Sometimes I am reading two different things for two different reasons (research for a play, sampling the reading list for a friend’s course), and they speak to each other so clearly that I can’t help but feel that the topic is something I should be paying attention to.
As someone whose mind loses large tracts of time but clings to arbitrary moments with obsessive detail, the idiosyncrasies of memory have always interested me. And so I wanted to hang on to this paragraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” (from Moments of Being). Discussing childhood memories from the a nursery in St Ives:
At times I can go back to St Ives more completely than I can this morning. I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories–what one has forgotten–come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible–I often wonder–that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it–the past– as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
So basically, Virginia Woolf invented the Matrix. This is similar to how I’ve always thought about life after death–the intense moments of our lives occupying some frequency, humming, waiting to be tapped into through memory. Even after all of a moment’s participants are dead, stopped and rotting, the moment continues, waiting for someone to tune in. But it is always there. I find this comforting, although this thought becomes stranger as I consider the vast, teeming number of moments of my life–even those that, at the time, were overwhelming, were infinitely important–that I have forgotten, that seem irretrievable. Mundane and unique, the life slipping away from my memory is mine alone to lose. Much of it has been shared, sure, but a sense of continuity can only come from me. And what do I have to work with? Whatever I can remember, which isn’t much. An airplane, a pile of dirt, a body of water, a naked body, the smell of something burning. The sounds of people talking. Mostly I remember the sound of their voices, the way the light hit the side of their head, the way they looked so fragile, more than any of the words said. I lose words a lot.
What I am trying to say: sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to realize that my sense of self is based on a fairly small percentage of the data that could in theory be available to me.
For years, I thought my earliest memory was of a nosebleed on an airplane. On the way back to New York from Los Angeles at two or three years old, the sudden awareness of my body’s spontaneous fragility. Wiping my nose on the back of my small hand, the shock of red, that color screaming at me that my body could be a traitor. That feeling of surprise still strikes me often. I am still utterly convinced that I am going to live forever.
I realized, however, about a year ago, that my earliest memory is from a few days earlier. Universal Studios, Hollywood. The King Kong ride. Sitting in a bus with my mother, staring out the window as that giant face emerged, primitive and furious, and we were lifted into the air. My earliest memory is the scowling face of a huge robotic gorilla, if that means anything.
On the same train ride as “A Sketch of the Past,” I was reading The Freud Journal of Lou Andreas-Salome, one of several books I am reading for research for a play I’m supposedly working on. It’s a fascinating read. She was very much a part of Freud’s circle in Vienna in 1912-1913, and addresses both the progression of various theories and the fluctuating personal relationships among the intellectuals of that time. The journal entries are interspersed with letters, mainly between Lou and Freud. Right after reading “A Sketch of the Past”, I came across this:
If we are inclined to doubt the truthfulness of journals and memoirs, it is not just on account of their conscious or half-conscious omissions. Above all it is because the construction of memoirs, like narrated dreams, amounts to a rationalization of experience, eo ipso a falsification of its latent essence. If a person thinks back over the entire course of his life, he is struck by the discontinuity and poor selectivity of the points that stand out clearly in his memory. Transitions and bridges of logical reflection must do their best to provide the connections. Many “unforgettable” events are strikingly banal, indifferent, or meaningless, while incidents which have claimed our deepest interest have to our sorrow become unintelligible in their precious details. Here too, by means of the associative process, significant latent content may very likely evolve out of the fragments, exactly as with the dream; the picture which emerges in all these lines, broken at the surface but pressing vertically into the depths, is a picture quite different from the horizontal structure of our waking memory.
So, too, a literary technique could be imagined (that old dream of mine!) which would be true to that very unity of formation.
[…] Freud remarked once that to bring about the construction of the completed analysis from the end to the beginning would require an artist.
And here I think, at least I’m not the only one. These ladies seem to know what I’m talking about.