This may be my very first memory. I’m standing in a square space between four doors – one in front of me, one behind, and one to either side. One by one I close the doors. The shade increases as I go, until, closing the last door, I am enveloped in utter darkness. It’s comfortable and warm. Then I open the doors, one by one, until I’m so bathed in light, so surrounded by space, that I can’t see where my limits end.
I feel this action was often repeated, so for a long time I was sure the memory was a genuine recollection of a game I used to play, but then I interrogated the details. For a start, I remember the door handles being at the level of my waist, where door handles are today, but given my tiny stature at the age of three or four, the handles should have been much higher up. Next, and crucially, there was no space in the house we lived in then that fitted my remembered position between four doors. I’ve checked with my mother, and anyway, what kind of architect would design a room the size of a stand-up coffin?
I’ve read that all early childhood memories are unreliable, so I reluctantly accept that I’ve invented this one. Nevertheless, the memory persists. It feels real, and meaningful. So, what does it mean? Surely it contains some metaphorical truth. Was it about opening and closing my eyes, rather than doors? Was it about inhaling and exhaling? I’ve also read that babies are, at first, incapable of distinguishing between their body and the body of their mother, which indeed they were absorbed in for a timeless nine months. So, does the memory refer to establishing my body’s borders, the private inside and the public world without?
Nothing in the realm of the sensorium is simple. To start with, it seems that an account of a body’s life will be more comprehensible, less ambiguous, than a mental biography. The body is more amenable to statistical explanation. In theory, if I’d recorded and kept the requisite figures, I could list the weight of the body at monthly intervals, or its height, or its shoe size, and the results would be indisputable – but I could never write an indisputable account of my inner life. Yet even on the physical level, easy comprehensibility is an illusion. For comprehensibility, I’d have to establish boundaries and definitions. That is, I’d have to answer questions that I am incapable of answering. Such as: Where do I end and the rest of the world begin? What is body and what is self? What mind and what matter? What soul and what spirit? (Or if you like, what rooh and what nafs?) Can these categories be neatly separated, or are they always ultimately one?