When I was eighteen I got hold of some oil paints and a piece of hardboard and tried to paint a picture of a dream I kept having. The results were rubbish – I didn’t even prep the board and the brushwork was terrible. I stopped having that particular dream decades ago but I did continue to experience another repetitive mental phenomenon which I called pop-ups. A pop-up is a fleeting thought or image, usually accompanied by a strong but odd feeling. The thought always feels as though it is merely the leading edge of a much longer, more elaborate sequence and it is always concerned with an episode from the past. I have no inkling what these episodes might be but every time something pops up I feel irresistibly diverted and yearn to complete the thought. I get a pop-up every few days – there are about half a dozen of them – and some of them have been visiting for more than forty years. In the essay Leytonstone I write about a newish pop-up, one that’s been in place for only twelve years or so. In Very Birmingham I describe one that’s over twenty years old.
Despite their oddness, I sometimes wonder what would happen if I could fit the pop-ups into my ordinary remembering, that is to say, I would simply decide to hold the memories in consciousness then pursue them. Perhaps they would act as passwords or portals to lost lands of the past. Suddenly I would remember everything. All that is air becomes solid. Cascades of chemistry pour down nano-tubules of the cerebellar backstreets, converting into image modules on the hoof, a picture rises into view, chainlinked to many others, they’re all pulled in, not willy nilly but puzzle pieces falling into place snap snap snap, the dust falling away as they recollect spanking bright after years in perfect storage. As the seconds pass the effect amplifies dramatically, tube after tube floods into action, the branches of the branches are branching. Snap snap snap the jigsaws are now joining together at their edges and now the water is receding from those little islands revealing one reclaimed continuous netherland growing in all directions.
If you believe that vivid recollection is tantamount to reliving the past then the ability to remember everything would bring the possibility of actually reliving everything. On the beach yesterday I was thinking that if you did get the opportunity to relive everything – something would be done to the chemistry of your mind and it would start to rerun, in perfect order, the record of your life etcetera – there would be two viewing options: you could take the passive model, in which you sat back and watched it like it was a show or you could take the immersive option, in which you had no sense of yourself as an observer, you were just doing it all, all over again.
The latter mode has similarities with the idea of reincarnation. In the sixties a number of friends of mine decided to worship an Indian master. Some of them are still doing it. The master told them that if they implemented the stringent and ludicrous constraints that he specified they would get off the wheel of reincarnation in only four more lifetimes. (If this sounds to you very much like dying, rebranded as a must-have experience then read on; if it makes perfect sense then don’t get a life, kill yourself now.) Had you not striven for perfection in the life that you were given then you’d have to pay off the debt you’d racked up with your imperfection and incontinence and run the risk of being reincarnated as a vole or a lettuce or at the least a stupid person.
If this were the case, you would be brought straight back, having passed away, (I’m not clear whether the transfer is in fact instantaneous or if you have to wait around, bodiless, while the computations are being carried out) in order to live yet another life as a stupid person, louse or carrot before the time came for the accounts to be submitted yet again, at which crucial point if you hadn’t paid off the karma or, worse, had incurred more then off we go again you poor sap, it’s forty years of donkey and you didn’t even get to go to the poolhall with the lads and smoke a few tabs before the ears burst through your hat etc.
It occurs to me that in fact some of this doesn’t sound too bad – how long does a carrot live, for example? But the principal weakness in this popular delusion is that while you’re reincarnated as an amoeba, okapi or radio disc jockey because you practised onanism with abandon, you don’t actually know it! So why give a fuck? Who cares if they spend eternity as a springbok or oryx, especially when you don’t even know you were once a major popular entertainer who coveted his friend’s four by four?
By far the more effective punishment for eating meat, swatting flies or running down a bus queue full of schoolchildren while taking a mobile phone call would simply be to make you believe that you had racked up some kind of debt that even prison couldn’t cancel blah blah and that would have to be sorted out by the guys with loose fitting clothes and beards on another plane who’d make you have to be a dog and, crucially, know it.
You’d know that you were only being a dog because you had yearned for something inappropriate in your previous life and everything you did as a dog, such as shitting on pavements and getting kicked for it or getting locked in a hot car you’d be saying to yourself and anyone you came across who could speak Dog ‘O I am a dog who was once a human in line for a major position in the world of finance but I yearned for biscuits so much that I got reincarnated as a dog who now has biscuits four times a day’ and the other fellow says ‘O dog would that I could help you by kissing you because I see your inner nature’ and the dog says ‘It won’t work, that’s a European tradition. In this one my only chance is to be an exceptionally good dog then maybe I’ll get to be a lowly human in the next life and eventually work my way back up’ and the fellow says ‘Who’s a good boy then?’
The fairy tale traditions clearly offer the crueller but fairer option in this respect – they let you know you’ve fucked up so you regret it but you can do something about it like become loveable. This is why I recommend a syncretic solution wherein reincarnation theory is toughened up with the help-a-pixie-and-get-a better-body option. Needless to say, none of this shit would actually have to happen because the point being you think it will and that’s your real punishment, sucker.
My own preference with regard to the Whole Life Rerun business would be for the TV option, the one where you sit and watch and know that you are. How long would it last though? If you’re thirty, say, and you get the rerun offer, does it last thirty years? Is there an edit button? Is there a fast forward? Would you have to effectively suspend or lay off your regular life for the duration of the rerun – is there even a pause button so that you could eat from time to time and change your clothing? It will be some years before we have to answer these questions and I’m certainly not qualified. Yet. Let me just say though: it will happen and it will be bigger than cinema or DVDs.
And what if – finally – the first few times the boffins bring it off, the subject finds that it’s a one-way thing – you rerun but you can’t get any of it back. Your whole memory is gone. Acres of empty shelving. What could you do? One idea would be to start again, putting it all back together based on extra-subjective records, such as old school reports, postcards you’d written, diaries maybe, what your parents have to say about you, photos your friends have, 45 rpm discs you’d cut in that booth in Liverpool Street station before they took it down, extensive interviews with groups of friends where you provide drinks and finger foods and they tell you what you were like.
Many novels have been written using this slender premise. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. It needn’t take thirty years either. If you were single-minded and reasonably well organised you could probably get up and running with the reconstituted material in a couple of years. Yes, there would be a risk of contamination, the views and reports of others not necessarily being accurate or uninflected, the possibility that malign or mischievous colleagues would tell you wrong stuff for the hell of it. But just as likely is that a sage and benign friend would think ‘Well, he was actually quite a fucking pain in a number of ways so we won’t mention them and the world will be a better place plus we won’t have to live with it ever again.’
The record thus composed would not be as satisfying as the real thing but it would be all you had and eventually you would make it satisfying because no one likes to think that there might be significant elements of distortion in something as fundamental as your own memory of your own life.