Shape and story

I’ve noted previously the Cafe Politique event that I attended where the Politics of Dementia was discussed – it struck me then that one of the problematic issues facing people living with dementia was the notion of identity. The people present at the meeting recognised that their identity changed over time and yet the change in identity impose upon their loved-ones through the action of dementia remained traumatic – they appealed to the idea of a lost identity. The idea that we hold onto the memory of an identity that has been lost seems to me to be at odds with the notion of identity as fluid and un-fixed.

A while back I read a book by my favourite mediaevalist, Caroline Walker Bynum, called ‘Metamorphosis and Identity’ which (as I recalled) revolved around notions of identity and change. So I went back to re-read it whilst on holiday. There is method in learning from mediaeval sources: In theology at least the completely different world view of Christian writers means that they make different theological assumptions, and mistakes, to contemporary Christians. The contrasts highlights nuances of contemporary thought where that thought might be more implicit and otherwise go unchallenged. So, why not think about how mediaeval writers dealt with identity?

In truth the book was less directly relevant than I recalled but still quite helpful. It consists of a series of essays written by Bynum for different occasions.

The third essay is a detailed discussion of the place of hybridity in the thought of Bernard of Clarivaux. (A man high on my hypothetical list of people from history I’d like to meet!) The key issue with Bernard is that he really doesn’t think in terms of change. For him identity is core to the nature of our being. He recognises change and growth towards the divine image as a process of accretions. The core is constant. Moreover, we are becoming what we are designed to become. In keeping with this he finds it difficult when people cross boundaries, such as Eugene the monk-Pope; here he employs ideas such as mixture and hybridity and deploys them as perjoratives. He does not speak in the perjorative for the militant monastic orders but even here he does not talk about them becoming something new but rather uses forms of paradox to bring out the tension in the role. Notably, Bernard rarely (if ever) talks of becoming or talk about change as a narrative.

In the fourth, more general essay, Bynum draws out other authors who do talk about change in terms of a narrative, focussing on werewolf stories. Ovid’s ‘Lycaon’ and Marie de France’s ‘Bisclavret’ are the key mediaeval texts here. In both of these real change is possible but there is a balance between continuity and change and Bynum draws out the way that continuity is borne physically, on the body.

In her concluding comments, Bynum draws out the theme of ‘shape and story’. She prefers the term shape because it is less fraught with meaning than the words ‘form’ or ‘body’. For Bynum the shape carries the story. We are the story and our shape carries the traces of that story upon or within it. Through similitude, our shape reveals continuity within our story; whilst through difference, our shape reveals change and development within our story.

It’s interesting… I’ve just started listening to a talk by Julian Baggini at the RSA and he opens by encouraging us to consider the notion that the continuity of the self is held only in our memories and thoughts.

Nonetheless, for Bynum, shape holds the tension; “we really change yet really remain the same thing” (p.188) and she calls her audience to think about metphors we can use to help us grapple with these ideas.

(It is perhaps not surprising that Bynum, whose work has revolved around the strugglings of mediaeval Christian thinkers with the fact that they cannot theologically relinquish the psychosomatic unity of the self, should place a stronger emphasis on the significance of the body. Ultimately, Baggini and Bynum would agree that the tension between continuity and change needs to be held.)

There are ideas that I can draw from this:
– Bynum suggests that story can help us deal with these ideas in ways that academic discussion cannot…

– How does our shape work in other peoples memory? I was reading this whilst on holiday and during that holiday we visited our old church. The shock that old friends experienced on seeing Joshua who is now 13 but is still 4 in their memory. Children change radically with time but adults (generally) do not. I’m sure I read, or heard, once the suggestion that our visual memory is primarily static, like snapshots, rather than like home movies. If so our memories of others will be intrinsically static. This would explain why the change in other people’s children shocks us so (this and the intimations of the passing of time which we would otherwise ignore). Whilst the continuity in adult shapes will help reinforce that static idea. Perhaps shape does for memory and association what environment does for some solutions of the ‘binding problem’ in visual perception? Our notions of the other are made coherent because the other appears coherent in front of us.

BUT does living with dementia undermine this? We see continuity but does that visual continuity only serve to heighten the sense of loss when confronted by the person we now encounter. Bynum makes the point (p.177) that there is no tragedy without some degree of continuity.

– I wonder if Bernard’s notion of identity has any modern echoes. Fewer people today live with the notion that their identity or vocation is God-given but some do. Furthermore, more people express an rather vague notion that we have certain life-paths built into our personality. I wonder whether we still think that we are growing into this person we were ‘meant’ to become. If so, dementia would seem to pull the rug out from under these notions as it is difficult to conceive of the person living with dementia as growing towards a goal but rather falling away from one.

– Lastly – objects…? are they, like the adult body, tokens of continuity? Are they accessories to the shape that endures, reminders of the continuity of self. One of my other bits of holiday reading was Edmund de Waal’s book, ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’. For him, particular objects that were handed down his family through generations become a thread which joins the generations because they endure beyond each generation.


Baggini, J. (2011) What Does it Mean to be You?, Lecture given at RSA, London, 26 May

Bynum, C.W. (2001) Metamorphosis and Identity, Cambridge, MA: Zone Books

de Waal, E. (2011) The Hare with the Amber Eyes

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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