On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

Memory is fascinating.  It’s incredible that mere patterns of linkages could cause a past experience to overwhelm us.  And we remember so much — most people seem able to vividly recall occurrences from a wide variety of times throughout their lives.

unnamed (8)I’ve written a few posts about memory previously (here, here, and here), and so was obviously excited when I saw an advertisement for Simon Critchley’s new book Memory Theater.  In addition to my fascination with neuroscientists’ efforts to understand memory, futurists’ efforts to reproduce it, and therapists’ efforts to re-color it, I’ve always loved writers’ efforts to understand the workings of their own minds.  Because memory is so difficult to appreciate from outside someone’s head, hearing someone’s description of what memory feels like is still one of the best ways to understand the phenomenon.  Proust is still mentioned quite frequently in neuroscience reviews.

Critchley’s book also appeared as though it would address the workings of our minds.  The basic plot is simple enough.  A philosopher receives boxes full of a friend’s old notes after that friend’s death.  The notes contain both musings on memory and, alarmingly, a set of charts, one of which predicts the date of the philosopher’s own impending demise.

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Reading the description of a box full of occult astrological charts, I couldn’t help but think of the “Jimmerson Spiral” from Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis.  A lovely book, Masters of Atlantis, featuring an incredibly unreflective man named Lamar Jimmerson who starts a cult in the United States after being scammed in Europe.  A grifter named Robert sold him a specious pamphlet about an exciting new religious order, the Gnomon, and, after failing to find higher leadership in the order, Lamar assumes that he himself might be regent.  He returns to the U.S., spreads the order, and embellishes the cult with his own speculations… including the idea that fate can be predicted based on a diagram he deems the “Jimmerson Spiral.”  The book is full of wry humor, very understated, like in this early passage:

unnamedThe Armistice came and many of the doughboys set up a clamor to be sent home at once, though not Corporal Jimmerson, who remained loyally at his switchboard.  He even volunteered to stay behind and help with all the administrative mopping-up tasks, so as to replenish his savings.  In May 1919, he received his discharge in Paris, and went immediately to Marseilles and got deck passage on a mail boat to the island of Malta.

On arrival in Valletta he took a room at a cheap waterfront hotel called the Gregale.  He then set out in search of the Gnomon Temple and his Gnomon brothers.  He walked the streets looking at faces, looking for Robert, and clambered about on the rocky slopes surrounding the gray city that sometimes looked brown.  He talked to taxicab drivers.  They professed to know nothing.  No one at the post office could help.  He managed to get an appointment with the secretary to the island’s most famous resident, the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but the fellow said he had never heard of Gnomons or Gnomonry and that the Grand Master could not be bothered with casual inquiries.

Lamar found three Rosenbergs and one Pappus in Valletta, none of whom would admit to being Master of Gnomons or Perfect Adept of Hermetical Science.  He tried each of them a second time, appearing before them silently on this occasion, wearing his Poma and flashing the Codex.  He greeted them with various Gnomon salutes–with his arms crossed, with his right hand grasping his left wrist, with his hands at his sides and the heel of his right foot forming a T against the instep of his left foot.  At last in desperation he removed his Poma and clasped both hands atop his head, his arms making a kind of triangle.  This was the sign for “Need assistance” and was not to be used lightly, Robert had told him.  But Pappus and the Rosenbergs only turned away in fright or disgust.

Was he being too direct?  A man who wishes to become a Freemason must himself take the initiative; his membership cannot be solicited.  With Gnomonry, as Robert had explained, it was just the reverse.  A man must be invited into the order; he must be bidden to approach the Master.  Perhaps he was being too pushy.  He must be patient.  He must wait.

In addition to Masters of Atlantis, I often found myself thinking of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.  Sebald’s work came to mind due to the discursive nature of Critchley’s text: in addition to passages describing events as they occur in the narrator’s temporal frame of reference, we read about philosophy, philosophers, musicians, and the narrator’s own past.

Thomas Bernhard’s Correction is alluded to throughout.  The protagonist of Correction is similarly tasked with understanding a misguided construction project from the scattered notes remaining after a friend’s suicide.  Indeed, both Correction and Memory Theater build toward the idea that perfection and cessation are inextricably linked.  And both use interesting stylistic devices to convey a sense of madness to the reader.  In Correction, there’s a disorienting propensity for repetition, as though the ideas and even sentences themselves are being worked over again and again in search of some platonic ideal.  In Memory Theater, Critchley conveys mental duress through his liberal use of choppy sentence fragments; when these work well, the effect is quite striking:

I went to see a psychiatrist with psychoanalytic sympathies on the Upper East Side.  Expensive.  Platitudinous.  Useless.  He suggested hospitalization and prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

The protagonist of Memory Theater becomes obsessed with building an edifice to physically embody his memories.  He invents symbols to represent everything he knows and uses these symbols to decorate figurines within a small chapel.  Sitting inside, he feels that he can slowly move his gaze through the building and recollect everything he knows.

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Clearly a foolhardy proposition.  The fascinating thing about how much we remember is that it would take reams and reams of text to describe the same set of information stored by our neurons.  In that tiny lump of fatty flesh.  The theater built by Critchley’s protagonist obviously can’t convey the contents of his mind to anyone else, and it couldn’t even stir his own remembrance of everything he knows.  He only built figurines to represent the memories he was able to consciously recall.  If someone gave him a relic from his past, much more might swell forth unbidden.  Memories he hadn’t even realized he still had.

Those relics are fascinating.  Such small objects.  And yet immense, sprawling narratives might be hidden by each.

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I couldn’t find an image of #6, so here’s #18 instead.

For instance, a prisoner recently requested that I send a book of photography.  I looked through our inventory and pulled The Best of Photojournalism 6 for him.  Then began flipping through the pages: the prisoner’s facility, in addition to disallowing hardcover books and anything with spiral bindings, won’t let me send pornography.  The Best of Photojournalism 6 certainly didn’t sound pornographic, but I figured a guard might flip through and check for racy photographs, which meant that, if I wanted to make sure the package didn’t get returned, I ought to too.

I didn’t notice anything overly scandalous, just a photograph that’d been used to illustrate a magazine article on peeping toms.  This showed a man holding binoculars to his face, and reflected in each eyepiece was the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a diaphanously curtained window.  The artist had made the image by cutting out the pictures of the window w/ undressing woman, pasting them into the eyepieces of his binocular image, then re-photographing the entire collage.

peeping tom
My hasty recreation of an image from “Best of Photojournalism 6.”  I sent the package over a month ago now, so apparently the binocular image was not racy enough to make it bounce!

As I was flipping through the book, a letter fell out.

Dear Photographer: One or more pictures you submitted is under consideration for “The Best of Photojournalism 8.”  Please give me some personal insight into your feelings about this photograph, what you were trying to do, etc.  This will give added perspective to the picture as it is used in “The Best of PJ/8.”

The letter was postmarked two months before I was born.

How strange, I thought.  This photographer received his acceptance notice, tucked it away into a previous edition of the series, and then, years later, donated that book.  Good ol’ PJ/6.

I hope he kept his copy of volume 8, the one in which his own work (presumably) appeared.

And, getting back to Simon Critchley’s work — you can easily imagine that the recollections triggered by holding that envelope again and reading the actual letter inside would be far more vivid than anything the photographer might recall if shown a symbolic representation of that episode from his life.  It’s quite possible that if the photographer were building his own memory theater, he wouldn’t even think to include anything related to that picture from over three decades ago.  But surely there’s a story.

I suppose Amélie would try to get the letter to him and let him remember.

On memory (part three): getting rid of memories.

Exposed brain and magpie.  By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.
Exposed brain and magpie. By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.

This is third in a series.  See parts one and two.

Not all memories are good, obviously.  I’ve done plenty of stupid things, blurted out plenty of awkward remarks in conversations, that I’d prefer to forget.  And those are harmless.  They might make me flush and feel retroactively embarrassed if I think of them at night, but, big deal.

Other people have seen far worse things than me.  Their memories, instead of minor self-consciousness, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): sleeplessness, headaches, stress biomarkers suggestive of shortened lifespan, proclivity toward substance abuse, etc.

PTSD is bad news.  Very bad news.  There’s no data yet on what causes it — why does one person subject to a horrible event pull through fine, but another contracts the nightmares?  There’s simply too much we don’t understand about the brain.

Mostly this essay is going to be about memory erasure — if we could consistently & specifically delete memories, that’d go a long way toward curing PTSD.  And I have a minor ulterior motive for slapping up a few scientific references for memory erasure: because misplaced memories are essential for the plot of The Ramayana, I tucked the concept into my book.  When I first wrote those passages, they were moderately speculative, but in the intervening years our scientific understanding has actually caught up appreciably.

MV5BMTM3OTA2MjcwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU2ODYyMQ@@._V1__SX1156_SY499_But first I wanted to give a small shout-out for the film Renegade.  Despite being a terrible cowboy film, Renegade is also the best depiction I’ve seen of using psychedelics to treat PTSD.  Which maybe sounds a little odd, but there are reasons to expect why it might work (as opposed to, say, attempting to use psychedelics to cure autism, which is every bit as ill-reasoned and abusive as it sounds).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be the leading non-pharmaceutical strategy to treat depression, sleep disorders, and other crummy brain states including PTSD.  The basic idea is that thoughts are reinforcing.  Thoughts you’ve had once are easier to have again, which is why studying works, why practice makes perfect.  But people can get stuck in ruts, looping through the same negative thoughts over and over.  CBT aims to replace those ruts with new virtuous cycles of helpful thoughts.

And that’s why psychedelics might make CBT more effective: the therapy will reinforce itself once it gets going, but actually jolting someone out of their initial rut seems difficult.  Mind-altering substances might provide a window of time during which a new cycle of thoughts can be more readily inoculated into someone’s brain.

This is speculative, of course.  FDA restrictions have made it difficult to conduct research using psychedelics.  Not many studies have been done so far, and a lot of our nation’s more illustrious research groups haven’t been involved; if your research is already going well, investigating psychedelics probably seems like a lot of hassle for little payoff.

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Still from Renegade.

But, let’s say you were a film director who’d been given a reasonably high budget to create an adaptation of a French comic book but instead used much of that money to take ayuhuasca hundreds of times in Peru … would you care that the ideas are speculative?  I think not.  Jan Kounen, who directed Renegade, certainly didn’t.  The scaffolding film is a cheesy western, but the central premise deals with overcoming the curse of a traumatic memory.  And, sure, the trippy CGI fractal swirls are often vaguely reminiscent of screensavers, but I appreciate the director’s ambitious attempt to depict visually what was happening in his protagonist’s mind as he reconciled himself with his past.  I think Renegade does a better job of depicting these unarticulated inner states than, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, or Dark City.

Even if psychedelics could help people with PTSD, though, it seems inconceivable that the drugs alone would be effective — the only reasonable mechanism I can come up with is that the drugs might make someone more receptive to CBT.  And the therapy takes time, takes a lot of concentrated effort from both patient and therapist, and probably seems like it’s not accomplishing anything for most of the initial sessions.  About a third of people with PTSD who have participated in CBT research studies drop out of treatment, and in general practice this number might be even higher.

It’d be nice if we could address the underlying traumatic memories directly.  Delete them specifically from someone’s brain.

And we can’t, obviously.  As per my previous post in this series, we can’t identify memories based on brain structure alone.  That rules out opening up someone’s head and attempting to physically ablate the offending thoughts… although it’s quite clear that physical disruption could remove memories.  Here’s the first paragraph of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm:

418tSpTGIdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I often have to cut into the brain and it is something that I hate doing.  With a pair of diathermy forceps I coagulate the beautiful and intricate red blood vessels that lie on the brain’s shining surface.  I cut into it with a small scalpel and make a hole through which I push with a fine sucker — as the brain has the consistency of jelly a sucker is the brain surgeon’s principal tool.  I look down my operating microscope, feeling my way downwards through the soft white substance of the brain, searching for the tumour.  The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.  All I can see in front of me is matter.  Yet I know that if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation to see what I have achieved.

We could delete memories, but given our current understanding of the brain we would be wrecking them at random.

What else do we know about erasing memories?

My favorite model is that memories, when used, seem to be replaced — details that weren’t included in an initial act of remembrance are often lost forever, which could indicate that a new memory of that remembrance does something like overwriting it.  And this would explain why our most vivid recollections are of things we seldom think about — as in Proust, a rare smell or sound or physical sensation can spur our sharpest memories.

Conversely, repeated remembrance seems able to dim a memory.  But there’s a trick — that whole problem with mental ruts.  Typically remembrance dims the initial memory, but encodes new information.  Whatever we think about while remembering becomes the memory (in part this seems to be why eyewitness testimony is so often wrong — poor police practice can easily allow a new, wrong memory to be encoded and reinforced before a trial).

To erase a memory, it would have to be recalled but not replaced.

One method for this is termed “thought substitution” — actively trying to make your mnemonic records incorrect.  If you try your darnedest to think about something else while remembering a traumatic event, you might be able to replace the traumatic memory with an innocuous thought.

…although (and this isn’t addressed in the paper I cited above), it seems possible that you would instead link horrible emotions to the previously innocuous replacement thought you tried to overwrite your trauma with.  I’m not sure whether there’s any reason to expect the transfer to be unidirectional.

Ravivarmapress_Rama_familyAnd, right, I first began researching memory because it is integral to the Ramayana.  There’s an incident of brutal sexual violence (perpetrated by the heroes!!), which, right, often results in PTSD.  And there are less horrific instances of memory loss throughout the myth — the central protagonist has to forget his divine origin in order to be sufficiently human (i.e., weak) to slay the erudite vegetarian ruler of Lanka, and the heroic monkey has to forget his powers so that he doesn’t destroy sacred temples in his exuberant rampages.

So I had to put memory erasure into my book, despite this being beyond the ken of contemporary science.  My assumption was, if memories are accessed at a time when there is pharmaceutical destabilization of firing synapses or even just inhibition of synaptic connection reinforcement, those memories might well be diminished.  The biggest problem, from a pharmaceutical perspective, is one of targeting: epigenetic phosphorylation seems to be essential to maintain long-term memories, and inhibition of the phosphorylase that maintains them (PKMζ) seems to erase memories, but we can’t deliver an inhibitor specifically to potentiated synapses.  Memory erasure is still science fiction — but doesn’t seem to be unreachably far away.

On memory (part 2).

Read part 1 here.

Note: not the actual wedding I attended.
Note: not the actual wedding I attended.

Midway through spring, we found ourselves in Chicago for a wedding.  K was asked to be best man, and since N was (is) still breastfeeding, she and I had to tag along.  I’m not a big fan of weddings, but I did sneak in a lovely conversation with the groom’s younger brother.

He, the younger brother, is an artist (music, film, theater) who recently started working on a degree in journalism.  During our chat he mentioned that he’d become interested in memory after a traumatic head injury — he found it fascinating / alarming that there is a gap in his own mental records for the swath of time before and after that incident.  I didn’t ask, but it’s possible this incident inspired his foray into journalism; I can imagine written records taking on a newfound importance for someone subject to an involuntary lesson in the fragility of biological memory.

Part of why I don’t care much for weddings is the perpetual bustle — it’s hard to finish a good conversation because there’s always something else about to happen, somewhere else you’re supposed to be standing.  Next time, perhaps, if we remember, we can finish talking about this.

One thing he did have time to say, though, was: “Memories are physical things, right?  They exist in your brain.  I was wondering whether someone could analyze a brain and learn what memories are there.”

I rattled off only a partial answer before he was whisked away for photographs.  My answer, as it happens, was incorrect as to the current state-of-the-art for mind reading — I’d recently seen this press release titled “Scientists crack piece of neural code for learning, memory.”  After reading it, I had the impression that the group was able to visually inspect a region of the brain and know which of two memories had been encoded, either if you hear a high-pitched sound, move right or a similar memory instructing a rat to move left instead.

3461234232_19b63c79d7_oWhich seemed believable to me; yes, that’s a very hard problem, but if the group was investigating only a single, simple type of memory, one that was always stored in the same part of the brain, and was attempting to differentiate between only two choices… well, yes, it still seemed difficult, but at least they’d know where to look.  The impression I have is that data recovery from crashed computer hard drives is difficult primarily because any given piece of information might be stored in a variety of places, and that the major calamity isn’t usually that your documents, pictures, etc. are lost, but that the pointers, the addresses for where each document, picture, etc. is stored, are lost.

And computers are devices we designed!  Attempting to recover data from a brain, a system in which we don’t really know what the data would look like even if we knew where it was, sounds many orders of magnitude more difficult.

Still, I’d read that press release and thought one tiny piece of the puzzle had been solved.  That post-mortem visual inspection could unveil one particular binary known-to-be-present memory.

I was wrong.

Before typing this post, I downloaded the actual paper (Xiong et al.’s “Selective corticostriatal plasticity during acquisition of an auditory discrimination task,” although I should warn you that it isn’t open access) and attempted to puzzle through what they’d done.  I’m still shaky on the details, so my apologies if I make any mistakes in this ensuing description.

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A flat slice of some poor rat’s brain showing the auditory cortex.

They modified a small population of brain cells to respond to light.  After shining light on these cells, they recorded the responses in another part of the brain — the cells in your brain look something like squids, with a head region that collects signals and tentacles that reach out to send those signals somewhere else, and as best we know memories are encoded through the pattern of linkages between those squids… er, cells — as a measure of the link between those brain regions.

After training a rat to move left when it heard a high-pitched sound, they expected the cells in a “we respond to high pitches” brain region to have stronger connections to / more & more powerful tentacles reaching into the “we move left” brain region.  And, yup, while they were training each rat they took occasional breaks to shine light onto the modified cells, and they did observe stronger signals in the “move left” brain region.

They could also distinguish between a brain slice from a dead rat that had been trained to associate “high-pitch / move left” from one that had been trained to move right with the same strategy: shine light on the pitch recognition region, look at signal in the movement region.

My mistake, then, was thinking they could assess synaptic strength visually — I thought they were inspecting brain slices under a microscope to determine what memory was there.  Their measure for signal strength was “local field potential,” though, which sums the contributions of many cells… so it seems possible that they could have arduously traced out the tentacles from each cell in their pitch region to see how many were reaching into each movement region.  Which would obviously be a huge pain — the brain is messy, and those tentacles are very small — but it seems feasible.

And, sure, I hadn’t realized they were using rats whose neurons were modified via viral infection… although it seems like visual assessment could be done using unmodified cells.  With the caveat being, of course, that making a 3D model showing all the outcroppings of every cell in even a small region of the brain would be incredibly difficult.

Anyway, this seems to be the current state of the art for learning what memories were stored in the brain of a deceased rat.  For humans, we can do even less.  If you happen to have a few heinous memories tucked away, don’t worry; if you die soon, those memories will die with you.

Of course, these fields are advancing all the time.  If you take too long to die, all bets are off.

********

GolgiStainedPyramidalCellp.s. Synaptic strength isn’t just a measure of the number of tentacles… to elaborate on our metaphor, those tentacles also froth forth with little bubbles of neurotransmitters, and the quantity of those waiting bubbles can change, the density of receptors on the next cell in line can change, etc., and all those changes (and more!) seem to play a role in memory formation.  A perfect 3D map of where each neuron’s axons reach to, where each neuron’s dendrites are grasping from, wouldn’t be enough.

And even if we could obtain all that, a full list of every synaptic strength, we’d still have to puzzle out what all the information means.  How do those connections result in an image of your grandmother’s basement?  A narrative of your youth?  No one knows.  So your horrible secrets will probably be safe even if you die a very long time from now.  Unless you forget to burn your diary.  Then future sleuths could simply bypass your encrypted brain.  And wouldn’t you feel silly!

On memory (part 1).

On memory (part 1).

Memory plays an important role in my book.  Because, yeah, it’s fascinating, but also, you guessed it, because it’s important in the Ramayana.

3611588371_6f672501feOne way to tell the story of the Ramayana would be to say that it’s about the gods’ effort to stop Ravana: dude practiced mighty austerities and so the gods were forced to give him a prize.  Apparently there’s a system where your goodness here on Earth causes the divine thrones to heat up, and eventually those thrones get absolutely unbearable to sit in, so a god swoops down and offers you a prize and you’re basically exchanging your goodness for that reward – the gods’ thrones cool off again.  And the prize Ravana won was immunity to harm from the gods.

But then they wanted to kill him.  The gods did.  Dude got too uppity, and they were having none of that.  So how does a god kill someone who’s immune from harm from gods?  You have to incarnate yourself as a human and totally forget that you’re divine.  And that forgetting is the important part – every now and then you might enact divine feats, and so have an inkling of remembrance that maybe you’re not quite human, but if so you’ll have to wait longer to let that memory fade before battling that immune-from-gods enemy of yours.  Only while you feel absolutely human can you fight.

Some people think all the delays in Rama’s journey to rescue Sita were enacted to give him enough time to forget, to become sufficiently un-godlike that he’d be able to fight Ravana and win.  Or, here’s a passage relating one of my favorite memory-lapse stories from the Ramayana, related in the Uttara Kanda: Hanuman became very powerful, at which point he started destroying things, at which point his brain had to be zapped so that he’d only remember his powers when necessary, and not tromp all over the monasteries like a raging kaiju.Hanuman_Vatika_Rourkela

Having obtained boons Hanuman became highly and powerful and accelerated in himself.  He became full like ocean, O’ Rama.

Having become powerful, the best of Mongoloids, started committing offences against Maharsis in their hermitages.

He broke the sacrificial ladles and vessels and also the heaps of banks belonging to the ascetics.

That powerful hanuman did all this type of jobs.  He was made invulnerable to all kinds of weapons by Siva.

Having known this all the Rsis tolerated him, the son of Kesari and Anjana.

Even though prohibited by his father, Hanuman crossed the limits which enraged the Rsis of the lines of Bhrgu and Angira and bestowed curse upon him.  O best of the Raghus.

That you will be unconscious of the prowess endowed with which you torment us.  You will be conscious of your power only after being reminded of it.

Thereupon, having devoid of prowess and glory, he used to wander in the hermitages silently and decently.

So, I had to learn about memory.  And I won’t go into much detail about it in this essay… I assume memory is a sufficiently complicated phenomenon that I can write about it twice, right?  For this essay, I just wanted to present a quote from Oliver Sack’s book “Hallucinations” because it both introduces the theory that memory is malleable – that is, every act of remembrance will change a memory, in some ways layering the very fact of remembering over the thing being remembered – and it gives me an opportunity to write about Proust.

    Penfield’s notion of actual memories or experiences being reactivated has been disputed.  We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

    For Gowers and his contemporaries in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax)–imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection.  It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that this classical view could be disputed.  Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory–how many digits could be remembered, for instance–Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and then questioned and requestioned them over a period of months.  Their accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering.  these experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called “memory,” but rather a dynamic process of “remembering.”  He wrote:

    “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces.  It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience… It is thus hardly ever really exact.”

So, most of that quotation is totally uncontroversial by now.  The idea that neural connections can become stronger or weaker with every remembrance, which changes the memories themselves.  But the thing I take issue with, in that, is the idea that for Proust memory was static.

CaptureMarcel Proust did write about memories springing forth unbidden when he re-experienced an uncommon phenomenon, things like a particular smell, or particular sound, or particular physical imbalance while walking.  But his work as it currently exists (well… more specifically, his work as it exists in English translation, since that’s the only language I know how to read) does reflect mnemonic instability.  By the end of the book, for instance, Dr. Cottard keeps dying and returning to life; here, let me quote a line + endnote from the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation of “The Captive & The Fugitive” (which, no, I’m not sure who wrote the endnotes):

“However, one of Cottard’s pupils…”

“Oh, by the way, I never offered you my condolences: he was carried off very quickly, poor fellow!”

“Ah, yes, there we are, he died, as everyone has to.  He’d killed enough people for it to be his turn to have a bit of his own medicine.”*

* Cottard will nevertheless reappear — indeed at this same soiree — to die during the Great War, in Time Regained.

Or there’s this endnote from the Mayor / Kilmartin / Enright translation of “Time Regained”:

* This passage is also rather surprising, since Rachel has been identified several pages before.  All such inconsistencies are attributable to Proust’s endless additions to his original text.  He died before he had time to resolve the resulting confusions.

… but to me, having Cottard cycle between death and life actually increases the veracity of the book.  Because it’s so easy to mix up stories in our memories… telling a story to someone and including as one of the principal actors a friend of yours whom you hadn’t met, for instance.  That type of chronological mix-up seems pretty common, and yet we can vividly picture the involvement of a friend who couldn’t possibly have been there.  And I like to think that those “errors,” the life/death cycling of Dr. Cottard, for instance, are things Proust should have kept in his book even if he’d had more time to work on it.  Because memory isn’t perfect, and he describes so many phenomena of memory well that I like to imagine his imperfections are intentional as well.

… Perhaps that last paragraph would be improved by appending that quote from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” that a lot of people like: “A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery.”  But if I were going to quote Joyce, those aren’t the lines I’d pick – they are from the section of his book I like, Stephen Dedalus’s riff on Shakespeare, but I don’t agree with that particular sentiment.  Everybody makes mistakes, and the stuff I liked about the end of “In Search of Lost Time” probably wasn’t intentional and might’ve been “fixed” if Proust had lived longer, so I’d rather just celebrate that sometimes we make inadvertent beauty.  If I was quoting Joyce I’d rather find a way to work in this excellent chunk of ribaldry (which has the added virtue of being quoted for the OED’s entry for “scortatory” – definitely a fun word):

Revolutionary_Joyce_Better_Contrast“Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland.  His life was rich.  His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit.  Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberries pigeons, ringcandies, Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays.  The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba.  Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.  You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.”