Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Perishability of Language and the Self


“But there is one other crucial thing to be mentioned. The tumour that will destroy me is in the proximity of my speech area. But I am also a word-earner. I have been doing this all my life as an adult. And I still survive as a language-user – speaking, listening, reading, writing – over the past two years. Or, rather, I survive in fluctuating ways.”

I’ve been reading and re-reading Tom Lubbock’s haunting and bewildering account of his gradual loss of language to a glioblastoma multiforme tumour, published 10 days ago in the Observer and subsequently on the Guardian website.

“It's not possible to get any distance from my project: being alive. Objectively, from the outside you might say, my life is terrible, unbelievable. And it's true, I hate this. I hate the way I am at the moment. But there is no objective view, I am here, in it, and there is nothing else, and this fact brings with it many things that make it of course easier. And beyond that there are many other things to think about.”

I’ve met Tom on a few occasions, being somewhat distantly a friend of friends. Even so, we’ve barely exchanged words, although we once had a brief discussion when a friend brought Tom by my studio and he showed a genuine interest in a couple of postcards I was working on. He even took some away with him.

Tom was a speaker at a conference at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh some years ago along with Nathan Coley (“The most boring artist in Britain”) and Tom Eccles. The theme of the conference was the Monument in Public Art, and he spoke memorably of the distinction between monuments which are built to endure and monuments that he described as “perishable”, which he suggested offered a more fitting way to mark the passing of the people and things which claim our affections. In order to move on with our lives we often need to forget. Our memories are porous and our lives are likewise transient, so it makes little sense to ossify memories that might distract us from new and equally important experiences and encounters. In many ways the richness of life is this very exchange between memory and forgetting. But, of course, this is the preserve of us for whom memory is a resource which is relatively easily accessed and utilized. As Tom’s article shows, our commonsense notions of the unity of memory and recall are far from providing us with a revealing picture of how memory actually works.

During one of the breaks in the conference, as people were busy networking away, I noticed that Tom had disappeared. He returned just as the presentations were due to recommence and when one of the organizers politely enquired where he’d been, he replied: “For a walk around the grounds. I don’t really feel comfortable in these situations.” This characteristic combination of humility and an unflinching willingness to explain his alternative perspective has always marked Tom out as an exceptional thinker and it’s all the more disturbing to literally see the signs of this ability ebbing away on the page before you.

10 comments:

Seán said...

All monuments are perishable, and mountains move

J. Hamlyn said...

http://vodpod.com/watch/1502235-francis-als-when-faith-moves-mountains-2002

Seán said...

I was thinking more of water...

J. Hamlyn said...

http://thestrangeattractor.net/?p=1485

Seán said...

Closer, but viewed on a non-human timescale, mountains are dissolved by rain and frost as surely as that ice-block. They are only relatively permanent.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

J. Hamlyn said...

:
Or Roy Batty

Seán said...

Out on the hills, one often comes across perishable monuments where a person's ashes have been scattered. Sometimes a surprising scatter of tiny daffodils in the heather, or a decorated rock...

Seán said...

http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/Books/Tenzen/question6.htm

J. Hamlyn said...

I've also seen those mini monuments (and shrines) on the mountains. There were so many on Ben Nevis that they had to have a massive cleanup a couple of years ago.

Thanks for the Kaon link. I had a friend at college once who struggled with the 'sound of one hand clapping' till one morning it literally hit him on the forehead !-)

Seán said...

It'll do that...

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