The sensations of a mind and body, in finite time, moving through a physical universe: if this is one definition of the self, it perhaps becomes more recognisable if we add desires, fears, and, in some cases, prayers for its everlasting salvation. These attributes link each of us to a culture, so that we learn to desire, fear and speak to each other only as we belong to groups of people sharing customs, values and beliefs. The self still remains a neurological mystery, however-in so far as how it can inhabit that cluster of cells somewhere inside the lobes of the brain, how it recognises itself through memory, links up experiences into a story. First memories, first evidence of such linking, are what we think of when it comes to that fascinating question: ‘Who am I?’ Personal narrative comprises, for many writers, a first acquaintance with images, voices, stories and worlds significant to that act of self-recognition. But the other important attribute of this form is that we can write as we speak. Personal narrative can be like conversation. In the passages below, I particularly admire the way John Berger opens up a discussion with his readers. The subject of his first paragraph is a familiar one:
Every time I went to bed-and in this I am sure I was like millions of other children-the fear that one or both of my parents might die in the night touched the nape of my neck with its finger Such a fear has, I believe, little to do with a particular psychological climate and a great deal to do with nightfall. Yet since it was impossible to say ‘You won’t die in the night, will you?’ (when Grandmother died, I was told she had gone to have a rest, or-this was from my uncle who was more outspoken-that she had passed over), since I couldn’t ask the real question and I sought a reassurance, I invented-like millions before me-the euphemism See you in the morning! To which either my father or mother who had come to turn out the light in my bedroom would reply, See you in the morning, John.