Writing Cryptomnesia

Or Words I May Not Have Written


I came across this short piece of writing from a couple of years ago while sorting through an old folder. I may have been drinking at the time.

Calibri Font

It is a font that soothes my soul. Look at it. Straight lines and few curls, nothing superfluous, nothing expendable. Thin black lines against white. Of course font is not everything. There is content too. The content of this text is nothing to write home about. If I was writing home that would be a pun, and a reasonably clever one. But I am not writing home. It is the proportion I think that counts, the balance of black alongside white, the harmonious blending of the contrasting shades. They are equimonious. The red line under equimonious spoils this harmony, twice. Skinny red squiggles, the ink of a pedant. Does it matter that it is not in the dictionary? Does it really matter? It is a word. Ask anyone what I mean by it. They will tell you. So this harmony is destroyed for nothing. I digress. I was talking about the font and have gone off on a tangent about harmony and nonsense like that. The font, I think I am noticing it now more than ever before, because I am drunk. I am not outrageously drunk, you wouldn’t take one look and say that man there is a drunkard, but I have had a glass or two more than I should. Which perhaps enhances the blend of the font, makes everything more equimonious – there’s that red again – more equimonious by appearing slightly blurred. Yes, that is it. I can prove it. Just squint, that’s it. A little more. So nothing is quite in focus and you cannot read a single word. Then you see it, the pure white lines and the pure black lines. Natural, like the stripes of an animal. The same kind of balance. The same level of unity. But that’s just the drink talking. A font is nothing to write home about. If I were writing home that would be a pun. But I’ve made that joke before.


Infinite Market Research

Reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace while on my lunch break, I was inspired by one of the sections to write about my own strictly anonymous place of work. The section in question referred to the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where you can “acquire many exotic new facts” about drug addiction, rehabilitation and the human race in general.  This piece is the same deal, but with telephone-based market research.

If, at any point in your life, you suffer the ignominy of working in a market research call centre, whether due to desperation, laziness or perverse substitutive self-flagellation, you will at least gain access to a wealth of singular information occluded from more fortunate individuals. You will learn that the common perception that most call centres are situated overseas – in Mumbai par exemple – is largely derived from the substantial majority of accented ethnic minorities working in UK call centres, many of whom speak putatively inadequate English. That the ethnic minorities are accompanied in swathes by other minorities, notably homosexuals. That, while this results in plenty of unsurprisingly positive transcultural interaction and gratefully little in the way of inappropriate transracial banter, it also has the effect of reducing any enlightening interpersonal exchanges to near imperceptible bubbles in the cellulate colourless sludge that day-to-day existence more or less perfectly represents.

David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: the 2D perspective does not really do it justice

Or, for instance, that it is possible for certain individuals to speak at such an obscene volume for an entire 12-hour shift[1] that other workers frequently comment to their faces that they are ‘too fucking loud’, while more softly-spoken interviewers are capable of developing a sore throat by talking continuously at a tolerable volume until 11:30am. That it possible to justify taking a toilet break five minutes before the end of a shift by explaining to yourself that if you managed to lure someone into doing a survey, you might develop slight but honestly bearable vesical discomfort towards the end. That by drinking an excessive amount of water throughout the day, you can waste an awful lot of time urinating and refilling the 0.25L plastic cups that are placed on top of the water dispenser. That attractive women always get promoted ahead of unattractive women, and that, most of the time, unattractive women are not even considered for a promotion. That senior management teams are composed almost entirely of laddish men, or men that maintain the pretence of being laddish, and that it in no way matters whether they are attractive or not. That transcending the boundary of attractive woman and laddish man, for example by being a good-looking (if a bit dykey) cleavage-displaying lesbian with a loud mouth and vulgar sense of humour, will also earn you a promotion. That some people are just extremely likeable regardless of how many negative characteristics they have. That the mental effort exerted doing the same thing over and over again all day greatly exceeds that of going through the most complicated theoretical processes for a considerably longer duration of time.

That everybody doodles, an awful lot.

That most people’s doodles are either overt surrealism, faux vorticism or violent cartoonish pop art a la Roy Lichtenstein. That a perhaps unremarkable proportion of people draw themselves, Lichtenstein-esque, with expressions of exasperation or actual unmistakeable pain. That the people who draw naked women are not necessarily the ones you’d expect to. That if you complied an enormous collage of all the doodles composed in all the world’s call centres, it would be such a damning indictment of modern civilisation that people would frankly avert their eyes and pretend that it did not exist.

That people are prepared to bullshit about absolutely anything. That secretaries, by and large, have the most appalling telephone manner. That you can ask someone detailed questions on a subject to the point of tedium without having any knowledge whatsoever of that subject, and without them even realising it. That this aspect of your job is inherently flawed to the extent that it undermines every single word you utter. That the smaller a company is, the more likely it is to be run by pleasant individuals. That it is very rare to find a company that does not have a head office and, even those that don’t, direct you to it when you mention you want to do a survey with them. That gay men can occupy senior positions alongside attractive women and laddish men, though it is unclear whether this is due to the potential for a last-gasp-end-of-the-Christmas-party-I-am-inebriated-and-fucking-desperate blow job or because the world has moved on from the latent homophobia of the recent past. That senior members of staff have as little respect or loyalty towards the company as you do, despite being paid considerably more. That companies have little offices where nobody goes except the IT support staff, and that the IT support staff never come out to provide even the most urgent IT support. That colleagues who would never normally speak to you will take a moment to compliment your mug with a picture of a donkey on it. That 90% of conversations started at work are about work. That this is the case no matter how much everyone absolutely despises work and would rather talk about pretty much anything else.

Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963)

That people from Ireland are actually, genuinely really nice. That people from Scotland are generally pleasant, but those from the North are elderly and dour, mostly due to clinical depression, chronic illness, or a combination of the two. That Welsh people are rarer than you might think, and hearing the Welsh language over the telephone makes you feel simultaneously anxious and inadequate. That your company indirectly explaining, via a survey, that washing your hands “thoroughly” involves washing them for a minimum of 20 seconds means that you now, just while at work, wash your hands for no less than 20 seconds, even when the last 10 give or take 3 involve nothing more than rinsing already clean hands with warm water. That your own voice is exceptionally annoying but all your colleagues voices are considerably more so. That some people take market research seriously, and that this attitude actually precludes their progress in the industry.

That most people are incapable of following simple instructions, and that this is not down to a heightened sense of individualism but rather because they cannot, or refuse to, understand why the instructions are there in the place. That no matter how old you are, you can still find playing around with hand sanitiser hilarious. That as a low-level employee, you do not aspire to earn a promotion but instead invent higher positions you could feasibly occupy that do not as yet exist. That these positions would in fact be a superfluous level of bureaucracy that everyone would be much better off without. That you would fire infinitely more people given the chance than is probably even legal. That some words become exponentially more difficult to pronounce the more frequently you say them. That girls can make themselves look at least 200% hotter by dyeing their hair pink but this can also backfire disastrously. That if you dislike someone, you dislike them more when you find out they have an identical twin. That, unless you have literally just stepped off the bus/train/car/plane into a brand new city, you will know someone else who works at your call centre, and that you will most likely expend far too much energy pretending that you don’t.

That casual employees[2] work more, on average, than proper employees despite not having to, and that this is a result of the minimum wage being quite staggeringly low, particularly when you are sub-21[3]. That certain individuals perversely manage a capital city property portfolio and also work in a call centre. That it is possible to manage an capital city property portfolio during your break times in a regular 9-5 job. That if someone tells you a survey is going to take 10 minutes, it can anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. That some employees are tolerated despite being incompetent, distracting and lazy simply because they have worked there a long time. That these employees are frequently promoted to nominally higher-level but noticeably more straightforward positions so they can be tolerated without causing any more damage than is necessary. That the objectivity of statistical data is an abstract and fanciful illusion. That unnatural syntax, as in syntax that people would never use as opposed to incorrect syntax that people regularly use, sticks out like a sore thumb.

That pretending not to know who your office manager is when you pass him in the corridor makes you feel like a real person again. That showing no deference to anybody is vitally important. That it is possible to piss standing up and send a text message at the same time, and that finding someone actually doing this worries you deeply. That, unless prompted, nobody “tends to” agree or disagree with anything. That children are infinitely more fun to talk to than adults, even when the conversations are scripted and, therefore, exactly the same. That virtually all companies use the same 8-10 pieces of bland proto-jazz/clichéd classical on-hold music, and even the frankly bizarre use of abysmal 90s pop music, i.e. All Saints, is a breath of fresh air. That, increasingly, companies are replacing on-hold music with their own adverts that they more often than not charge you to listen to by virtue of expensive 0845 phone numbers. That businesses in general are run by people who lack self-awareness. That it is possible to clarify something by repeating the same exact words over and over again. That most people know almost nothing about the companies they work for, even when it is an integral part of their probably-made-up-anyway elaborate job title.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Turns out it was just The Age of Reason that had Guernica. The cover art for Iron in the Soul is Picasso’s The War.

That you will always have genuine respect for people who display extensive knowledge about their area of expertise in a non-showy way, even when it is something as mundane as how to efficiently deliver mail from a small office. That you would give literally anything from 12pm onwards for someone with a soothing voice to talk to you for 20 minutes. That even when working in a call centre, you have these brief spine-tingling Zen moments where you feel acutely connected to everything around you. That no matter how much you hate yourself afterwards, you always feel a little bit of happiness when you successfully complete a survey. That it is not possible to look forward to the end of the day without making the day feel infinitely longer. That 12% of HR managers are called Tracy and if you include alternative similar shrill-sounding but blandly inoffensive female names, i.e. Vicky, the figure skyrockets to 93%.  That you consider it one of your basic human rights to take 5 minutes’ unscheduled break time to sit on the toilet and browse the internet on your smartphone every single day. That people who always sit with the same people at lunch are irritating, while those who sit alone or with different people each time are not. That a shocking number of nursing homes/schools/other supposedly for-the-public-good type organisations are run at a profit, and that you are not sure whether the manager’s evident discomfort at revealing this information is damning or faintly redeeming. That having to arrive precisely on time for work each day, knowing that even being 30 seconds late will cost you money, makes you remarkably anxious in the morning. That, after a certain period of time in a soul-destroying job, weekends become not metaphorically but literally sacred. That some people claim to be a civil servant despite knowing full well that anyone else would describe them as a refuse collector, and only that if they are being excessively polite.

That people will try to cheat any system for their own benefit, regardless of the imperceptibility of this benefit. That this has more to do with their egotistical personality and neo-Darwinian Weltanschauung than any tangible benefits they might derive. That it is possible to come up with a nickname for anyone and make it stick in your head, regardless of how little it resembles the person in question. That it is frequently harder to do nothing than to do something, and that this has little to do with whether or not you want to do anything. That an extended telephone call can cause a temporary cessation in all minor forms of physical discomfort. That people can tell you, so sincerely that you almost believe them, that the standard-issue bicycle stands[4] in the car park are there to separate cars. That the most offensive thing anyone can say to you when you phone them up to do a survey is that they charge £100 per hour for their time.

That keyboards with one key that doesn’t work properly can really stress you out. That moving seats is sometimes akin to salvation. That it is more difficult than you might think to get angry with someone you’ve never met. That people actually very rarely insult or swear at market research telephone interviewers. That having to enter into sadly nostalgic but inchoate conversation with a dementia sufferer when you already feel guilty about phoning them is penance for annoying innumerable other people that day. That everyone, after a certain period of time working as a telephone interviewer, adopts the same passive-tense, euphemistic, corporatist antispeak that dominates business and political discourse. That other people’s homemade lunches are nauseating. That your average man on the street is more willing to help out his cable TV company than his local authority, and that it is possible to sympathise with this perspective. That the length of time you take to dry your hands increases dramatically when you are bored and/or cold. That all market research is thinly-veiled PR. That most people do not notice fundamental errors in systems they have personally designed and, when these errors are pointed out to them, they never bother to fix them. That the sight of the 1963 Guernica-covered[5] edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Iron in the Soul on somebody’s desk can make you suddenly and profoundly happy. That you judge people far more readily and extensively than you believe to be remotely acceptable. That some people really do not know how to spell and are too embarrassed to ask others how to spell things. That smokers always take breaks at the earliest possible opportunity, while non-smokers devise elaborate schemata to ensure the timing of their breaks minimises the psycho-subjective length of the day. That it is impossible to visualise what anyone on the phone looks like unless you know them.

[1] Known colloquially as the suicide shift, or doing a suicide. The number of suicides recorded as a result of doing these shifts on a regular basis is zero. However, due to the casual nature of the work, the chances of anyone responsible for compiling such statistics noticing even a regular suicide worker actually topping themselves also tends alarmingly to zero.

[2] I.e. employees who set their own hours but have few, if any, legal rights.

[3] 21+: £6.19; 18-20: £4.98; Under-18: £3.68; Apprentice: £2.65. UK, 2012. Incidentally, the employees in question get paid quite a lot more than this, but still not anywhere near enough.

[4] Sheffield stands, if you were wondering.

[5] Actually La Guerre, also by Picasso

Notes from a Notebook

1. “It belonged neither to water nor moonlight but was instead a luminous sheaf on the field of darkness.” 

E.M. Forster / A Passage to India

Me / Remember Remember: Guy Fawkes Night, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, 2009. Looking out to sea. Les mots justes. 

2. Remember Maria Marten: Buried under the floor of the Red Barn on her wedding day. 

The location of Maria Marten’s burial

3. I would say there is a great difference between myself and Raskolnikov. Just as long as I don’t get it in the neck from the judge, I don’t have to consider myself as the perpetrator. Raskolnikov always thought of himself as the perpetrator. 

4. I hope that’s Mavis fucking behind the curtains. 

5. And as he lay there in the dusky half light, he was as a child blinking, hearing sounds as a child hears them, with that sense they are disembodied, bound exclusively to the air. Outside, only the sky moved, white above the grey city.

6. “David Caravaggio—an absurd name for you, of course.” 

“At least I have a name.”


Michael Ondaatje talks to his own character whilst writing The English Patient


Who needs to think up a name anyway? – Carravaggio’s ‘David with the Head of Goliath’

7. Mavis home alone deciding to go out. Later comes on to ‘Stanley’ at the Wake.

“I’ve started dreaming in prose”. 

“Stanley is a more literary name altogether. Decatur is quite heroic, I’ll give you that, but Finlay. Finn, Finn, Huck Finn…Finlay is a boy. You are not a boy, are you?”

8.Sitting, sitting, and happy in a sad kind of way. Serious somehow, the way a sad song makes you feel inside. Never been in love like this and there is a kind of tremble in your stomach and a kind of pressure there too. Like this is life all of a sudden, so serious and fast unchanging. This other path to somewhere wonderful, better than anything you can imagine, but you can’t quite see where it is. You shiver wrapping skinny arms around small breasts and so so flat stomach and inside are all the butterflies and chrysalises and moths of the future. But a good head, give good head, full of love, and surely you will find the way in the end. 

9. You can only pretend to live the lives of others. Deceiving the other and yourself. Sin to become who you are. 

Creativity in the Workplace

It can be difficult to be creative in the workplace, particularly when you work in a call centre and your only responsibility is to carry out surveys according to a script. More often than not, an awful, awful script. My job also involves sitting around doing nothing a lot of the time, while waiting for calls to come through. These fragmentary moments are all I have to myself. Among other things, I have used them to conjugate verbs in Portuguese, do crosswords, read newspapers, anything to keep my mind going. They are too short to do anything sustained, like read a book. But what I have done most of all recently is doodle. Here are a selection of the highlights. You can click on each of them to see a larger version. 

Paralympic Man

This was done around the time of the Paralympic Games. I accidentally filled it in black after scanning it in and it looked pretty cool like that.


This is my most recent drawing, the original being the sketch version at the top. Then I had a play with it.

How Does It Feel?

Taken from Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. It summed up my feelings towards my existence at the time no doubt.

Minha mãe é um peixe – My mother is a fish

My Portuguese was not quite up to scratch with this translation of the famous line from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.


This one is a lion.


I like drawing bikes against landscapes. It creates a sense of freedom.


Pig sketch with arbitrary oil effect.


This is the first sketch I did at work from life. The phone is one of the ones we use, and then I made it into a phone box.


This is a bit creepy in all honesty.

Sea Monsters

This one is of sea monsters.

If anyone would like to purchase the originals, I am open to offers. I may even sign them.

Writing is Rewriting

One of those annoying phrases you tend to find in creative writing textbooks that make you mutter sarcastically under your breath. It’s not that it isn’t true – to a great extent it is – but it’s just too simplistic. So I have to apologise for using it, even though it matches my topic pretty well.

I’m not a great writer off-hand. I struggle with things like blogs because they shouldn’t be quite so time consuming as they are, although posts do flow a little easier with practice. I’m an editor at heart, which works well for almost everything I write. With essays, reviews and even blog posts, I am able to write (often badly), then rewrite to a level I am happy with. It might just need a tweak, it might need a whole new draft. Either way it gets done. My problem is that I struggle to do this with fiction.

That is the question.

Fiction is different, maybe not to every writer but certainly to me. It represents different challenges, different emotions. There is a certain detachment or professionalism that kicks in when I write anything else – it is generally written for a purpose. At the moment I’m writing a blog post, which will be published tonight. Therefore, I have tonight to write it, edit it and decorate it with some appropriate images. It will succeed on some level, I know that. It’s not going to change the world but I’m not going to sit here agonising about why it hasn’t. My fiction is written to have a certain intensity or meaning – it’s not pulpy or easily digestible – you have to feel it for it to work.

I realised this when I took a creative writing class at university. My piece was experimental to the extreme, it had a weird narrative structure and was difficult to comprehend entirely. However, it had a raw style, it had lines that worked beautifully, it had an anti-plot that you could connect with if you could make the leap necessary to understand it. Some students gave me incredible feedback, better than I deserved, for which I am forever grateful. My tutor did not like it, she liked parts of it but it went over her head, through no fault of her own, of course. It was partly down to a clash of styles – she is a realist, she likes the word concrete. The rest was down to me. I needed to get rid of that leap.

I edited it hard and brutal, literally cut it to pieces and put it back together. Threw whole sections away. Oddly, I did not change a great deal of the text. It was mostly either cut or moved around. The result was positive and the story began to make sense. I looked at it critically, I disliked its flaws enough to eradicate them. The feedback from other students again was positive, and by then I was out of time. I felt I had a story. My tutor gave it a bad mark, one of the worst I got at university in any course. To me, her feedback read as if she had not even seen the latest draft. I still think the mark was harsh; admittedly, I did not take on board many of her personal criticisms and listened principally to the advice of other students. I’ve read the story since, and she does have a point. Something does not hold together, it needs another rewrite or two. But I know that if I was to rewrite it again, I might not change a single word.

Il miglior fabbro: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot’s better craftsman.

The point is that I am going to apply for a New Writers Award grant from the Scottish Book Trust and for this I intend to submit the first chapter of my novel. It is conveniently almost exactly the right length, one of my best pieces in terms of style and the best introduction to my immediate literary ambitions. It sounds like the perfect selection. My problem is that it needs to be exceptionally good.

I needed a reference from my creative writing tutor, so I slipped in a request for some advice on my chapter. I knew she’d be harsh, because that’s the way she is with my writing. I respect her for it, and respect her opinion, even if I often disagree with it. She always gave me the opportunity to voice my own. The advice I received surprised me but not because I disagreed. It surprised me because I knew exactly what she meant. She said it needed tightening up, more focus, less digression, and she was absolutely right. I wondered what the heck, bearing in mind this is a piece I’ve been working on off and on for about three years, one of the characters was doing in the chapter at all. She is a massive distraction. There are other problems, structural flaws, poor word choices. I know this and I knew it and yet I did not edit them out. I have learned nothing.

That is not exactly true. I have learned that sometimes I am a bad editor. I need to be more critical, more honest with myself. The Scottish Book Trust grant is worth £2,000. I’d feel like I was robbing them if I got it and didn’t deserve it, and I wouldn’t get it anyway at the moment. It’s going to be a hard couple of weeks. I’m philosophical about the whole thing though (unless you happen to be reading, Scottish Book Trust) – if it gets me writing properly again, that will be good enough for me.

The Last Gasp of Humanism

Louis Ferdinand Céline’s Death on Credit

“Maybe I’d never see him again… maybe he’d gone for good… swallowed up, body and soul, in the kind of stories you hear about… Ah, it’s an awful thing… and being young doesn’t help any… when you notice for the first time… the way you lose people as you go along… buddies you’ll never see again… never again… when you notice that they’ve disappeared like dreams… that it’s all over… finished… that you too will get lost someday… a long way off but inevitably… in the awful torrent of things and people… of the days and shapes… that pass… that never stop… All these arseholes, these pests, all these bystanders and extras strolling under the arcades with their pince-nez, their umbrellas and their little mutts on the leash… you’ll never see them again… Already they’re passing… they’re in a dream with the others… they’re in cahoots… soon they’ll be gone… It’s really sad… it’s rotten!… All these harmless people parading along the shopfronts… A wild desire took hold of me… I was trembling with panic…. I wanted to jump out on them… to plant myself in front of them… and make them stop where they were… Grab them by their coats… a dumb idea… and make them stop… and not move any more!… Stay where they were, once and for all!… And not see them going away any more.”

Experiencing Cryptomnesia

Having explained what cryptomnesia means and why it initially became relevant to my novel, the next step is to explain what makes it significant enough to act as a working title. Taken in a broader sense, cryptomnesia can be interpreted as a mode of existence, a way of experiencing life that enables a person to live through another story, another idea, another myth, and, in doing so, give their life a deeper meaning. 

Cryptomnesia involves a dialogic process of remembering and forgetting. It is necessary first to learn of an idea, then forget you ever learned it, then to remember it in a different context which generally imbues it with greater significance. Forgetting is a more important aspect of daily life than we give it credit for – one study found that we forget 80% of what we learn. We see things, hear things, absorb them, and consciously forget them, yet they remain active in the unconscious mind.

Alfred Kubin

It has been established that unconscious brain activity influences our actions and decisions, and even what we consider conscious brain activity is always going to be informed by unconscious processes. The mysterious composition of our personalities has been going on since before we can remember and includes many aspects that we have certainly forgotten. Our inner and outer selves are in constant communication, continuously exchanging ideas.

In this way, paradigms of existence and currents of thought can become actual components of a personality, without the need to consciously believe this to be the case. If a person was to intentionally follow the blueprint of the life of a character they read in a novel or saw in a film, they would appear to everyone else as misguided or even delusional. People do this all the time in terms of individual actions or mannerisms, but to do so on a wider scale is highly unusual. Consciously, it is difficult to live as if you were another person.

However, on an unconscious level, it is easier, even normal. The type of information inflicted upon us, by choice or otherwise, greatly affects who we are as a person. What started as a casual interest can easily develop into a passion, a way of life, without you even realising what has happened. All that is required is a level of compatibility with certain ideas, enough time to absorb them and enough distance to forget precisely where they came from.

At university, students are bombarded with all kinds of information, 80% of which, according to the theory, will be forgotten. But to forget does not mean to delete entirely from the mind – what is forgotten remains, unconsciously, in some form. If you recall it as an idea, for example, thinking you’ve written Crime and Punishment, that is unambiguously cryptomnesia (and you would probably find it difficult to defend yourself against charges of plagiarism). But if you recall it as a fragment, a half-formed idea, in terms of an action, an inclination to modify your existence in any way, that is cryptomnesia too.

Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

What if the novel had made such an impression on you that it became indistinguishable from yourself? That statement sounds far-fetched, but it is not when it is considered more deeply. It is easier to use a metaphor, like Dostoevsky is in my blood. If something in his novels become ingrained into your self, then it does not take a great leap of faith to see how you might act upon them. Live according to their spirit. If this is done consciously, it is likely to be an obsession. But if you forget the aspects of the work that you have embodied, then who can say you have embodied anything, that it is anything other than yourself?

Cryptomnesia is the source of the ghosts of the personality, the aspects of yourself that seem to have come from nowhere. It allows us to act as if we are significant beings, even if we know we are not. It allows us to live our myth, without becoming unbalanced. Carl Jung,  the significant intellectual source for ideas about cryptomnesia, claimed that he had two separate personalities when growing up, No 1 and No 2. No 1 was rational, scientific, identifiable with his outer self. No 2 had no definable character. He was connected with history, particularly with the Middle Ages. What that means exactly, only Jung can know and he may well not. The living meaning of anything is only alive when we experience it in and through ourselves. It is the only way that anything we know, believe or feel can become significant. We absorb a body of information, real, imagined, seen, heard, touched, and we become it.

Remembering Lily Marlene

I intended my first post, What is Cryptomnesia?, to explain the purpose of the blog, but I got sidetracked by exploring some of the ideas surrounding the question itself and how they relate to the process of writing. Cryptomnesia, as explained in that post, occurs when a person recalls a forgotten memory without recognising it as a memory at all. Instead, it appears to be a piece of original inspiration. In this way, a person can reproduce an existing thought, idea, story or song, while believing it to be their own invention.

This blog is only indirectly about cryptomnesia. Cryptomnesia is the working title of a novel I am writing – hence the blog’s full name – and I will explain the reasons behind that here. The idea of calling the novel Cryptomnesia came to me before I knew the word, before I was even aware there was a word for it. It was my first genuine experience of the phenomenon, the first time I was absolutely convinced I had invented something original before finding out I had known it all along.

What I had invented was a name: Lily Marlene.

I still find it hard to believe that I did not immediately realise that Lily Marlene was an extremely famous name. One of the most popular songs throughout Europe for both Axis and Allied forces during World War II, it has endured in popular culture to the present day. In me, it provokes a feeling of warm nostalgia for that old style of European music, in the vein of Edith Piaf, sung in smoky bars and played on old scratchy records. It recalls, perhaps inaccurately, Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of  Reason, its violent blue-black aesthetic, all that grasping in the dark. The song and its eponymous woman are emblems of common human values, forcing their way into public consciousness during the devastating and divisive wartime period. Lily Marlene also appears in one of my favourite songs, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Leonard Cohen:

You’d been to the station to meet every train
And you came home without Lily Marlene

At one time I knew everything I have written here. I have no idea when I forgot it. I am not likely to forget it again.

My own Lily Marlene came to me in a different song and inspired me to write a few lines of yet another, which is unsurprising given the lyricism of the name. When listening to music, I often sing along in my head, occasionally out loud, and if the words are unclear I make up my own. I was listening to a song by The Clientele (perhaps ‘Monday’s Rain’), an enduring but little-known indie band from London, more popular in America than in their home country, which is perhaps surprising given that they sing about English love, terraced buildings and endless rain. The name Lily Marlene fitted perfectly into their chorus and it stuck in my mind. The perfect name.

It was November 2010 and I had just started writing my novel, as part of that month’s National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that you write a 50,000 word novel in a single month, and the challenging word count means that nearly anything interesting that comes to mind in that period tends to be included in some way. The section I was writing is set on the Cowgate in Edinburgh, a dark, dirty road lined with pubs and clubs, running under two large tunnels. My character was walking there on a cold November morning and came across a busker playing music at the side of the road. He sang:

Lily Marlene, Lily Marlene
Sell me your darkness and your pain
Lily Marlene, Lily Marlene
Show me the beauty in the rain

Interestingly, the same chapter contains numerous references to World War II and one of the main passages focuses on a elderly veteran selling poppies. I also include a direct reference to ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ in my opening chapter, and the central characters in my novel, a couple, meet in a similar fashion to the one in which Lily Marlene meets her lover. Lily Marlene has become the spirit running through the novel – she seems to possess it in some mysterious way.

Some days after writing the passage with the busker, I found myself listening to ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, and it hit me that I had not invented anything at all. Lily Marlene was a memory and one I had no right to forget. It all came back immediately: Marlene Dietrich, the war, the melody, the nostalgia. Straight away it seemed impossible that I had managed to forget it all. I considered deleting it, writing something new. But that flash of inspiration, that name, gave me a burst of creative energy that I have not been able to match for a long time. Are occurrences of cryptomnesia always down to coincidence? Is it, as Jung claims, an essential function of the psyche? Was it through forgetting everything attached to the name and stripping Lily Marlene right down to her essence, until she barely even existed, that I was able to say what I meant all along?

Who is Lily Marlene? She is a symbol, in the pure sense, pointing to nothing directly, only vague ideas that can be alluded to and not described. She is the heroine of my own novel, darkly meeting her lover under the glow of the street light. She is herself, the song, and all the history associated with it, condensed and packaged in two little words. Poetry, if nothing else.

I’ve done it again. Gone off the point. I thought Lily Marlene could be explained in fewer words. She is not the reason my novel is tentatively titled Cryptomnesia, merely the reason I got interested in the idea.

What is Cryptomnesia?

Cryptomnesia occurs when a forgotten memory returns without it being recognised by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. It is a memory bias whereby a person may falsely recall generating a thought, an idea, a song or a joke, not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration. 

As much as I would like it to be, that definition is not an example of cryptomnesia. I went to Wikipedia and copied it out word for word. I am struggling for inspiration just now.

Most people have not heard of cryptomnesia. I first came across the term reading Carl Jung for a very interesting cultural history course I took during my last year at the University of Edinburgh. Jung used the term a lot, probably more frequently than any other significant writer, and took the phenomenon very seriously. He believed it to be an essential psychic function which prevented the mind being overloaded with information, but also attributed it to the revelatory aspect of artistic production, or any other form of genius. Individuals are able to extract material from the unconscious and, using their own knowledge, their own symbols, translate it into something new. Information, which may have been lost to the unconscious for years or never been made fully conscious, can suddenly spring to mind in the guise of original inspiration. This explains why separate individuals can come up with the same stories, the same revelations, without having any knowledge of each other at all.

Carl Jung: The original cryptomnesiac.

Jung’s model of the unconscious is divided into two sections: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is biographical in composition, consisting of repressed or forgotten memories from the individual’s life. Many, including Jung’s mentor turned rival Sigmund Freud, would argue that the personal unconscious alone is the unconscious mind, and therefore the sole source of cryptomnesia. If that is the case, cryptomnesia can only occur when an individual has assimilated and subsequently forgotten information, only to recall it later on, believing it to be an entirely new idea. The phenomena of past life regression is thought to result from this kind of cryptomnesia, as most remembrances can be attributed to incidental stories or images from the individual’s past.

However, the collective unconscious, if it exists in any form, provides an even richer source of cryptomnesia. Essentially a body of primordial, symbolic, or, to use Jung’s term, archetypal, information, it can be accessed by anyone who is able to engage with their unconscious mind. Using this idea, past life regression can be seen as the result of an individual exploring the collective unconscious and extracting from it a symbolically corresponding life story.

Archetypal information is “empty and purely formal”, and must be interpreted through the conscious mind in a dialogical process. This means that there are infinite conscious manifestations of any piece of archetypal information, each containing material unique to the individual or society it emerged from. However, regardless of how it is manifested, archetypal information retains the same essential symbolic meaning. It is through this process that extremely similar stories and ideas can emerge spontaneously from different people in very different contexts, myths being the prime example. All societies, even those that exist in absolute isolation, have their own myths, which correspond to the symbolic patterns found everywhere. The same images, the same ideas, pointing in some way to a single source.

The nature of that source is up for debate. Even Jung intended his model of the psyche to be a functional representation rather than an explanation in actual fact. The collective unconscious was a means by which the individual could achieve self-realisation, for Jung, a numinous experience. He claimed to know the source was God but refused to elaborate on what he meant by God. However, the source could simply be genetic human nature. It could be a vast web of coincidence. It could be an endless cycle of cryptomnesia, signifying nothing.

Two nights ago, I watched The Secret in Their Eyes. It reminded me of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which I read when I was seventeen. The link was a simple message: if you do not know which story is true, choose the better one. Cryptomnesia can be depressing for a writer. It can make you burn endless sheets of paper. But it can also be extremely uplifting if you think about it in a different way.

Read more about this experience in Remembering Lily Marlene.