for her, and her motivations for engaging in relationships are unclear, especially to herself.

The reader is not told much about her background but it seems clear that she is divorced physically and intellectually from her home environment. She is attempting to swim in an unfamiliar and, at times, hostile milieu, and seems likely to drown. The way she presents, and apparently sees, herself is as a reflection of others. It seems that Iris is in fact searching for an identity, and consistently failing to find one. The book ends abruptly and it may be that the title in fact suggests that she remains blindfolded in spite of all she has experienced.

I was gripped by this novel, and am sure that some aspects of it will remain with me. My sense is that it is about as close as a "normal" person is likely to come to experiencing what it is like to be mentally ill.