Several weeks ago at our local library’s book sale, I picked up an audio book by Umberto Ecco called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Normally, Ecco’s books are way over my head and I usually make it through about the first chapter, then admit defeat. As it turns out, the premise of the novel is quite fascinating. It is about a man who had been an antique book dealer that wakes up from a coma. His eidetic memory is totally in place. That is he can remember virtually everything that he has ever read and every map or picture he has ever seen. So he can quote lines from Shakespeare, tell you where all of the best restaurants in Paris are or tell you about Napoleon’s battle at Waterloo, but he can not remember anything that he has personally experienced. He does not know his own name or recognize himself or family members in a picture. He can not even tell you what a hamburger tastes like or what it feels like for something to be hot (like a cup of coffee) because those are all things that you learn through experience. In other words, his personal life is a total blank for him.
The remainder of the book concerns the protagonist’s trying to get back the memories of his life. To do this, he returns to the house that his parents owned when he was a child (his parents are dead), and looks through the attic at all of boxes of books and magazine he read as a boy, toys that he played with and notebooks that he kept from school trying to recreate his life. The main concept of the book is that you are your experiences and it is your experiences that have created you, so that without them, you would have no identity.
The more I thought about it, the more the idea fascinated me. It is not that the idea is a new one, but that thinking of one’s self as a blank slate on which experiences are imprinted is a visual image that makes the concept vivid. I thought that it would be an interesting exercise for anyone to sit down and try to list those things that contributed to creating who they are. I don’t mean just a list, but a list in which you tried to grasp just what that might have contributed to your personality. Obviously, the list is potentially infinite, but I thought it would be fun to try half a dozen things that stuck out. In the book, Ecco’s list was largely limited to printed materials, so in mine I’ve leaned rather heavily in that direction.
So here goes.
1. Being raised Roman Catholic. I grew up at a time when the Catholic Mass was still in Latin, the priest faced away from the people and kids attended weekly Catechism classes to memorize the correct answers to religious questions. What that taught me was the need for structure: hierarchy, ritual, and following rules. The Latin Mass kept mystery in religion, so that while everything had an answer it wasn’t always one we could rationally understand. The Latin hymns gave me an introductory feel for what another language was like. I learned that guilt is a strong motivator and was endowed with a belief that at some level, everything fits together and makes sense, that everything is connected.
2. The Little Golden Books. From as early as I can remember, Mom read to us from books and for the most part it was from The Little Golden Books that were prevalent in the 50’s. On one level, it endowed me with an appreciation of reading. Being read to by Mom made reading a positive personal experience. It taught me before going to school what books and words were all about, that they could open up interesting personal experiences and that it was something my parents valued. On another level, it taught ethics. All of the children’s books of those times were morality driven. For example, Peter Rabbit got into trouble because he did not listen to his mother and ended up paying for it. The Little Red Hen – a classic – taught the Protestant work ethic, that hard work pays off and if you don’t work, you don’t deserve to eat.
3. Sharing a Room. My bed when I was first born was a dresser drawer and for as far back as I can remember, I shared a room with my brother Steve. No one in our family had their own room and kids who did were rich and privileged. Sharing your room literally meant that you had to learn to share - whether it was a bed, a closet or your possessions. By the same token, it also meant that you really had no space and that if you wanted time to yourself, you had to seek it outside of the house. I don’t doubt that it really created a real need for privacy in me. On the other hand, sharing a room was just normal –what everyone did.
4. Moving. Less obviously, moving every year or two and changing schools also seemed normal. It never really occurred to me until I was almost an adult that everyone did not move as we did. It taught me that instability is a fact of life. Since my childhood was mostly in the fifties, it also reinforced the patriarchal values of society: the family follows the father wherever his work leads him and that the wife’s duties are to accompany him, raise the children, and be the primary caretaker. I also learned that friendship is a tenuous thing that rarely comes and always goes.
5. Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. My parents had always had an old bargain basement set of encyclopedias with tiny print, big words and no pictures. At some point during my childhood, they bought a brand new set of Encyclopedias. The exiting thing about them was the colored pictures. The pictures were grouped together by topic and my favorites were about animals. I would sit down for hours looking at the pictures of all of the various breeds of dogs or diagrams of the body and memorizing what they looked like and the facts about them. It created a life long curiosity and interest in the biological sciences and fascination about how the natural world works. I learned how to look for information. Ironically, like the catechism, it reinforced belief in the opinion of authority.
6. Great Books of the Western World. The summer after ninth grade, I found a post card about a set of books that contained many of the classic books from Homer to Freud and, being interested in evolution, was excited that it contained Darwin’s Origin of Species. I mailed in the card for more information and a salesman showed up at the door. I was embarrassed, but my parents, who could barely afford rent, laid out hundreds of dollars for the books for me. I learned how much my parents value both my education and me by their willingness to sacrifice. Driven by Catholic guilt, whenever it was time for a book report or project I drew from those books, which gave me a nodding acquaintance with Dante, Chaucer and Plato that most kids my age did not have and forced me to look at authors I would never have read otherwise. On another level, though, the Great Books were the product of an extremely conservative view of liberal arts education, steeped in the concept of a western cannon that completely ignored work not written by white European or American males.
I think that is enough to make the point.
I have not finished reading The Mysterious Flame, so I don’t yet know if Ecco’s protagonist discovers enough about himself to add up to a whole human being. It is not easy to step outside oneself or one’s view of oneself and try to look at the accumulating list objectively. There are many contradictory forces at work. Looking at my list and comments I ask myself, what do these things add up to? How many of my day to day actions are rooted in what I learned before I was old enough to have a paper route (another values-forming experience that I could add to the list)? I think it is a humbling experience and one that definitely complications the notion of who we think we are.