Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Burden of Memory

One thing that has weighed heavily on my mind over the past few years has been the idea of memory and how it is valued. Some of the other first year poets can likely remember my 4 or 5 page series of notes regarding a novel/long poem sequence. The notes were tremendously overburdened with detail and were overmuch by even those likely to write a large novel. Those involved in the reading were quite diplomatic regarding my glut of material and structural thoughts. Most of the bits in my notes had to do with my upbringing and the importance of keeping a historical context on things, as well as experiences of my family with Alzheimer's and how it affects memory.
I was concerned at the time primarily with the personal aspect of memory and how it is vilified or valued, but in the current political climate, memory also happens to be on center stage regarding various hearings. Memory of the people that are testifying--if they actually show up to testify--is rather consistently faulty. Gonzalez had his famous "I don't recall" testimony not terribly long ago which has morphed, in later testimonies to "I can't answer that question" now that the President is the Big Block to Governmental memory. Phrases of the past year tend to orbit around "I'm not aware" and "I don't know." But memory and its forms are a major obsession at present and the governmental problems of late are only a small part of that.

In bed at my grandparents' house some years back, I was reading a book before falling asleep when my grandmother opened the door. The room had been, over thirty years ago, the room she shared with her husband.
"Where's Gilbert?" she asked.
"He's in the room across the hall, gramma." She blinked and thought a second, hand still on the doorknob, then looked back at me. "Well, good night, then."
"Good night," I said.
She had no idea who I was. She had walked from the bathroom to go to bed and in her bed, in the place of where she thought her husband was, a stranger was reading, a book held under the shade of the lamp. Based on what the stranger said, she closed the door and said goodnight and went to a different room. I'm not sure how many of us would have done the same thing and not caused a ruckus. And in the eye of newborns I can't help but see the same expression of newness and wonder that I kept seeing in her eyes during that and subsequent visits.

Forms of memory are seen everywhere. Hugo's thesis in Notre Dame that architecture is literature, and literature is seen as a form of memory, that same architecture as a backdrop to the interplay of Esmeralda and Quasimodo and the evil Frollo. Literature is, in its own right, memory. Any form of repetition as a form of memory, from the repeated arches or triangulations of a bridge or building to the repeated arches of wires between posts along the highway, to the fact that so many people have been named David or Michael or Frederick or Alice or Theodore before us; the fact that the names we ourselves carry are a form of memory. And in looking forward in the moving car one sees in the same field of vision the receding perspective of the countryside in the oblong mirror glued to the glass.

Memory is, currently, worth both everything and nothing. Politicians wish they could forget, and dear relatives either wish desperately they could remember or live in a present that no longer is, with surrogate sons and husbands, and acquaintances that no longer exist. The past and near-present are the current battleground of society. If one has the power to control history, one has great power. Without that, it's a frightening place to be. Its a frightening place to be nonetheless.

picture adapted from a still from The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra


Kristen said...

Yes, this has been your idée fixe for as long as I've known you. Might as well work it!

Brian Burtt said...

You mention literature and architecture (and politics) would you apply your thoughts of memory toward music? Much in the tradition is in a form replete with repeats and recapitulations and returns to where we once were. Modernist (2nd Vienna School, say) might be seen as trying to obliterate memory, both within individual works and within the tradition as a whole. What about somebody like Phillip Glass--is he trying to exalt memory-as-such, or trying to numb it into silence?

Casey said...

Wow--when I read Hunchback at age 19, I totally missed that theme/thesis. Must revisit.