As undergraduates with the OU, a friend and I followed the same route for five of our six years journey. We both had an interest in European Humanities, although we went walkabout in 1993, to explore the world of Social Sciences, and in our final year, we went our separate ways. I took Philosophy of the Arts (Aesthetics) and he took the more dramatically entitled, Life and Death (Ethics).
One day, when we were exchanging thoughts on our respective courses, my friend said something along these lines: “You know, I have an identity. I have a name. I have family and friends, and they all know me by my name and by my past. I have a history. I have a sense of self.”
I remember how he paused at this point. The declaration of his sense of self hung a little uneasily in the air.
“But when I’m dead,” he continued, “when I’m dead, I’ll become a statistic, first and foremost. A number on a toe-tag will be how I’m known; at least to the mortuary staff, despite the intimacy of our newly formed relationship.”
That rather morbid part of our otherwise stimulating conversation has stayed with me. At the time, I was glad to be wrestling with questions about when music actually becomes music. Is it in the composer’s mind, manuscript, the rendition, the ears of an audience? You get the picture.
The thing is, once a solemn thought about personal identity has been planted, it doesn’t matter how much your head gets crammed with Barthes and Derrida, the question, “What about me?” begins to override all others. Clive Bell’s “significant form” morphs into “significant me”. I guess a psychologist might suggest that I’m just readjusting the frilly edges of my survival instinct, after having had them ruffled by the draught of mortality. Actually no psychologist would couch such a serious possibility in such flowery terms. But again, you get the picture?
I recently turned up to see a consultant at the hospital, only to be told that my appointment had been cancelled. That my local GP’s practice had screwed up the paperwork, and I would need to get another referral. “Don’t do your head in, trying to work it all out,” chirped the outpatients receptionist, “you’ll just end up going round in circles and get nowhere.”
For a brief moment, before leaving for home, I re-read the letter I had been sent. Yes, my name was clearly printed on the paper. It had been addressed to me, to myself. I had been identified, albeit via a cold and remote medical record. But it got me thinking, as I made my way out through the incoming human traffic. So many faces, so many lives, so many histories. Yet, in spite of a genuine willingness to connect, to empathise, to love, even; most of us are drastically relegated to mere statistical fodder as soon as we step beyond the circle of family and friends. I try not to take it to the introspective conclusion my old friend reached, way back. But I do try to remember that we are all names first. Numbers second.