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 Welcome to Braggsville and…

CaptureBecause it’s a tragicomic collegiate novel about racism (hey!  I wrote one of those too!), I’ve been looking forward to reading Welcome to Braggsville for a while.  And, praise be to the local library, I finally got my chance!  Thank you, library.  Thank you, T. Geronimo Johnson, for caring about these issues enough to write your book.

One thing that felt strange to me as I was reading, though, was the stark contrast between the collegians’ perception of racism in the Bay Area versus in Georgia.  And, yes, I realize that irony is a central theme of the book, so it’s important for the protagonists to be naive and oblivious …

LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE STARTS HERE: (which is a major source of the book’s humor.  But not my preferred style, I must admit.  It’s obviously a valid style of comedy — satirizing the buffoonery of others, in this case over-earnest students who perceive of themselves as liberal without sufficiently understanding the issues enough to make their points correctly — but it’s just not my thing.

Like, have you seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite?  I’ve watched it twice.  The first time I watched it on my own.  I thought it was quite humorous and had a blast.  The dude was a loser but able to transcend his circumscribed existence through imagination and dreams; I was smiling often watching him carve out happiness from within a bleak situation.  Because I was that same type of loser.  I guess the current author picture I have up makes me look rather dissimilar from the protagonist of that film, but, look, here’s another, this one from my freshman year of college, from when my best friend convinced me to join his dance troupe to perform at the South Asian Student’s Association annual gala.  That pale-skinned scrawnmonster at the left edge is me.

Dance - costume fun- frank, ravi, shiva, ananda (village-hero-wannabes)But then the second time I watched Napoleon Dynamite was when it was shown at the student union of my university.  That time, I sat in the audience and felt angry; my fellow students were laughing just as much as I had, but they were laughing at the wrong times.  Turns out the movie can be funny two ways, like how the moon might have an old man in it or a rabbit.  One way, you can laugh with the guy, celebrate his triumphs.  But you could also get your chuckles by laughing at him.

Vote_for_Pedro_Rally_to_Restore_SanityWatching that film in the student union really demonstrated to me that I was going to school with a whole bunch of derisive greed-heads.  The undergrads there were generally wealthy, generally good test takers, generally no more or less intelligent than undergrads at Stanford, who tend think they are smarter, or at Indiana University, who tend to think they are dumber.  Northwestern was about forty percent greek, and as expected funneled huge numbers of students into economics majors and then into banking or consulting careers [I studied economics too, but I only took one undergrad course, “Intro to Microeconomics,” and it wasn’t fun.  In that class, I made no friends.  All my other economics courses were grad-level, because the buddy next to me in the picture above made a bet as to whether I could do their master’s series and keep up my g.p.a.  We made a lot of stupid bets — the one he was working on was, While taking a full courseload, can you start a lab-on-a-chip microscale low-cost HIV testing company?  His was a harder task, but dude very nearly succeeded].

And, here’s an additional factoid about Napoleon Dynamite for you.  Back in 2005, when Netflix was starting out and then were offering prize money to anyone who could improve their movie-preference-prediction algorithm, they realized that Napoleon Dynamite was a quagmire.  It’s a polarizing film, one that many people love or hate, but that’s not an issue; there are many polarizing movies out there.  But with Napoleon Dynamite, they simply could not predict whether people would like it based on the ratings they had given to other films.  Many attempted improvements to their prediction algorithm were stymied by Napoleon Dynamite.

All of which is not to say that Johnson’s humor was on the same tier of meanspiritedness as my former classmates’.  I’m just oversensitive to that type of humor, so I failed to find the book as funny as it’s meant to be.  But most people should laugh.) END LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE – NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REMARK ABOUT RACISM IN BAY AREA VS. ELSEWHERE

…but the pervasive racism that K and I saw in the Bay Area was a large part of why we left.  The department I was in at Stanford had only one black researcher, a post-doc in my lab and a good friend of mine (as in, she sang several times on the holiday record that my family mails out each year in lieu of a picture of us attempting to smile at a booth in the mall), and she was often treated poorly.  This wasn’t solely because of her skin; she was French and so spoke English haltingly for her first few years in California, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to assume someone is stupid either.  Or my running buddy, a neuroscientist who was hired straight out of his Ph.D. to a professorship in the midwest.  He grew up in the Bay Area and was subject to numerous “driving while black” traffic stops.  Or K’s students…

WOULD YOU HAVE FELT SATISFIED IF THERE WAS ONLY A SINGLE LONG-ASS PARENTHETICAL ASIDE IN THIS ESSAY? (There is a well-known narrative about good teachers changing students’ lives.  People who say “I never liked history / math / literature / science until ________ made it come alive!”  Or movies like Dead Poets Society.  But it’s also true, just less often remarked upon, that good students can change teacher’s lives.

K had the good fortune of encountering an excellent budding human during her student teaching year in California.  When they first met he was failing many of his classes, tangentially involved with a gang, living on an aunt’s couch… the works.  But he took the time to meet with K and teach her about the ways school was failing him.  The next year, he showed up for parent-teacher night at her new school to translate into Spanish for the parents.  He designed several of her classroom exercises.  Taught her the importance of having students clearly articulate their motivations.  And really sculpted the person she is in the classroom.

But this narrative isn’t as common in the popular imagination — in part this may be because everyone has been a student, but a much smaller number of people have been teachers — so there isn’t a great venue to celebrate everything he did for her.  She wrote an article about it for an educators’ magazine, but there aren’t, like, awards for students who change their teacher’s life.  She did get to fly out and watch him walk at graduation, and through a massive stroke of luck he was awarded papers — being undocumented was a large part of why he was doing poorly in school.  Because, what would be the point?  The jobs where a degree matters are going to check.  And I hope his ripple travels on to make the world a better place.) THAT WAS THE LAST ONE, I PROMISE.  NOW BACK TO K’S STUDENTS AND THEIR EXCITING ADVENTURES NAVIGATING A HATEFUL WORLD!

…whom she would sometimes meet at coffee shops or the like to discuss their future plans, classroom performance, etc.  It took her a while to notice, but one day she with her life-changing student, buying some pencils and a notebook at a drug store.  K was talking to the cashier and tried unsuccessfully to bridge the conversational gap between said cashier and her student.

Afterward K said to him, “She didn’t look at you at all.  It was like you weren’t even there.”

He laughed.  “Just watch,” he said.  They walked down the street together.  Plenty of people smiled at my wife.  But no one looked at him.

“I’m not invisible.  But they act like I’m not even here.”

USS_San_Francisco_(CA-38)_enters_San_Francisco_Bay,_December_1942Or there was the tract of land just a mile from K’s and my apartment that wasn’t part of any town.  Too many Mexicans had moved there, apparently, so the local politicians redrew their town borders to make that area unincorporated space.  Police would tear through those streets with lights flashing and sirens blaring, but as soon as they hit the edge of the rich town they’d kill the noise.

And, yes, Johnson lives out there.  Obviously he knows his own experiences, and I’m thrilled if he’s been treated better there than he was in the south (unless, of course, he’s treated badly in Berkeley too and is just contrasting that with abysmal experiences in the south, but that’s not the impression I got from his work.  Sounds like Berkeley’s been fairly good to him to earn such a kind acknowledgement in his book).

But, for me … the racism in the Bay Area really let me down.  I had such high hopes!  Thought I would love living out there.  Ken Kesey lived in Menlo Park!  Well, yes.  A long time ago.  A lot of that revolutionary spirit has faded away.  Berkeley is not the hotbed of protest that it used to be.  Sure, people out there do yoga and eat yogurt.  But, where we lived especially, they also seemed mean.  There was a lot of racism.  A lot of ostentatious wealth… but at least the ostentatious wealth in New York City is often coupled with good taste.  The Bay Area had a lot of gaudy displays.

So K and I moved to Indiana.  It’s cheap.  We have family relatively close by.  The place does have its problems.  There are bilious hate sacks out here, too.  But, having done a fair bit of traveling, I’m under the pessimistic impression that there are plenty of mean-spirited people everywhere.  The main difference that I’ve noticed is that the bilious hate sacks are more open about who they are here than in California.  In a way, that makes life easier.  When you know who the evil people are, it’s harder to feel tricked.

Which, here, a treat!  From Marcel Proust’s The Captive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright), here is one of my favorite passages about feeling tricked:

But this does not exempt the sane from a feeling of alarm when a madman who has composed a sublime poem, after explaining to them in the most logical fashion that he has been shut up by mistake through his wife’s machinations, imploring them to intercede for him with the governor of the asylum, complaining of the promiscuous company that is forced upon him, concludes as follows: “You see that man in the courtyard, whom I’m obliged to put up with; he thinks he’s Jesus Christ.  That should give you an idea of the sort of lunatics I’ve been shut up with; he can’t be Jesus Christ, because I’m Jesus Christ!”  A moment earlier, you were on the point of going to assure the psychiatrist that a mistake had been made.

This isn’t fun.  Neither is attempting to maintain a casual conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, just launched into a tirade against those Mexicans.  Or blacks.  Whatever variety of “takers” they feel aggrieved by that day.  You feel ashamed for not noticing earlier, you have to revise your interpretations of everything else they’ve said, you have to find some way to gracefully say goodbye and never talk to that person again.  Which happened disconcertingly often in California.  Whereas the hate won’t catch you off guard if it comes from somebody in a confederate-flag t-shirt.

On translation.

Thank you, Mr. Reeder.
Thank you, Mr. Reeder.

My turn in our local library’s queue to read Peter Buwalda’s “Bonita Avenue” has just arrived, which means that now feels like as good a time as any to jot down a couple thoughts on translation.  After all, I wouldn’t get to read this novel if not for the hard work that Jonathan Reeder did for me and all other English-speaking, non-Dutch-speaking readers.

Obviously, I’m not an expert — I can only read in English, and there are only a handful of works, like the Bible, the Ramayana, the Iliad, The Stranger, and In Search of Lost Time, that I’ve read in multiple translations — and like most other non-translators, I probably underestimate how hard that work is.  Not that I think it’s easy, but translating a novel seems like one of those things that everyone knows would be difficult, but turns out to be even more difficult to actually do.  And I wish translators got more appreciation, like their names printed on book covers.  So much of what I read, and what I’ve loved, I could never have experienced without the effort of translators, so it’s painful to see their work go uncredited.

That said, here are my two thoughts about translation for today:

Picture 6Dance Dance Dance is my favorite novel by Haruki Murakami.  And I was talking to the friend who’d gotten me started reading his work, explaining why I liked it, and one of the things I said was that I appreciated how dark and scary the book was (I can’t quote the conversation exactly because it transpired about twelve years ago).  She was surprised; she hadn’t thought the tone of the book was like that at all.  But then it turned out that she’d read that novel in the original Japanese; later she read Alfred Birnbaum‘s English translation and agreed, that version is terrifying.  In part, that conversation made me wonder whether it’s the work of specific translators who’ve influenced which Murakami books I enjoy most — I know that several translators have worked on Murakami’s novels, and how much of my love of Dance Dance Dance is due to Birnbaum’s masterful rendition of the work?

Second thought: it must be very difficult to do fescennine slang in another language.  To me, the English renderings of Marcel and Albertine’s last big fight sound quite strange; she accuses Marcel of being too tentative, too dainty, and too restrictive of her freedoms.  Rather than throw parties and spend his money, she’d rather go out and have sex (which, right, Albertine, despite being female, uses a slang term for receiving anal sex in this passage, after which Proust provides some rationalization, speculating that perhaps lesbians would use that term to refer to any sexual encounter with a man — this is probably the only passage in the work where I feel like Albertine’s gender transposition has a serious deleterious effect on the novel as art, because it makes the dialogue and the subsequent passages ring false), which she could do for free.

Marcel_Proust_et_Lucien_DaudetBut it’s the belatedly-swallowed revelation from Albertine that seems like it must’ve been incredibly nettlesome to translate.  In both the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation, which reads:

“Thank you for nothing!  Spend money on them!  I’d a great deal rather you left me free for once in a way to go and get myself b . . . (me faire casser) . . .”

…and the Carol Clark translation (which I read less often, but through no fault of hers.  My copy is a British printing, apparently there was some issue with copyrights or some such thing and the U.S. versions of the final volumes won’t be released until 2018.  But this means that the book is formatted in an unfamiliar style for me), which I think presents the dialogue more smoothly in English but makes the idea of guessing the final words less plausible:

“Thanks a lot!  Spend money on those old gargoyles, I’d much rather you left me alone for once, let me go out and get . . .”

…a reader could easily feel befuddled as to how Marcel managed to guess what Albertine was about to say.  Which does matter; it changes how suspicious Marcel is acting if her statement is relatively devoid of sexualized clues, and it changes how the reader views Albertine depending on how crude her usage is perceived to be.  I don’t know French, but given my impression of what Proust is trying to do with this scene (I should mention, by the way, that both translations provide helpful endnotes to explain this passage), I’d almost like to see Albertine use a curtailed prepositional phrase like “up the…” to end her statement.  It seems clear that a structure like that would not match Proust’s language, but might mirror his intent.  Or is it wrong to want new translations of older works to use contemporary language?

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.”