That’s what I found in this draft when I clicked back to it after getting momentarily wrapped up in a cursory overview of William H. Gass’s essay “A Hovering Life,” which is a long review/appreciation/appraisal of/short story about reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I might end up reading instead of my original choice, War and Peace, because the copy that I want of that book – the translation I’ve settled on – seems to’ve vanished from online availability the minute I decided it was the one I wanted (Maude with Mendelker revisions, if you’re wondering).
Anyway, evidently I wrote out those words before my train of thought took me elsewhere, and, returning to them now, I can’t remember precisely what it is that I meant by them.
I think, though (or will pretend to think, because this is something on my mind regardless), that it has to do with an abstraction I’ve been feeling towards my own past – to the earliest days of it. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me; in a crucial a way, it feels like it belongs to another person.
I mean that literally. The above was not a tortured way of acknowledging that I’ve changed as I’ve grown; we all know that happens, even if we forget so we can be surprised and saddened about it again and over again. I mean that when I look at those little ruins of memories, I don’t feel like that’s me; the narrator, the viewer, whoever’s eyes I’m looking out of when I look at those memories, is not me. It’s not a 100% sure thing, but the child I must’ve been in those impossible days, during which my life such as it was was locked more fully, with more color and vivacity, in others’ minds than my own; that kid, that toddler, feels alien to me, an other.
And so I felt like if I were to write about my earliest days, working from my scraps of memories and maybe the recollections of my parents, and maybe photographs and videos if there are any; if I were to write about those times I would have to switch into the third person, because I would essentially be writing someone else’s biography. So that the “He” in “He remembers” would be the person I imagine this child to be, my best possible recreation of what he was like and what he saw. It is one thing to be loyal to the truth you find in more vivid memories; it’s another to posit your early past out of disparate sources, the least consequential of which is your own “self.”
This alienation is a natural extension or a riff on the general fraud of memory, its inherent patchwork nature. It’s like the ocean that Maskull comes to in A Voyage to Arcturus: composed of different thicknesses, densities, textures. A memory itself ages as it is pushed further and further back in the mind’s halls, like a piece of furniture we like but just can’t find the right place for as we acquire more things. Every visit to a memory is inescapably also a revision, and each revision our mind applies to it is different, coming as it does from a different mind, because even if you remember something on Monday, and again on Tuesday, the quality of your mind has changed in those 24 hours.
And we want to return to it, over and over again. Memories are artifacts of the past, the proof of its passing and realness, like fulgurite after a hot storm. We occupy the present but only the way an open window occupies a wind that’s moving through it; and the future is an inscrutable creature that, like a Heian lover, interacts with us only through intermediaries. So we go back to the past, we go back to seek whatever it might give, with the oblique desire that receiving anything at all from it might somehow justify or clarify something. And each time we return, is it less what it was and more what it’s becoming? Does our hunger for the past destroy it, and leave us only with more and more artificial memories as consolation?
All this is an old, old chestnut for sure. A venerable problem. But one that goes on through all the streets of time and ages like a spindle-limbed beggar, articulating its plight at every door and stall. If memory is tatterdemalion, flawed, inchoate, how can we be honest, ever, about the past, about our pasts? Is there some inherent quality in the human mind that, Midas-like, can’t help but ficitify what it touches? Is a mind’s memories is like they tell us baby birds are like: touch them enough times and their mother won’t recognize it? The internal archive corrupts and recorrupts; in the ugly cabinets in the dark room, flowers bloom through the dry stacks of leaves, blotting out whole paragraphs, redacting sentences with their pastelerie.