Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Fighting ghosties


Before all you mental heath professionals start jumping all over me I do not pretend for one moment to be an expert or even well read on this topic. It did present itself as an interesting way to get people to consider how they look at poetry.


When the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University during the First World War, memory had only just started to be considered a psychological rather than a philosophical subject. A game of Chinese Whispers gave him an idea which he developed into a simple experiment. In 1932 he asked a group of people to listen to the following short folk tale:

One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: "Maybe this is a war-party". They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:

"What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people."

One of the young men said," I have no arrows."

"Arrows are in the canoe," they said.

"I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you," he said, turning to the other, "may go with them."

So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.

And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, "Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit." Now he thought: "Oh, they are ghosts." He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: "Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick."

He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

He was dead.

BARTLETT WITH PIPE and once they had finished, like you just have, he got them to repeat the story. Of course no one could repeat it verbatim – it's too long for that – but from what people could and could not recall Bartlett realised that what each individual was doing was altering it to fit their existing knowledge and beliefs, and it was this modified story which then became fixed in their memories. Bartlett's findings led him to propose the notion of 'schema' – the cultural and historical contextualisation of memory – which has important implications for eyewitness testimony and false memory syndrome, and even for artificial intelligence!

This effectively means that we cannot trust our memories because there's a filter in between, editing and revising what we see and hear. It's like the wife when you tell her that her husband has died in a car crash, she simply refuses to 'hear' it: "No, he's not dead. You're being silly. How could he be dead? He's just gone to the shops. He'll be back any minute. Just you wait and see."

Remembering begins at the point of perception. If we perceive inaccurately then we will remember inaccurately. But even if we perceive accurately who is to say that we will remember accurately? You read that story at your own pace but what you remember is the gist of the story, maybe the odd specific detail like the number of men who were out hunting or how many were in the canoe; even now, especially because you're focusing on these new words, it's slipping away.

Those are just facts and figures though, the two men and the five in the canoe. They're the easy bits. The most important thing that Bartlett noticed was a normalising and rationalising of the events in the story. The very title of the piece “War of Ghosts” emphasises the fact that ghosts are an integral element of the story and yet in Bartlett’s original research, the subjects increasingly omitted the word “ghosts” when they recalled the piece.  This seems to be due to the fact that ghosts were concepts that were not prevalent within the normal schema of his test subjects. Also none of his test subject were Native Americans either so the whole scenario was foreign to them and they did their best to make it make sense in their heads.

We transform, we resequence events, we simplify, we crave order and sense and if something won't fit, well, we simply reject it. Do you remember what the two men were hunting by the way? Some remembered them as out fishing. Fishing is normal. People fish the world over. But how many hunt seals these days? Or maybe that jumped out at you because it was unusual because just as we try and fit what we read into a framework we can come to terms with the fact is – and advertisers make the most of this – we will often remember the weird and wonderful before we'll remember the humdrum as long as there's not too much of it and then we start to select. A good example of that if the film Airplane. It wasn't till the third or fourth viewing that I could honestly say I'd caught the bulk of the gags.

So what has all of this to do with poetry? Quite a bit I think.

Poems are strange places, foreign lands. I've never read a single poem in my life and felt comfortable there right away, not even that 'Mr. Bleaney' I keep going on about. They are as alien as a bunch of Red Indian spirits going off to war. And I wrote 'Red Indians' deliberately, not to offend but to underline the fact that when I read 'Native Americans' my brain hears 'Red Indians' because I was brought up in a world where that's what they were called. When I read that story one of the first things I wondered was why the men weren't called 'braves'; that would have made more sense to me because I have a representation in my head of their world based almost entirely on Wild West films I saw as a kid. That's also why I changed 'ghosts' to 'spirits' because I've never heard an Indian talk about ghosts; they use the term 'spirit', as in 'Great Spirit'.

You'd imagine that memory comes into play after a poem has been read, a consequence of perception, but the fact is that remembering begins with the first word and is a process that continues while the poem is being read and after it is finished. It also has to contend with everything else that's going on round about it. Sometimes I think it's good to sit for a second and think about how much multi-tasking our brain has to do.

Kant first coined the word 'schema; He described the 'dog schema' as a mental pattern which

…can delineate the figure of a four-footed animal in a general manner, without limitation to any single determinate figure as experience, or any possible image that I can represent in concreto (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, p1781)

which makes schemata an effective tool for understanding the world. Through the use of schemata, most everyday situations don't demand effortful processing – automatic processing is all that is required. People can quickly organize new perceptions into schemata and act effectively without effort. For example, most of us have a 'stairway schema' and can apply it to climb staircases we've never seen before.

So, is there such a thing as a 'poem schema'? Of course. And then you come up against a piece like this:


and you go, "No, wait a sec, that's not a poem," because it doesn't conform to what you have in your head as a poem. Schemata aren't fixed in stone though. This is a poem by the Scottish poet Stephen Nelson and it's very clear that his definition of 'poem' is a lot broader than a lot of people's. Not only does this poem fight with what we have with out head's definition of a poem, it also makes our perception work overtime: we fill in the blanks: 'st a t e' becomes 'state', we can't help it.

Easterhouse Egulac is meaningless to me – 'Egulac' in case you've forgotten was the village where the two men in the story came from – and I expect that Easterhouse will be meaningless to you unless you're from the Glasgow area. I've never actually been there. We used to drive by an area when we were kids which for years I always associated with Easterhouse but I've never confirmed that it was so my mental picture of the place could be completely faulty. I also imagined it as a scary place but again that's not based on first-hand experiences, just what people told me, so my 'Easterhouse schema' could be, and likely is, faulty. Then again, the Easterhouse that existed in the sixties, which is when I formed that schema, probably doesn't even exist any more. I simply don't know.

There are three ways we can deal with Stephen's poem – it's called 'Oot the Hoose' by the way: one is assimilation, we can broaden our definition of 'poem' to include it so that when we're faced with a similar poem we can cope quicker; another is accommodation, we can form a new schema solely for that poem or that kind of poem – perhaps slipping it neatly into a 'concrete poems schema' – and the last one is rejection, forget about it, just because he says it's a poem doesn't make it a poem.

So, is all this just fancy talk for experience? I suppose in layman's terms 'experience' is the word most of us would use but 'baggage' seems closer in its implications. We all bring baggage with us; experiences are momentary but their effects on us often are not and they affect how we respond to things in the future: do we embrace or do we avoid? If you've come to associate bad experiences with poetry perhaps you avoid the stuff. Maybe you had an English teacher who force-fed you Byron, for example. If you have, firstly my sympathies but perhaps you'd be good enough to set aside a new schema for the poem that I'm building up to.

stairs Poems are not like dogs or staircases or even folk tales about dead Indians. They require a higher degree of interpretation. When retelling the ghost story a couple of people rendered the line "Something black came out of his mouth" as "he foamed at the mouth" and another as "his soul passed out from his mouth" neither of which being an entirely unreasonable alternative. They did not take the line literally. With figurative poetry there is even more scope.

The following poem requires that you access two schemata, the one for pain and the one for hunger. These are universal concepts. It's a lucky person who has never been in pain of felt hungry but they are also very broad subjects, pain especially.

Of course no two of will have identical schemata for pain and hunger. You have no idea what I was going through when I wrote this piece. If I was in pain, what kind? Physical? Emotional? Intellectual? Could the whole thing be a metaphor for something else? I'm not going to tell you. Suffice to say who I am will likely be very different to who you are. What you'll need to do is make the poem your own. It will either resonate with you or have you scratching your head. If it's the latter don't worry about it. I may explain where it came from in the comments but I don't think that will help. It'll be too late.

See how you get on. This is not a test. Well, it is, I suppose. Just not one that gets marked.


Pain is the opposite of hunger,

a certain kind of pain that is,
a certain kind of hunger and

that certain kind of pain will
consume that certain kind of

hunger, will swallow it whole, but
it won't work the other way round.

It can with different kinds of pain.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


Elisabeth said...

If pain is the opposite of hunger then pain leaves you feeling full. This makes sense to me.

Therefore the idea that pain can swallow hunger, certain kinds of pain that is, also makes sense to me.

To begin with when I'm feeling really lousy, I have no interest in food no matter how hungry I might be. Furthermore, if I were hungry and something dropped heavily on my toe,for instance then I doubt that my hunger would trouble me as much anymore, at least not till the pain in my toe has settled down.

This is a terribly literal reading of your poem, Jim. Please, forgive me.

My little contribution to the stuff on memory is a story I once heard at a conference about false memory syndrome.

I will keep it somewhat general though apparently this is a 'true' story, though needless to say I may have distorted it somewhat in my remembering.

A young woman in her early twenties complained to her parents in private that they, or at least her father, had been abusive towards her in some way. The nature of this abuse is not clear.

The parents denied that anything their daughter had said about their abuse was true and they distanced themselves from her as she did from them.

Still the parents were so incensed by what they considered were their daughter's false accusation. They therefore joined forces with other parents, fathers in particular who also claimed to have been wrongly accused of abusing their daughters.

One parental couple in partigular befriended the parents of the first girl in question and togethter the two couples started up the false memory syndrome association, or whatever it's called.

Both fathers took their daughters to court and both fathers were found not gultiy of the abuse of their daughters.

Some time later however one of the fathers was found guilty of charges associated with pedophilia.

To me this story suggests that, however accurate, the daughters' memories of their fathers may have been, at least in one instance there was clearly something abusive going on and one of the daughters had picked it up, even if it were proved that she was not the victim of her father's behaviour.

I tell this story in order to take note of the fact that memory is also influnced by powerful unconscious forces that we cannot always readily measure.

So I suspect the schema is influenced not only by emotions, intelligence and context, it is also influenced by the unconscious, by things that are not so readily apparent. They're there nevertheless. Sorry to go on so long, but I find this stuff fantastic.

Thanks also for a fascinating blog, Jim.

Kass said...

Such an interesting post! Reading the Egulac story reminded me of the comprehension section of certain intelligence or assessment tests. It makes me wonder how indicative of intelligence ANY test could be. There are so many familial, cultural and genetic variables to individuals that it's a wonder we are able to communicate with any degree of understanding. BUT, our individual perceptions also make the reading and discussing of poetry richer.

Your pain/hunger poem which you title, "Certainties," is anything but 'certain' if left up to a diverse audience. BUT, this makes it all the more appealing. I loved reading Elisabeth's take on it. I'm going to have to read the poem again and again to try and pinpoint the kind of pain you are describing. Let's try out your premise with the hunger (or thirst) for knowledge. THAT kind of hunger WILL swallow the pain of ignorance, so that can't be the kind you're describing. Let's try the pain of unrequited love and the hunger for a satisfying relationship. That kind of hunger will swallow up the obsession for impossible attachments. How about the pain of revenge thoughts and the hunger to kill someone? That hunger can be satisfied, but the pain returns...Oh my, I think your poem has just made me crazy.

Art Durkee said...

"Schema" is more or less what I mean when I use the terms "worldview" or "mindset," although those came later in the psychological literature and have added layers of meaning to them. Schema may be the filters and assumptions and presuppositions (and prejudices) through which we view the world.

Worldview adds to that a layer about POV or viewpoint. A shared cultural schema if unquestioned can become a dominant worldview.

Mindset is more personal, perhaps. Maybe I'm trying to make each word unique, and they're not. Mindset to me, however, includes those personal experiences that are unique to the person, which affects how they form their schema. My own schema has a place for ghosts and numerous other "supernatural" occurrences the mainstream culture denies the existence of, because I've experienced them directly. At which point, mindset needs to include the realization that the culture's worldview, or schema, can be wrong. It must also realize that the culture's worldview sometimes needs to be changed: what does a prophet do but cry out for a change in worldviews?

The real purpose of Zen, BTW, is to remove those filters as much as possible so that one can see what's really there rather than what one THINKS is there. In which case, "enlightenment" is simply seeing truly, rather than seeing through filters. I do find that to be a good working definition.

Since haiku was so strongly influenced by Zen, it makes sense that many of Basho's thoughts about writing haiku are about seeing what's really there, and making it into the poem. He also said, "Don't imitate the masters, seek what they sought." For me that means seek out how they looked at the world, try to become LIKE them, rather than just imitate them. As advice for how to write poetry, I think that's one of the best ever. Our individual mindsets and perceptions and schema will make our poetry different, and unique. Which leads to the poetry-teaching advice one often hears about working hard to just be yourself, be true to yourself, find your own voice, and go forward from there.

Dave King said...

The whole concept of the schema is fascinating to me. When I am struggling to recall a lost word (often a name) i will sometimes say that I have a schema of it. That might or might not mean that it is coming, but I feel that it should be. When - if - I do get the word, either by my efforts or some other person's - it nearly always is the case that my "schema" was right.

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course, Elisabeth, there are many different kinds of pain and some are bad enough to stop you thinking about food. And there are other pains that will stop you feeling about that particular pain. There is absolutely no reason why you can't read this poem literally because I was writing about a literal pain and physical hunger in fact I wrote this poem while I was in that pain.

Like you memory fascinates me. It is, like so many of the things we depend upon, an unreliable witness. Whenever I read this poem I'll be reminded of the pain I was in but since I can't remember a time I didn't hurt any more pinpointing exactly what that pain felt like is a hard one – all the pains tend to blur into one – so I have to concede that my memories of those few days are questionable and I suspect will becomes increasingly so.

When it comes to false memories what I find fascinating is how we can take things like TV programmes and graft parts of them onto our pasts making the memories our own.

Miss Frye, I would think that's one to save for after Xmas dinner has been consumed.

Sometimes, Kass, it's simply how things are said that through us into confusion even if what is said is exactly what we would expect to here. In this poem we have a few precise lines as if great care is being taken not to say more or less than was intended and so what do we do, we immediately start piling meaning on top of meaning until, as you say, nothing is certain . . . which is the point to the poem. I've taken a very ordinary word, 'pain', one that we all think we understand and made you look at it afresh.

This is a key point in my novel Milligan and Murphy:

    “People do unreasonable things all the time – and by that I mean things for no good reason at all – and when they start to look for reasons why they did what they did in the first place they find there aren’t any. That doesn’t mean that answers won’t ever exist for what they did however the answer comes at the end of the sum not before it. How would you feel Mr Murphy, Mr Milligan, if your schoolteacher had asked you one day what equalled four?”
    “Two and two equals four,” fired back Milligan.
    “Which can be true,” said the priest, “but what about three plus one or seven minus three or the square root of sixteen?” He had lost them there. “Reasons, if they exist at all, are always to be found before we do things; answers, once we’ve worked them out (if we ever figure them out), always come into being after the fact.”

Art, when I wrote the poem 'Reader Please Supply Meaning', it had finally dawned on me that I couldn't impose a reading on a particular poem or insist that there was even a right way to approach a poem. In 'Certainties' the one thing I am certain about is that everyone has a unique and very personal perception of pain as well as different levels of tolerance.

I think very few, if any, of us have 20/20 inner vision; most of us at the very least wear rose-tinted spectacles. It's not so much fuzzy logic as fuzzy vision. I like the idea of attaining clarity. I expect that's why I keep coming back to the same old topic hoping that I'll be able to present an image that's that bit sharper; the sharper my presentation the less degradation when my readers copy it into their heads.

And, Dave, I have to say, even after writing this wee article, 'schema' is not a word I feel I can use with confidence but the way I understand what you've written is basically you have the definition but you don't know what it defines. The problem with definitions, as I try to get over in the quote from Milligan and Murphy above, is that, because of the synonymous nature of words, one definition can fit several words, sometimes perfectly, sometimes a close-fit – it's all Venn diagrams to me.

Dick said...

Riveting stuff, both post and comments, Jim. Too late at night to wade in with my takes, either on the pain/hunger relationship or schema!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Dick, when you're refreshed and revitilised your thoughts would be much appreciated.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thank heavens we remember things poorly or colour our memories subconsciously. What a plain old world it would be if all we had was accurate reportage of each event in it.

I think if I remembered things even halfway right, I'd never be bothered to write at all. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Ken, I think much of the pleasure (and the pain) in writing for me is exactly that. The thing I’m working on – for “working on” read “thinking about a lot” – is all about memory and what happens when you can’t remember what you think you should. We’re not talking about memory loss due to trauma, just memories that have withered away with lack of use and how one might rebuild them, all of this plus the realisation that there aren’t actually as many memories there as we might have expected – what were we doing when we ought to have been remembering?

John Baker said...

Another great blog from you, Jim. Memory is a big one in our time, not so long ago we used to train it in children - the times tables, memorizing of poems, etc. etc. - but for a while now it has been under a concerted attack.
Time and memory work together and are true artists, remoulding reality nearer to the heart's desire.
It is a long time since I was able to reject the notion of memory as a kind of recording mechanism - a tape recorder in the mind - and begin to see it rather as a creative act.
"In memory everything seems to happen to music." Tennessee Williams.

Jim Murdoch said...

Memory as a creative act, John, yes, that's a good way of putting it but there are different kinds of creation and not all created things turn out the way their creators might intend, expect or even hope.

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