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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: memory (page 1 of 8)

Dante at the River Lethe, Memory and Forgetting

The end of Purgatorio is my favorite part of the entire Divine Comedy, perhaps because it’s the point at which there seems to be the greatest human drama, the greatest sense of a story that has not yet been fully told and solidified into the cosmos. Dante’s confrontation and reconciliation with Beatrice is one of the few moments where he is not taking the role of an impervious (though not disinterested) observer. And it momentarily breaks the fabric of the entire epic, because Dante is no longer any sort of traditional epic narrator.

In XXXI, at the very top of Purgatory, Dante is dipped into the River Lethe, which will cause amnesia. The chant of Asperges me [purge me] accompanies his immersion, and he then forgets his past sins and his atonement for them is complete. (Even the memory of sin is apparently too polluted for the purified soul.)

Then, in XXXIII, Beatrice accuses Dante of having strayed from God’s way, and this bizarre exchange takes place between the two of them:

To that I answered: ‘As far as I remember
I have not ever estranged myself from You,
nor does my conscience prick me for it.’

‘But if you cannot remember that,’
she answered, smiling, ‘only recollect
how you have drunk today of Lethe,

‘and if from seeing smoke we argue there is fire
then this forgetfulness would clearly prove
your faulty will had been directed elsewhere.’

Purgatorio XXXIII.91-99 (tr. Hollander)

For Dante as an epic narrator, there’s a problem in recounting these events. In writing the Divine Comedy, he has to remember remembering that he forgot the sins that he previously remembered. So he still remembers remembering having sinned.

Not even Lucretius and Lucan (probably the two most eccentric employers of the epic style prior to Dante, at least that I know of) had placed themselves in such a paradoxically unauthoritative position in their work. I don’t think Dante can resolve this knot without damaging his authority, and that humanizes the poem for me. It seems insolubly paradoxical. That seems to be the one crack in the otherwise hermetically sealed world he creates.

Dante needs such a move, of course, for his Christian narrative. It would not do for him to be an impersonal narrator in the way of the pagan epics, even a highly contentious and chummy one like Lucretius. Ironically, for all of Erich Auerbach’s emphasis on Dante’s portrayal of the organized human cosmos in Dante: Poet of the Secular World, this scene reifies the distinction that Mimesis makes between the more external, fatalistic Greco-Roman epic mentality and the inward-turning, single-person psychological focus that he sees born out of Judeo-Christianity. The modern, psychological “secular” world seems to arise out of the salvation myth itself and the necessity of mental moral purgation. Or, more frequently, the failure to do so.

(Even more ironically, the source for the forgetting is classical and pagan, the Lethe being a Greek invention. I won’t even speculate on the implications of this here.)

Nightspore added a comment generalizing this slippery loss of authority to the entire poem:

I think it refracts into all the addresses to the reader, all the moments when he has to reflect on himself: his apology at having to name himself, for example.

Again, specificity endangers authority.

I suspect Dante inherited at least part of this memory/forgetting framework from Augustine, who obsesses over time and memory to no end. In particular, there is this passage from the Confessions:

I can mention forgetfulness and recognize what the word means, but how can I recognize the thing itself unless I remember it? I am not speaking of the sound of the word but of the thing which it signifies. If I had forgotten the thing itself, I should be utterly unable to recognize what the sound implied. When I remember memory, my memory is present to itself by its own power; but when I remember forgetfulness, two things are present, memory, by which I remember it, and forgetfulness, which is what I remember. Yet what is forgetfulness but absence of memory? When it is present, I cannot remember. Then how can it be present in such a way that I can remember it? If it is true that what we remember we retain in our memory, and if it is also true that unless we remembered forgetfulness, we could not possibly recognize the meaning of the word when we heard it, then it is true that forgetfulness is retained in the memory. It follows that the very thing which by its presence causes us to forget must be present if we are to remember it. Are we to understand from this that, when we remember it, it is not itself present in the memory, but is only there by means of its image? For if forgetfulness were itself present, would not its effect be to make us forget, not to remember?

…Yet, however it may be, and in whatever inexplicable and incomprehensible way it happens, I am certain that I remember forgetfulness, even though forgetfulness obliterates all that we remember.

Confessions X.16

I’ve trimmed this passage; Augustine actually goes on at much greater length. Once you realize that Augustine is talking about sin in this passage, it becomes obvious why he is being so obsessive.

This paradox of memory as it relates to salvation and authority may be an indicator of the sort of problems Scholasticism faced in fighting off gnosticism, as posited by Hans Blumenberg. Worldly authority (especially in the form of narrative and memory) cannot survive when it is critically dependent on the idea of an otherworldly salvation and deity. More to come on this subject.

After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

Birthday Cheer from Laura Riding

Growth

The change of self in wide address of self
To use of self in the kind wideness
Of sense-experience: this loses,
Though memory has
One lasting integration–
The steady growth of death.

And so the habit of smile alters.
And so the hair in a new parting falls.
Can recognition be
Past loss of hour-by-hour identity?
Where is the self that withered
And the self that froze?
How do the rising days succeed to vacancy?

The days are in a progress
As death in a steady growth,
From no to no and yes.
And from there to there and here
Needs no more proof or witness
Than the legs that stopped.
And if the legs themselves have doubt,
Self will the progress prove
With progress, the legs will move,
The smile alter, the hair
In a new parting relapse,
And the mind pause upon
A more mature perhaps.

     –Laura Riding

From A.R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist

The Mind of a Mnemonist is about an otherwise ordinary man, S., with an extreme eidetic memory, able to remember completely random strings of numbers and characters for years on end. Though he sometimes omits items in the sequences, he never misremembers or falsely adds one, as he seems to have intuitively developed a memory palace technique based on overwhelming synaesthetic associations. If he misses an item, it’s because it was quite literally overlooked in the visual framework. Here he is explaining how he “overlooked” some words in a list while repeating them:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence .. . the one
down the street, you know. But what happened was
that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked
right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a
white wall and it blended in with the background. How
could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white
wall? Now take the word blimp. That’s something gray,
so it blended in with the gray of the pavement . . .
Banner, of course, means the Red Banner. But, you
know, the building which houses the Moscow City
Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is also red, and since I’d
put the banner close to one of the walls of the building
I just walked on without seeing it.. . Then there’s the
word putamen. I don’t know what this means, but it’s
such a dark word that I couldn’t see it . . . and, be-
sides, the street lamp was quite a distance away . . .

The cost of his prodigious memory is a verbal literalism that incapacitates his ability to appreciate nuance, abstraction, or multiple meanings. Each word only had one concrete, visual meaning summoned up by his mind immediately upon seeing it. Here he is tripping over some lines from Pasternak:

[It] Smiled at a bird-cherry tree, sobbed, drenched
The lacquer of cabs, the tremor of trees . . .*
  Boris Pasternak

He smiled at a bird-cherry tree. This called up an image
of a young man. Then I realized this was taking place
on the Metinskaya in Rezhitsa .. . He smiled at it. But
right after that there’s the word sobbed. That is, tears
have appeared and are wetting it . . . it means the
lines have to do with grief .. . I remembered how some
woman went to the crematorium and sat there for hours
looking at a portrait. . . That expression the lacquer of
cabs—it’s the lady of the manor driving by in her car-
riage from the mill at Yuzhatov. I look on. What is
she doing? She’s looking out of the carriage, trying to
see what’s wrong there. Why is “he” sad? . . . Then
there’s the expression the tremor of trees [word order
reversed in the Russian]. I can see the tremor and then
the trees, but when the words are reversed like this, I
see a tree and have to make it sway back and forth
to understand the phrase itself. This means a lot of
work for me.

[* The verbs are all in the past tense, masculine singular, but
they apply to rain; it is the spring rain Pasternak ascribes
human emotions to. S. interpreted the content and endings
of the verbs as the action of a masculine subject, whereas the
subject was masculine in a purely grammatical sense. [Tr.]]

So to make space for all of the visual associations that are forced upon him with every word, character, and number, S. lost some other kind of internal mental representation, something that allows for abstraction, metaphor, analogy, and indeterminacy. S. was forever unable to grasp the concept of “infinity”:

. . . Infinity—that means what has always been. But
what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this . . .

In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I
have to see it. . . Take the word nothing. I read it and
thought it must be very profound. I thought it would
be better to call nothing something . . . for I see this
nothing and it is something . . . If I’m to understand
any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image
of it right away. So I turned to my wife and asked
her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her
that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.”
I understood it differently. I saw this nothing and felt
she must be wrong. The logic we use, for example. It’s
been worked out on the basis of years of experience.
I can see how it has developed, and what it means to
me is that one has to rely on his own sensations of
things. If nothing can appear to a person, that means
it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in . . .

It’s his sensations, and his inability to evade recollection of them in association with any sort of discourse, that disconnect him from many modes of speaking. Though he was able to be social, I imagine he was in some ways cut off from other people, because he could only ever think that they were talking about one thing in particular with each word or phrase, and if words were to be used in different ways, he would be immediately estranged from such a use. By relying on his own sensations, his language is more private than that of other people. Abstraction is more social than sensation.

[Another Russian note: It’s now thought that famous synaesthete Alexander Scriabin was in fact not synaesthetic, as real synaesthetics such as Messiaen do not have synaesthetic associations that map so neatly onto the western scale.]

William Empson: Let it go

Let it go

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
 The more things happen to you the more you can’t
  Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
 The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
  You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

Empson said it’s “about stopping writing.” Then later, he said about it:

Reading that poem feels like baby-watching an imbecile child, oozing at every hole and playing with itself incessantly, and trying to attract attention by untruthful cries of pain.

It might be if it weren’t so…ambiguous.

Addendum: As mentioned by nnyhav, here is Empson’s (amazing) Villanelle:

Villanelle

It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Your chemic beauty burned my muscles through.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

What later purge from this deep toxin cures?
What kindness now could the old salve renew?
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

The infection slept (custom or changes inures)
And when pain’s secondary phase was due
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

How safe I felt, whom memory assures,
Rich that your grace safely by heart I knew.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.

My stare drank deep beauty that still allures.
My heart pumps yet the poison draught of you.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

You are still kind whom the same shape immures.
Kind and beyond adieu. We miss our cue.
It is the pain, it is the pain endures.
Poise of my hands reminded me of yours.

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