Thirty-Seven Theses on Time and Memory

By SVEN BIRKERTS

Drawing of author when young, by his grandfather

Grandfather’s drawing of author when young

1.

Memory, that elusive quicksilver running through our lives. How at first, at birth, there is nothing, really, almost nothing, and how slowly it develops after that, all the years when there is no visible shadow on the ground behind us. And how it is that, for those years, we accept our lives as the steady panorama of whatever is right in front of us, moment to moment.

I’m trying to think when any memory worth remarking arrived. Did I have memories when I was ten years old? I know that in sixth grade, when we were all leaving behind Walnut Lake, our red-brick school, there was some inkling. Not a procession of memories, not yet, but rather an inchoate nostalgia, a definite sense of something being lost. There came an awareness of the past, and with it the realization that there is a kind of timeline, a sense of futurity that had not really been there before.

2.

Why do we keep hold of certain things, and nothing of others? Now I can remember, with almost cinematic granularity, an afternoon when a veterinarian came to our fifth-grade class to dissect a white rat for our science unit. I feel the heat of the room and smell the formaldehyde. I bring back my feeling of dizziness and my asking the teacher if I could leave the room. And then the cool, shadowy hallway, how I slid slowly down against the wall and then sat, knees up, savoring the quiet. I could hear nothing of what was going on in the room, not until there was the scraping sound of chairs and the door was cracked and I heard the rattling buzz of voices as the teacher—Mrs. Fremont—asked everybody to clap for the guest.

My sense of separation—I may have understood even then—was not just literal; it was something much deeper.

I think of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, the moment in the doctor’s waiting room where she’s paging through a National Geographic and is suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of identity: “…you are an I, you are an Elizabeth…”It’s a profound, one could say central, moment in her life—stepping out from the unthinking sense of a borderless child-world into something bounded and distinct: the full apprehension of self as self.

My classroom experience, as I see it now, was of a kind, only not so much about the I as it was about the sense of being other. This was not a completely new recognition—that sense had been with me for as long as I can remember—but it remains vivid. It is not just an emotional apprehension but a fully visceral scene, complete in its details. I feel all my inklings and apprehensions draw together into a concise and emblematic narrative.

 

3.

Some memories feel vibrant, almost inhabited, while others, most, are like near-transparent overlays. I have them through the day—every day—brief, almost ghostly visitations. Prompted by who knows what, I’ll get a flash memory of playing hearts in the caddy shack; driving with my parents through Gary, Indiana, with its mighty stacks; making coffee in the guest house of the college where I taught for so many years….

We create our sense of a personal continuum out of memories. The narrative mixes times of intense recollection with long unremarked stretches, periods of which only the faintest traces remain. Where was I? It’s almost as if I went for spells without existing, hid myself from myself. Like a drinker’s blackouts, except I wasn’t drinking.

 

4.

I’m making notes about all these mysteries when a quote from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being shows up on the Internet, front and center his idea that we all have in us what he calls a “poetic memory … which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.” It’s the most heartening thought, and I choose to believe that he’s right.

 

5.

The word that I want to consider—the word so loaded with emotional freight—is nostalgia. The root meaning, a “longing for home,” is already tinged with sadness. Invoking the past as a place one wants to get back to—that registers for me. I know that some of us are especially susceptible—we are nostalgists. I do find that I’m not interested in people who don’t pay attention to the past.

One thing that shaped my sensibility was, paradoxically, my father’s great reluctance to engage his past—his childhood in Riga, his years in Germany during the war. He did not impose a complete blackout. The effects of that on me would have been different, I think. What I heard, usually when he was upstairs talking to my mother, were bits, incomplete flashes, specific moments referenced—some place in Riga that they both remembered, a person from those early days. The most tantalizing hints. Catching a few phrases, I was always convinced that something very important was being discussed.

Image of author's father in 1952, writing

Father, 1952

 

So I invented my own sense of their past, drawing on the few things I knew, and—as it was unattainable to me—I filled it all in with a self-generated longing, one surmise laid atop another.

 

6.

What the flâneur sees while walking around is a tremendous expanse of time in compressed and vestigial form. The flâneur is in sympathy with time not from nostalgia but from an obligation to truth. The past is not a single era, after all, but the combined, composted layers of a thousand eras, and any given moment includes some proportionate blend of all those eras. The future is a threat or a sales pitch, the present flies around you like the landscape as seen from a moving car, but the past is what you stand on, lean against, breathe in. The very spark of the new that distinguishes an era will be visible only in retrospect. … The past is always in flux, surviving not in icily dust-free façade restorations, but as a dynamic undercurrent—in the slope of hills, shapes of streets, breadth of squares; in lintels, shutters …
—Lucy Sante

Traces of time found in man-made objects—part of the flâneur’s mission. Except that “mission” is not the right word, for it is based on the idea of intent. Whereas the whole point of the flâneur’s wanderings is to follow no script or design, but rather to let the things he comes upon announce their meanings. His, or hers, is a special gift of attentiveness. Insofar as objects speak, they speak slowly and quietly. The flâneur cannot but seize suggestions or clues. Think of a photograph gradually revealing its subject in the chemical bath—so do things dawn upon us, and so does the flâneur proceed, waiting for the innumerable relations between things to come together into an apprehension of the past. Most of us living in digital space lack the time for this.

 

7.

How strange, really, this segmentation we’ve all grown up believing and reinforcing through countless uses and references. Past, present, future. T. S. Eliot muddles things when he writes, in “Burnt Norton”:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Mostly done with office work now, without destinations and deadlines—even as I resist the word “retirement”—my sense of time has changed. I wake up to no great expectation or schedule, no defining thrust of intent. But as the hours of the day pool up around me, I discover I’m paying a different kind of attention. Rather than landing on something, fixing it in my sights, I keep myself in the vicinity, pacing slowly, taking it in peripherally, gradually—which I’ve often thought is the best way to take things in. The eye has time to notice differently. It absorbs what’s around the thing, its context. The pace of looking changes. It’s more like a slow camera pan, where the eye is invited to linger on what the lens takes in.

 

8.

I know that my own longings, my nostalgias, grow in tandem with my estrangement from the world around me, from the way we live now. I still think in terms of “before.” I am not rigid, but I am fixed in my basic worldview. Aren’t we all? What we absorbed when we were growing up, we now remember as the ongoing way of things, and this shapes us. We all stood in line and waited for the next teller, we dialed and reached real people at the other end, and when we got sick we called our doctor. We did not live inside a steady stream of codes and passwords, blocked points of access, nightmare dealings with corporations that have devised every trick for keeping us at bay. I can’t help but view many things not as innovations but as departures.

That long-ago past I cited seems more like a dream than ever. And it was not all as sweet and simple as all that—of course it wasn’t—but the heart insists. And in the depths of uncensored reverie, it is possible to feel that it’s all back there still, waiting.

 

9.

I return to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, one of my key formative books, a book that, like so very few, brings me solace. Nabokov was a nostalgist of the first order. Exiled from the Russia of his childhood, he devoted most of the energies of his life to restoring, in writing, everything he had lost. As with all memory missions—his, Proust’s—the restoration was merely literary. But I joke when I say “merely,” because in fact the achievement, the capture in language, was and is so much more. It is a bringing of the private into larger consciousness; it is memory brought into language so that it can pass, through the osmosis that is reading, into the deep awareness of another.

He writes: Blue evenings in Berlin, the corner chestnut in flower, light-headedness, poverty, love, the tangerine tinge of premature shoplights, and an animal aching yearn for the still fresh reek of Russia …

I have never been to Berlin, and I can only imagine that “tangerine tinge,” but I read this sentence and I’m immediately full of kindred feeling. I translate, obviously. I fit my different, but in other ways similar, yearnings into Nabokov’s imagistic frames. Behind—and via—his words, I feel the momentum of his longing, that he is, in a sense, stringing together the arbitrary, much as an impressionist would work with a range of separate colors to evoke a particular retinal effect. The power of longing is not registered by the analytic intelligence.

 

10.

The poets who move me most, who reach most deeply—poets like Tomas Tranströmer, C. P. Cavafy, and Adam Zagajewski—all achieve a particular, unfailingly evocative effect, which is less a product of craft or a rhetorical trope than a way of seeing, a temperament. These poets possess a kind of double vision, which contains and balances diametrically opposed scales of apprehension.

They combine a carpe diem grasp  of the unrepeatable moment, its details framed and held, and—staying with the Latin—the simultaneous recognition called sub specie aeternitatis, which is usually translated as “under the aspect of eternity.”

Czesław Miłosz is a master of the mode, as seen here in his early poem “Encounter”:

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, a streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

The two visions come together and make the occasion of the poem. It would be enlightenment if they ever came together and stayed together.

 

11.

Current memory theories propose that there are no intact memories as such, but that we create them in the act of recollection. Which is an apt word, for sometimes it does feel like I’m collecting data—pixels that come together like the dots in a pointillist painting.

But then: What about our involuntary memories, those sudden visitations that sometimes broadside us? Sitting in the car outside Long Lake Market, waiting for my mother to come through the door. Playing hearts with my neighborhood friends Kim and Ed. Where do those come from? Why were they assembled? Was it the smell from the bakery across the street? Or was the visitation there, on deck, waiting, an expression of some unexpressed desire that needed only the merest prompt?

 

12.

Annie Dillard somewhere cautioned writers about putting their memories to the page, her idea being that the work of framing depletes the original of its sap, turns it into a husk. These are my words, not hers, but this feels mainly true to my experience. I don’t think all the sap is leached, of course, nor do I see what remains as a mere husk. But our recounting of the past changes how we “possess” it. We all have stories that we tell about our lives, what we remember, and they tend to self-select. The ones that people respond to become anecdotes, and over time the content crystallizes, so we find ourselves telling them in the same way—same effective turns of phrase, same pauses…. Scholars long ago concluded that the Homeric epics are made up of often-recounted set pieces that were strung together over time.

If what Dillard argues is largely true, what of a writer like Proust, taking on his whole life in comprehensive detail and turning it into an epic of inwardness? As the project swelled, was the storehouse of his memories gradually emptied of its emotional content? Had he, upon its completion, become a kind of self-consuming artifact?

 

13.

The past is there inside our languages. Literally, of course, as etymology, where we can watch the evolution of a set of letters and letter-sounds across great spans of time, changing as cultures meet cultures, taking on new designations and new nuances. But emotionally and psychologically as well. This feels true for me. Latvian was my first language, and though we made our home in suburban Detroit, my sister and I pretty much lived in a family bubble until we started school and merged into the new language.

While I was inside that home world, Latvian was, as Wittgenstein proposed, the limit of my world. Everything I knew was mapped to those sounds—dzīve, mākoņi, koks, upe, kurpe—it was one comprehensive picture, deeply embedded, and completely infiltrated with my sense of family.

With school starting and a new world of social contacts, English encroached—encroached, and then began to displace. Crossing back and forth between home and outside came naturally; it was as if a sensor automatically shifted my language and my read of the world the minute I came in from playing with my friends.

Vakariņas, majas derbi, mazga rokas… (dinner, homework, wash your hands).

It was only many years later that I recognized a fundamental difference between the two languages, at least as I had them. I became aware—without thinking about it directly—that when I spoke Latvian, mainly with family, I felt more grounded in the world. The words had more weight and resonance and carried much more sense of the past—deep past—than they did in English. English was lighter, but only because I had acquired it second. Lake seemed to float above ezers, which was the real word for that blue entity where I spent so many hours of my summers; dog was a pale version of sunis. And so on through the dictionary.

I have lived my life in English since childhood, and over time my engagement with Latvian diminished until it was only phone calls to my parents and family get-togethers. But this one thing—the deep ownership of the first language—has stayed the same. When I say a few sentences in Latvian, the world fills out around me. Appearances don’t change, but the elusive—essential—feeling of intimacy is there.

Now that they’re gone, I have my parents with me by way of our language.

 

14.

A kind of arcade, that sense of an enclosed space receding into the distance, tapering, asymptotic like railroad tracks…

When I wake in the early morning and it’s too early to get out of bed, I often pass the time by bringing to mind a certain period of my life, and then holding the lens there, pulling up as many memories and associations as I can. Every now and then, I get caught up in a regress, going back and back, for each moment and person has a root somewhere further back and the trail furrows away into the distance.

That distance has naturally deepened, and with that has come a private sort of amazement—that there has been so much, yes, but also that most of that experience remains out of reach.

We know from surprise visitations that there is a great deal cached away that we’re normally not even aware of—but it’s there, at least in potential form, and its accumulation is so much of who we are. What a strange, rich feeling it is when a memory unexpectedly opens, usually not of some major event, but the most ordinary: the lunch lady with her netted cap, my sixth-grade friend showing me his new drum kit in his basement, the damp-canvas smell of the Boy Scout tent on the camping trip…. I don’t think that memories can be scaled by importance—it’s the fact of them that feels important, along with the uncertainty of their occurrence, and then, most of all, the way that even the least of them can figure momentarily as its own center with everything else peripheral.

 

15.

A photograph falls out of a book—old paperback, old photo. Whenever that happens I think it’s some kind of a message. From the past to me. No matter what the image, certain circuits are tripped. First, of course, is what the photo is of—person, place, or thing? Vintage? A casual snapshot of one of the kids at the lake last summer, or a picture of my mother as a little girl, holding hands with her Tante Aija. Such a range, but whatever it is, it brings up the mystery of time. Leaping from there to here. Last August, or Riga in the 1930s. The illusionism of an unrolling present is broken into, maybe for a moment, or for the duration of a longer contemplation. I see my mother as a girl. I see it in the light of her dying two years ago, and I feel momentarily overwhelmed. Almost a hundred years! How much is compressed between the two brackets. Her life and all that happened, but also my life, everyone’s life. Such humility abruptly imposed. The triviality of most endeavors. I look up. Where was I, what was I about to do? I don’t save the photo out. I put it back in the book and close the covers.

Image of author's mother and her Tante Aija in the 1930s

Mother and her Tante Aija, 1930s

 

16.

And, of course, our memories change in the light of hindsight. There is no stable “picture,” nothing preserved, and this is further evidence that we make our memories rather than retrieve them. They take on different emotional coloration depending on what has happened in our lives since. My feeling about my childhood is affected by all the years lapsed; it is no longer close. It has a frame of distance around it, and this surely has much to do with the fact that most of the witnesses are gone. When my father died, and then my mother, it was as if everything was pushed back a step. Childhood became like something imagined or dreamed.

With old relationships, I have several memories, those with sensations from the time before, and those now emotionally altered by what happened later. That dear friend I’m hugging—he disappeared from my life and was never heard from again. Memories carry the feeling of the loss. But the memories themselves change over time. I’m finding that the passing of enough years can wear the emotion away and to some extent redeem the experience. He was my friend.

 

17.

Memories of reading are a whole other category. For the action is itself stationary, nearly motionless; nothing visual attaches to it. I’m wondering if it’s possible to have recollection of thoughts. Nothing comes to mind; thinking about thinking is just too intangible an operation. Reading novels, meanwhile, has us making pictures of what the author herself has pictured and taken pains to capture. A reading memory is, in a sense, an image once removed. But it is an image, an image almost certainly infused with my state of mind at the time of reading.

I have a memory, for example—a confused but also vivid memory—of sitting on my bed in my room in our Michigan house, holding a copy of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, heartsick over the death of the character Finny, finding out that the world can be infinitely sad. I am about twelve. I turn on my transistor radio and hear—for the first time—The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week.” It all swims together in my mind. The scene I’d just read, myself in the bed, lying on my side, the bed jutting out from the back wall in that shadowy place (the windows were at ground level), the immediacy of the song. I’m remembering all that, but now, decades away, I see that it was the essence of that time in my life, no aspect separable from the others.

 

18.

Packets of time. That’s what an old friend called them. I was saying something about days flying by, and she told me she didn’t think of it that way. In her view, time was experienced in these personal epochs she called “packets.”

I think of this often as I get older—that the past is reviewed not as a continuous narrative, a sequential unfolding, but rather a discontinuous set of phases, periods, all somehow distinctive unto themselves, each marked by a central event or relationship or set of relationships. College in the time of the counterculture was one such, all of us living inside an atmosphere so distinct and intense that nearly everyone in a certain age bracket will, even all these decades later, know what’s being referenced and will nod to it—the stuff of a generation’s collective nostalgia.

Easy enough to describe and characterize from the outside, but what really distinguishes each such “packet” is the feeling, shared by everyone who was part of it, called “those days.”

 

19.

I’m six. My sister and I are staying with my grandparents over the summer while my mother and father get ready to move us into a new house. I’m outside playing on the long driveway that leads down to the garages. It’s very hot, and I’ve just discovered that the black tar ribboned into the pavement has become soft enough to scoop out with my fingers and model into a ball, and when I have made a ball for myself—the tar still warm and soft, with a special, sweet, oily smell—I take it to an outside spigot on the side of the house and, running cold water over it, feel the ball harden in my hand. My childhood.

 

20.

What Proust began so playfully became awesomely serious. He who has once opened the fan of memory never comes to the end of its segments; no image satisfies him, for he has seen that it can be unfolded, and only in its folds does the truth reside; that image, that taste, that touch for whose sake all has been unfurled and dissected; and now remembrance advances from small to smallest details, from the smallest to the infinitesimal, while that which it encounters in these microcosms grows ever mightier.
—Walter Benjamin

The unfolding fan… that was Proust’s highly poetic image, which I set beside Nabokov’s highly poetic image of the past as a kind of rolled-up Persian rug. Boundless, intricate, and rich. What interests me in Benjamin’s grand sentence, itself like something opening in segments, is the paradox at the end: that the more detailed the memory, the greater the power of the thing retrieved. I puzzle over this. My impulse is to think of the analogy as representing an asymptote, the line that gets ever closer but never quite reaches—for the last connection would be a complete recovery of all that lost time, a kind of resurrection.

 

21.

I do sometimes think about the future of memory—memory in a general collective sense—and what changes it will undergo as the nature of what is there to be remembered changes.

Considering my own memories, I recognize how completely they are intertwined with objects, places, gestures, and actions. I remember the sadness of moving away from a place I loved, but the memory comes to me as a scene: My bags are in the back seat of a car. I’m sitting in the passenger seat with the door open, smoking, letting it all sink in. Or in the bookstore where I worked: the distinct clang of the two-wheeler before I load the boxes, the jagged rasp of the packing tape pulled from the dispenser, the action of holding a book by the spine and blowing dust off the top….

Basically, our experience and the physical world in which we move form the stuff of our memories, which are, as so many have argued, who we are. I accept that, and in doing so I wonder what modifications of identity might be in store for generations to come, not to mention those engaging the world right now.

Of course, the engagement with the physical won’t disappear. But I do wonder. An old-school childhood, pre-digital, with household activities, full of boredom and slow time, the outdoors and its weathers… I compare this with what I see and hear about kids coming up now, how much of what they encounter in a day is screen-oriented—gaming, social media, texting—and, yes, I know this is not the all of it, but could it be the enough-of-it that shapes them inwardly? A screen event—I know this from my share of TV watching—does not adhere as an actual event does.

The unnerving (for me) scenario has the world populated with people who have only slight memory resources, and the lack turns them away from a sense of personal, and maybe cultural, history. Without developed memory, there is no sense of precedent; there is just the stimulus field of the moment.

 

22.

That often-cited L. P. Hartley line—“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”—can be set against Faulkner’s assertion: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The one invokes distance, the other presentness. I can see how both are true, but my interest right now is the Hartley. It connects with what I’ve been feeling these days—that, at some point in my later adulthood, my thoughts and feelings about my childhood sheared off and achieved independence. Childhood became its own contained entity, as if under glass, no longer much subject to revision. The psychological distance assures that.

So what is it that I possess? I went back to the Walter Benjamin essay and almost immediately came upon a passage I had marked:

With the joy of remembering … another is fused: that of possession in memory. Today I can no longer distinguish them: it is as if it were only part of the gift of the moment I am now relating, that it, too, received the gift of never being wholly lost to me—even if decades have passed between the seconds in which I think of it.

I feel that the events of my faraway childhood are in my keeping, and that they are of a different sort than my memories of adolescence and everything after. I don’t know if Hartley’s “foreign” captures the nuance. The memories might be fixed, but I can find my way into most of them, still feel the feeling, its profound familiarity.

 

23.

Flannery O’Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners that “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

I was not ignored, or beaten by a drunken father, or sent to the corner bakery for handouts; no one touched me inappropriately; I was not cast out, nor subjected to the harsh revelations of divorce. But I still sign off on the truth that everything was there, that in the deepest sense I did not need more experience so much as I needed to pay close attention to all that had happened and to extrapolate from that. The information that O’Connor alludes to is not about the revelations that adulthood brings, but rather about life taken in fresh, the range of human possibility absorbed at the cellular level. Not adult betrayal, but its schoolyard version, felt every bit as intensely; not sex directly, but longing and its obscure but real physical intimations; the exercise of power, but within the smaller circumferences. I do often feel that whatever is me started growing back there.

 

24.

Body memory. I will never lose the feeling in my gut, my chest, my bowels, of when the family Volkswagen I was driving suddenly entered that other time—that terrible dilated moment—tilting off its center, poised right on the edge of a steep embankment, leaning. I am fifteen, not yet certified as a driver, behind the wheel, my father beside me, my mother and sister in the backseat. We are on our way to somewhere and my father has let me drive, giving me practice, and I have just taken the turn from Inkster onto Quarton Road, but taken it wide, so wide that the left-side wheels have caught the very edge of the embankment, and the car, after that timeless moment that feels like indecision, is slowly going sideways—sideways some feet down and then rolling over with that terrible sound of impact and shattering glass.

One of the worst moments of my life, then—and, as I relive the sensation, also now. We are all in our seatbelts, wedged awkwardly, not quite hanging. My father reaches over and turns off the engine. Silence, except it is silence with the echo of all noise in it. What happens then? I can’t picture us extricating ourselves, though we obviously did. We are standing by the car. My father, quick to anger, is as calm as I’ve ever seen him. One lens of his glasses has a jagged crack. I don’t know what to say; I wait for him to say something, but he doesn’t, and I’m confused. We are not more than a mile from home. We must have walked the distance, together, but I don’t remember. I cannot picture us trailing single file up Lone Pine Road.

To this day I keep to the left of the lane when I drive. My wife, in the seat beside me, is always saying, “Over—over!”

Image of author's grandmother

Grandmother Marija

25.

When my mother died, I took away several boxes of photographs, quite a number of which went back to the time of my grandparents’ youth in Latvia, the teens and twenties of the last century. A century or so ago. Yet these were all people that I knew in my childhood, a fact which gives me a tenuous connection.

One of these photos, especially compelling to me, is of my grandfather Mike (Mihail), a painter. I knew him toward the end of his life, when he and my grandmother lived near us in Michigan, outside Detroit. I remember tagging along with him to the small lake at Cranbrook, where he worked, where he would set up his easel and paint. He was kind but didn’t speak much. He gave me the feeling, even then, that he was somewhere else, facing inward.

The photo I have shows a young man, probably in his early twenties, sitting in front of a large table full of bottles and plates, with about a dozen people, all dressed up, sitting around it. Mike is wearing a suit with a bow tie. He has his arms crossed tightly in front of him. Looking down, away from the camera. He seems morose, isolated in mood and posture from everyone else.

Image of author's grandfather

Grandfather Mikhail

 
Everything about the photo confirms that this is a time long gone by. The clothes, the postures—the expressions—the old-world festivity feel, even the plates and bottles belong “back there.” So when I ponder, in that slightly unfocused way I favor, the years between feel cloudy, impossible to grasp. This sad-looking young man, the elderly painter by the lake, and—not to be ignored—the fact that I am now the age he was then, brush in his hand, staring out over the water. It’s not just bemusement or wonder I feel. I experience what Arthur Miller called “time bends,” which for me did not signify some quasi-Einsteinian concept but a psychological version of what the deep-sea diver experiences on surfacing from some great depth.

 

26.

There are certain memories that to me represent moments of recognition or realization. Someone has really left; it’s over. Someone has died and will never be seen again. I’m thinking not so much about when I heard the news, but rather where I was and what I was doing when I actually grasped whatever it was. The memories are not all of loss and departure; some are also joyous, even eye-opening.

The one that comes to me from time to time has to do with the birth of our daughter, Mara, first of our two children. It was September 13, 1988. I had been at the hospital with my wife all night, living inside the murky unreality of waiting for hours, attending nervously, superstitiously—and then I was in the delivery room, muttering whatever words came to me, nearly overwhelmed, as every father is, all my attention now directed to signals, what the doctor and nurses were saying, the tone, the actions of the nurse wrapping this new person in a blanket, lowering her into a small crib with a red light glowing above her, my wife slack from effort but smiling….

This is a generalized composite memory. All those things were happening and being registered, but chaotically. The real memory is of a moment in the car. I was driving home from the hospital, alone, completely worn out. It was midmorning, normal world, and I was driving on Route 2, Cambridge, just opposite the Alewife Station, when it happened. Not a thought, but a realization intense and pervasive, the scales falling from my eyes. That nothing in our lives would ever be as it was yesterday and all the years leading up to yesterday. A new life had been added, a plus in the column.

 

27.

Though the trees are still green, I caught the first bite of September in the morning air and it flashed me back, as has happened before, to early years in Cambridge, to a time that now feels like its own era. An era in which a number of writers, through some ionization of atmosphere, through some invisible network of contacts, had one person meeting another, and another, those people’s friends, until—over time—something that felt like a collective identity emerged.

It was the 1980s; we were all in our mid- to late twenties. And, by “its own era,” I mean I measure how different things were. We all had hourly day jobs, we typed our work on paper and mailed it out with SASEs, and accepted the speed with which things happened in the writing life. As this group “identity” gathered steam, there were parties, more and more of them. Loose and chaotic, of course, but fun. This went on for what feels like a long time, but naturally things began to change. People started publishing in places, picked up teaching work, and more and more we heard the parting phrase “I have to get up early.”

But some preserved notion of that period, how we were with each other, remains. I listed out the names and realized that, forty years later, I’m in some touch with six of them. And that knowing feels… continuous, even as there have sometimes been gaps of years between sightings. The old connection is there. When we talk, it is with unstated reference to our younger selves, which I don’t think of as outgrown so much as embedded. Not in fossil form—and maybe all the years of writing help here—and still likely to briefly shine forth when their memories and mine touch at the edge.

 

28.

This is the work of the memoire involontaire, the rejuvenating force which is a match for the inexorable process of aging. When the past is reflected in the dewy fresh “instant,” a painful shock of rejuvenation pulls it together once more …. Proust has brought off the tremendous feat of letting the whole world age by a lifetime in an instant. But this very concentration in which things that normally just fade and slumber consume themselves in a flash is called rejuvenation.
—Walter Benjamin

I’ve thought about Wordsworthian “spots of time” and Joycean epiphanies, and here’s another mystery: the involuntary memory so closely associated with Proust and his petit madeleine moment, considered to be the origin point of his epic.

As with the epiphany, the involuntary memory is the moment in which one experiences the thing remembered directly, without all that has been layered over it: Proust is not so much remembering the madeleine as he is tasting it again in the time of the original tasting. Benjamin’s observation is both poignant and solacing to me. This is not surprising. I am getting older, and the idea of a compensatory dynamic is powerful. The catch—there’s always a catch—is that Benjamin is not talking about memory in the larger sense. He is talking about involuntary memory, which is not an everyday event. So, if it is to be understood as a counter to the aging process in the way he suggests, those instances must be potent; they must irradiate the inner life, transforming the dross of the ordinary into something finer and more lasting. I hold out hope. I feel that my life is compressed inside me in the form of potential memory, and that it may be triggered yet.

 

29.

Uncanny what things sometimes jut out in memory. I passed so many hours with my parents at Wingate, their residence in their last years, having meals, consulting with my father over a book he was preparing, and then, after he died, sitting with my mother, keeping her company for two years, going up and down in the elevator between her apartment and the dining room, asking her questions about their younger years…. So much family material, such a condensation of everything—I’m surprised it didn’t overwhelm. What juts out, at this moment anyway, is the memory of my father fixing me with his “serious” look one afternoon and asking me, matter-of-factly, if I would clip his toenails. There was a line of some kind, and I, a man in my late sixties, was being asked to cross it. I did. I sat in a chair and hoisted his feet, one at a time, into my lap and, with the heavy toenail clippers, took on each overgrown nail, trying to detach myself even as I realized that this was, in a sense, the greatest intimacy we’d ever shared.

 

30.

When my mother died and I and my two siblings divided up her belongings, what fell to me was that trove of old photographs, many of which had not been put into albums and which I had never seen. They went as far back as the 1880s on both sides. I did not unpack them for study right away, but when finally I did, I saw right away how much of my long-thought-out narrative of our family history was either simplified or downright wrong. I found inked dates on the backs of many of the photos, inscriptions, and a great many shots of groups of people, familiar and not. As I gave myself over to inspecting, a whole new sub-story emerged, supplanting many aspects of what I thought I knew. This led me to begin a new project, describing and narrating select photos, now shifting emphases and focusing in on things that had only been innuendos before. Sharper contours, new shadows. So many prior attempts, but this time I believed I had pulled together a fairly comprehensive portrait of a family over many decades.

Image of author's grandparents in a group of people

Grandparents in group gathering, Riga, 1920


This next will not be news to anyone who has worked on biography, how one or two new facts can unravel what had been firm suppositions. And how often those facts keep turning up. When I was finally satisfied with my revised version, a memoir-for-family written by my father’s oldest friend surfaced. Whole sequences of events were called into question, asked to be rewritten. I changed the tale based on what I learned—it opened up in new directions. Then, not long after, my sister passed along a set of pages—my mother’s late-life memories as told to my niece, Olivia. Once again, what had seemed fixed turned molten, newly uncertain, impossible to resolve. But I also felt the story rear up from its archival inertness, felt like it was moving, almost alive.

 

31.

I find this quote by Oliver Sacks: “Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” There are sentences that cannot be easily grasped on first read, and possibly not on second or third, either. The two propositions joined by a simple conjunction ask for a long, contemplative pause. As Sacks was a neuroscientist, each can likely be explained by way of brain function. But there is also such suggestive implication there. The idea that we don’t, of course, invent what we see, but that, as with a photograph, we frame, crop, filter, burn, and sharpen, by this making the world part of our subjectivity. To live unmediated in the world that “is the case” strikes me as impossible.

As for memory being an act of imagination, here we have experience that is already partially our creation, being created again in memory, another process of not only framing and cropping and filtering, but of further bending the past to fit our needs, applying pressure of self-exoneration, regret, and wishful revisionism. The world we close around us by degrees is a world interpreted and then reinterpreted, and it is the would-be biographer’s highest challenge to honor the impetus of the subject’s self-scripting while keeping in view the factual “how it was.”

 

32.

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence—depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse—our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;

In a way, these lines from Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” go right to the core question of writing and reading: Can it be in some way redemptive? And if so, how?

For a long time I conflated the Wordsworth phrase about “spots of time” with Joyce’s idea of the epiphany, which was, for him, the moment we recognize that a thing “is that thing which it is,” an elusive recognition that comes when we suddenly see through the cloud of preconceptions and grasp the existing presence.

But epiphanies and spots of time are different things. Epiphanies are revelations, not necessarily redemptive. Spots of time, in Wordsworth’s sense, are moments so intensely lived and known that their recollection gives us back something we may have lost. They bring life into the life. I do believe this. These encounters, known in the deeper self to be meaningful, certify that, for all the ordinariness we pass through, there is also mattering.

 

33.

It’s there, it’s incontestable—the divide between people of different ages. When I was younger I didn’t think about it much. The arrogance of youth and most of adulthood assumes that there is no great divide. Adulthood especially. Easy enough to feel connected to those younger via recollections of one’s own younger self. But about those who are older, one presumes that it’s just a matter of the current and familiar, only slower, possibly more accepting of things. That was how I saw it.

But now—and who’s to say by what increments it happened, for it did not happen overnight—some new relation to all things has arrived. I look at everything through a different optic, and I’m well aware that I am seen differently by others. Which is to say, differently than I believe I was seen before. Formerly, I believed I was being seen. My belief was based on the myriad infinitesimal cues by which we make our way. A sense of relatedness picked up in a glance, a touch of deference, nothing to jar the assumption that we are on a basic continuum. When did that change? It was gradual, of course, but—looking back—discernible.

With the “young,” the lack of interest is perceptible. Maybe as a teacher I bought a certain grace—my students needed me; they could hear me out and sometimes be amused. But after, when that was done with, the connective little tremor was gone. More and more the gap—when the eyes meet but no pulse is passed along. One is seen, instantly evaluated, and deemed of no interest. For so many years, that was how I looked at my elders. I did not engage seriously; my gaze went past them; they were of no use to me.

It’s the karmic retribution now—becoming older myself, I grow progressively less visible. In one way or another, I’m revealing diminution, incapacity. We are, but at what feels like a faster rate than for others, shedding futurity.

The gap haunts. I register it again and again, and I internalize it. When I step up to the counter in any store, it’s clear as can be that the underemployed young woman at the register does not even nick the surface of my being an actual person in her transactional corridor. Nothing. She is handing me my receipt, but she is already looking away. I feel the moment of my vanishing.

 

34.

For so many years, I taught in the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency MFA program. Twice a year I would drive from Arlington to Brattleboro and then over the mountain on Route 9 to the college.  There I would stop at the guardhouse to get my house key and schedule, after which I performed the maneuver that the original director had christened “down periscope.” The phrase is apt, for it was a near-complete otherness into which I descended. The rituals of the average day were completely suspended, replaced by a schedule of workshops, conferences, readings, and get-togethers.

I was thinking about this just the other day as I pedaled away in the basement on my exercise bike—which has turned out to be ideal for a particular kind of contemplation. I pedal as if forward, but inwardly I often find myself moving backward, fixing on people and episodes from the past. That afternoon, I was flashing on various moments from what I think of as “those days.”

Two things struck me then, a sensation and a realization. The sensation was about the shift I went through on every one of those drives. It was palpable as well as predictable. As soon as I passed by Brattleboro and turned onto Route 9, I felt a displacement of one center and the emergence of another. The life I lived three-hundred-some days of the year receded, and the expectation of the residency moved in, melding into reality as I drove up the long drive to the College.

But that’s obvious—it’s the basic dynamic of traveling, this exchange of one kind of awareness for another. My realization was maybe less obvious. It was that every memory from the past is also enveloped in the atmosphere of that past—the “how it was” then, which suffuses everything. It is, yes, the madeleine again—because it remains the perfect instance. Proust did not recover an excerpted image of taking tea; he recovered—was overwhelmed by—the sensation of the then: who he was and what the world felt like, and he grasped, I’m certain, that that was a world utterly unlike the world out of which he was writing. The search for lost time is not the search for the events of that time so much as it is for that other life they happened in.

 

35.

Yesterday, I had a reason to go to the attic and take down several boxes of old correspondence. I was looking for particular letters, but of course I got caught up in the larger process. Names on envelopes of people I had not thought of in years—people who had at certain points been so vivid, such a part of whatever was going on then. And all the overtures, the extended invitations, the kind gestures, the grafts that, for one reason or another, had just never taken. Such a melancholy about the whole business. A stuck photo plucked from between two envelopes—like that sudden buffet of air when you walk between two buildings. Group portrait. All those people standing together. I glimpse myself younger, much younger. But the real shock is in seeing others. My God, look at him! I want to take a photo of the photo and send it to that old friend. But why? So that he can feel the blow too, thereby somehow easing what I’m feeling? Of course I don’t send.

Image of curving street in Riga lined with buildings

Street shot, Riga


 

36.

Time passes. And as it passes it transforms the scale of things completely. If we don’t exactly forget the fact of lapsing, we mostly look past it, until there is some change we can’t ignore—a retirement, an anniversary, a death. Something that gathers up all the years and flings them in our face. I think of the power of the short parenthesis in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in the section called, yes, “Time Passes,” where we learn, in the briefest and most detached way, that Mrs. Ramsay, whose psyche we virtually occupied through the first half of the novel, has… died. The fact has the status of an aside, is like something the eye grazes over in an obituary of a person one has never met.

The passing of time exerts a terrible compression. I marvel at it daily. How the irrefutable presence of my father, such a big figure in my life, has dwindled, first into obituaries and fond mentions in letters of condolence, then into more glancing public mentions and diminishing personal references among family, and finally into the synopsized statistics that signify that closure is at hand.

And yet every time I think of him these days, it is with a feeling of scratching the surface. Is this what they meant, those who made it a point to tell me that the loss of the father is the biggest single event in any man’s life?

 

37.

In some way memory comprises almost everything. I mean, everything but this instant of typing and—if I’m strict—even the beginning of this sentence belongs to the past and is held only in memory. Of course, that’s ridiculous in real terms, but the argument can be made; someone will make it. My own sense is that events, things that have happened, have to abide for some time in a kind of marinade before they qualify as real memories. Alas, I have no idea how this works, or what counts as enough time.

 

Sven Birkerts is the author of eleven books of essay and memoir. Former director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he co-edits the journal AGNI and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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