"Every story is supposed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, it doesn't matter what order they come in, as long as they're there. One of the things that makes a memory different from a story is that it might well come with a beginning and an end, but the middle tends to blur or even vanish altogether....Any first meeting is the occasion for a romance that might last a lifetime, a thin, subliminal stratum of scents and sounds that can be awakened years later by the faintest stimulus - even if the moment came to nothing."
Burnside's memoirs brim with the idea of the narrative self, the way we make our own stories up as we going along, trying to make sense of the seemingly random and painful things that happen to us. I've written before on 'Poetry on the Brain' about Benjamin Libet's experiments into the gap between intention and action and the implications for our notion of free will, the way the conscious self is alerted to actions that the body is already performing.
As Michael Shermer puts it in 'The Believing Brain' (2011), the story-weaving capacities of the left-hemisphere are not necessarily more instructive: the neural network he calls the ‘left hemisphere interpreter’ is adept at reconstructing events into a logical sequence and a story that ‘makes sense’. But its reconstruction may not be faithful, it is biased towards that necessity of ‘making sense’. And it engages in confabulation. In 'The Telltale Brain' (2011), V.S. Ramachandran discusses anosognosia, the denial of paralysis seen in some patients after a stroke which affects the right hemisphere. Since the left hemisphere is concerned with constructing an internally-coherent belief system:
‘If there is a small piece of anomalous information that doesn’t fit your “big picture” belief system, the left hemisphere tries to smooth over the discrepancies and anomalies in order to preserve the coherence of the self and the stability of behaviour. …the left hemisphere sometimes even fabricates information to preserve its harmony and overall view of itself’ (2011:267)
The right hemisphere, by contrast, is concerned with detecting these discrepancies, is sensitive to paradox and contradiction. To quote Iain McGilchrist:
'Paradox means, literally, a finding that is contrary to received opinion or expectation. That immediately alerts us, since the purveyor of received opinion and expectation is the left hemisphere. I
Patients with a right hemisphere stroke who are paralysed on the left side of their body will deny that they are paralysed at all. Ramachandran believes this clinical evidence relates to ‘the kinds of everyday denials and rationalisations that we all engage in to tide over the discrepancies in our daily lives’ (2011:267). McGilchrist connects confabulation to a shift in Western philosophy in which paradox gradually became conceived of as something more and more problematic.
Poetry often makes a show of that confabulation or misremembering, makes a virtue of the narrative self. We are not who we think we are. We are adept story tellers. In a sense, the version of events a poem offers might be as accurate as anything we're likely to tell ourselves. John Burnside is always sensitive to that in his own poetry, alive to the prospect of parallel lives. In 'Documentary' (from 'The Hunt in the Forest', 2009), he imagines
where the street is a parallel street in a parallel world
and everything is altered slightly, though not that much,
only another version of what we know
going about its business, our parallel selves
brighter and more successful than we seem...
But there's nothing overly-sentimental about the parallel worlds evoked in Burnside's work. As he reflects in 'Waking Up In Toytown', the glamour we touch even our most painful memories with is artificial, a product of the narrative tendency. And that's just fine. To quote him:
"Didn't F. Scott Fitzgerald say somewhere that the difference between a sentimentalist and a romantic is that the sentimentalist is afraid that things won't last forever, whereas a romantic is afraid that they will?"