A river of water cannot be altered by the man on the bank. But thought and reason and curiosity do cause the stream of consciousness to alter its course and even change its content completely.

– Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (1975)

As a neurosurgeon in the 1930s, Penfield was applying a 2-volt electrode to various sites in an epileptic patient’s brain when he discovered a problem with the stream of conscious metaphor.

The patient, who was conscious during the procedure, reported that she was re-experiencing a remembered scene in which she was looking at her young son in the yard. The memory included sensory inputs from different sources – in addition to what she saw, she also heard neighborhood sounds, such as car traffic – and it was clear from events within the memory that it was a record in which time was passing (it was not a still picture). Being both a convergence and a flow, the memory was very much like a stream or river.

However, the patient was aware at the same time that she was in an operating room and talking with a neurosurgeon. The consciousness embedded in the memory was her own, experiencing the scene as real, but some other aspect of her consciousness was like the man on the riverbank, watching it all go by, knowing it was not happening right now. The man on the bank changed the content of the river, polluting it with self-aware self-awareness.

Alternatively, there is no man on the riverbank; memories may instead be undercurrents in the overall stream of consciousness. Currents and undercurrents may interact and change the course and content of streams.

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…time, the destroyer, has begun to pile up rubble. Sharp edges have been blunted, and whole sections have collapsed: periods and places collide, are juxtaposed or are inverted, like strata displaced by the tremors on the crust of an ageing planet. Some insignificant detail belonging to the distant past may now stand out like a peak, while whole layers of my past have disappeared without a trace.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

Memory is like geology for Levi-Strauss, or at least the part of geology that tears down the forms that it built up before. You could call it deconstruction.

This is the perspective of age looking back, aware that continents and monuments have slipped and slid, some sunk out of sight forever. This is not the perspective of forward-looking youth, when the whole world is new and yet to reach its height.

The peak that stands out in memory is a least-likely survivor, grinning idiotically after all others have been worn down to nothing. You strain to remember the face of a loved one and yet can recite every word of the song from Mr. Ed.

Love shakes my heart like a wind sweeping down a mountain onto oaks.

– Sappho, fragment 47 (translated by Suzy Q. Groden)

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It is surprisingly difficult to say what desire feels like. Sappho describes its invisible force in terms of another invisible force, a strong wind that races down a mountainside, accumulating power, thrashing limbs of the sturdiest of trees. The metaphor externalizes desire, making it a visual to be observed at a distance. But it also calls upon memory, encouraging you to recall a time when you stood on the flank of a mountain, holding onto your hat. You might think also of your first love and realize the mountain is your body and the limbs of the trees are your trembling arms and legs.

Songwriters typically compare the physical sensation of desire to a fire. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (1960, covered by The Guess Who in 1965) evoke the feeling with an itemized list of quaking bones.

Quivers down my back bone

I’ve got the shakes down the kneebone

Yeah havin’ the tremors in the thighbone

Shakin’ all over

For another “wind in the trees” metaphor, use the Search box to find “Like the moon needs poetry.” See also “kite dancing in a hurricane.”

Painting: Detail from Storm in the Mountains (circa 1870) by Albert Bierstadt; Museum of Fine Arts Boston (mfa.org)

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You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead.

– Paul McCartney, “Two of Us” (1969)

The “Two of Us” lyric turned out to be literally true. The bullet that ended John Lennon’s life was eleven years up the road, while he and Paul looked back on a friendship that began in 1955. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they might have said, if the Grateful Dead hadn’t said it already.

The idea that a lifetime is a journey is as old as mythology. The stories of heroes – Theseus, Jesus, King Arthur – present themselves as adventures that occur during travels, revealing by stages the hero’s full power and true self. It’s interesting that life as a journey should take hold universally among humans, since most of us (historically) have lived all our lives within a few miles of where we were born. The journey is one through time rather than space and, arguably, from me-centered need to a sense of belonging in a community.

One of Paul’s worst songs, “Long and Winding Road,” pictures a meandering route of “many ways” that always returns “to your door.” The idea of losing one’s way and rediscovering the true path is a staple for sermonizers. But the journey metaphor allows for happy wandering too. In “Two of Us.” Paul recalls the best times were when he and John went “Sunday driving, not arriving.” They had fun as young criminals – mocking adults who insisted on the seriousness of life, cheerfully “spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”

Photo: Denali National Park; NPS

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Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man

Once I stopped fulminating over how silly it was to ask a tambourine man to play a song, I began to reconsider the song’s “smoke rings of my mind” image. Today it looks like the best of all those “of my mind” metaphors. After all, thoughts are insubstantial like smoke. They spread, ramify, and fade. The smoke implies a smoker who, in the song, is both a thinker and an observer of himself thinking. And what he thinks about smoke rings is — they are a portal that can “take me disappearing.” Poof!

Most “of my mind” metaphors in pop lyrics fall into three categories.

  1. The mind is a house decorated with pictures (memories): Vernon Oxford, Dolly Parton, Vanilla Ninja, Jennings and Keller.
  2. The mind is a refuge where the hidden self resides: Paul Simon, Beth Hart.
  3. The mind is an unknown territory where fearful possibilities lurk: Dylan (1987), Wallflowers, Anouk.

Notable exception: In “Windmills of Your Mind,” the most meta of meta-metaphorical songs, the mind is a vortex of vortices.

"Of My Mind" in Pop Lyrics

(Posted on FB June 11, 2014)

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The “book” of memory

When we take a memory out, we fiddle with it a little before putting it back.

In Treatment (season 2, week 3, Gina)

Through most of human history, memory has been compared to a “book” where one can look up past events and knowledge. In the age of computers, memory has become a file and is rewritable.

Here is Plato’s “block of wax” description of memory:

Imagine, then, for the sake of argument, that our minds contain a block of wax, which in this or that individual may be larger or smaller, and composed of wax that is comparatively pure or muddy, and harder in some, softer in others, and sometimes of just the right consistency.…[W]henever we wish to remember something we see or hear or conceive in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions or ideas and imprint them on it as we might stamp the impression of a seal ring. — Trans. FM Cornford, in Hamilton and Cairns, Complete Dialogues of Plato

(Posted on FB June 23, 2012)