"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Souvenirs And Mementos–Assembling The Past To Better Remember It

Meredith White threw very few things away. Her shelves were lined and stacked with old theatre programs, pressed flowers, and ticket stubs from the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad. Her closets were filled with blouses, dresses, and skirts she hadn’t worn in decades and maybe only once or twice even then. The living room was a collection of old photographs, pieces of fine porcelain, silver, and glass. Her  bedcovers were old fustian and antique quilt. There were figurines and statuettes of ivory, brass and gold in her study, and even on kitchen counters and windowsills there were small clocks, ornamental vases, and antique cutlery.

Eighteenth Century salt cellars

At first glance one might assume clutter, a collection of insignificance only occasionally punctuated by something of value, an assortment of knick-knacks, pieces bought up quickly at bazaars and markets, and arranged where they looked best against the colors of the divan, ottoman, and Persian carpet. It was nothing of the sort. Everything in Meredith’s home had meaning. It was an assemblage of the past, a carefully assorted personal archive of memory.

There was no particular order to the collection.  It was neither chronological nor arranged by theme.  The ticket stubs to Othello, Streetcar, and Oedipus Rex were not together as ‘theatre’ nor were those for Schubert or Liszt for ‘symphony’. Romania, Bulgaria and France were mixed with Siva, Jesus, and an Igbo princess.  Seashells, pompons, and pinwheels shared space with Sargent and Monet.

Nigerian statue

The lack of order or organization was deliberate.  Memory was fragmentary, partial, and filled in by others, she said, and her souvenirs and mementos were only replicas and reminders of the past – scattered, half-remembered, and recreated, but together who she was.

Nabokov was a self-defined ‘memorist’. The present is only momentary, he said.  The future only a possibility; but the past is long, real, experienced, and the only validation of life there is.  Forgetting the past was like slowly disassembling oneself, replacing salient memories with new random ones. Present man does not exist.

Image result for images nabokov speak memory

Because of this unusual insight, Nabokov trained himself to remember the past as accurately as possible.  This did not necessarily mean recalling every word spoken in St. Petersburg as a child, or during summers in Vienna, or during his later life in Berlin and Paris. It meant retaining the memories as they had been recorded at the time.  The memories might only be fragmentary – jasmine, the low light of the steppes, the sour taste of gooseberries – but they were all associated with larger images of family, childhood, place, and friends. They evoked feelings and emotions and were the triggers for a more complete remembrance.

Retaining memories over time required discipline and practice. They would fade and disappear if not recalled and used. Some memories, he knew, were fixed and inalterable. There had been something about the Strand on the Riviera that was indelible.  Something which had some particular relevance or poignancy even for a young child.  St. Tropez came to his mind often and without difficulty. So did the ladies-in-waiting in the salons of the Winter Palace.  Others, however, were defining moments only in retrospect. Nabokov had an instinctive feel for what might or would become important in later years.

Image result for images 20s berlin

Paul Theroux is a very autobiographical author, and fiction and biography are often mixed.  He knew that his early days in Africa would be the happiest of his life.  He knew this as he was living them, not in a moment of later nostalgia.  He so well understood his own personality and character that he could anticipate the moments that would remain important.

Image result for images theroux my secret life

Merry White would never have called herself a memorist, and she did not start out by deliberately assembling her past. She had a particularly acute and finely-attuned sense of experience. A symphony was never just music, and memories of concerts at the Kennedy Center were less of the music than the scent of perfume, tuxedos, and first and last bars of the piece. Together these memories elicited time and place. The Schumann was when she was twenty-five, unhappy, and unhappier still after listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.  The Audubon retrospective when she was forty-five, living alone, and more reflective and solitary than any other time in her life.

Image result for images audubon engravings

Meredith, however, had more Nabokov and Theroux in her than she realized.  She did not keep all her ticket stubs and programs, but only those from events which she sensed were important and somehow defining.  She did something that neither of the authors did – assemble a physical archive of memory.

Many recent studies have shown that most memory is filled in.  We may retain a particular fragment of a past event, but the memory of it is completed by others. The more family stories are repeated at Thanksgiving dinner, the more embellished and altered they become. “It wasn’t Uncle Harry who drove the Buick into the bushes”, my aunt said, “It was Harry Palumbo from across the street.” Or, “You forgot the daises. Millicent picked a bouquet of daisies from the meadow behind her house and brought them in a beautiful Chinese vase.”

Memory is so fallible that lawyers routinely challenge eyewitnesses.  In a case recently reported, passersby who had been witnesses to a crime all remembered the incident differently and, as it turned out, incorrectly. The shooter had not been black but white. The car was not grey but blue. There had not been many shots but only two.  Each witness had seen something, but that something was so configured to represent personal past conditioning, bias, and personality that the incident was more recreated than actual.

Merry White’s memorabilia were only mnemonic nudges to the past.  She knew that each memory would change over time and would reflect more of her present self than the one who had experienced the original event.  The memories of the carved ivory fisherman had become even sadder than when she first saw him on a grand piano in the dark Victorian living room when she was eight. The first bars of Here Comes the Sun were even happier now than decades before.  Her life had not been quite as happy as she thought it would be in 1969; but the song still stirred something youthful and optimistic.

After a while she forgot many if not all of the events behind the postcards on her desk. She loved the picture of the Japanese Edo Period cranes, but could not remember why it was there.

Japanese cranes

Nor could she remember the history of Renoir’s Girl with a Hat, but knew that the girl reminded her of herself.

Image result for image renoir girl in a hat with red feather

One day Meredith realized that the collection of postcards, photographs, dried flowers, silver pillboxes, hotel keys, and books had not changed for years. Clearly she had not added anything.  Moreover they were all still in the same places she had put them long before. At some point her collection of memories had stopped.  The pastiche on her desk was permanent.  She had bordered and bound her life in an arbitrary archive.

She was not particularly despondent or depressed about the few years remaining to her; but still felt that there was no point in adding anything to her collection.  Few things, it seemed, were memorable at all now.  The trip to Spain was pleasant and so were the beaches of the Gulf.  She still loved to eat and could remember what she ate when and where.  However, these were recollections and practical addenda and had no staying power.  There must be a part of the brain reserved for recipes, dimensions, and muscle memory, she thought.

Meredith was always surprised at the sparseness of the home of close friends of hers. The Bakers had no pretenses and were not after a Japanese or Scandinavian look.  They simply had no interest in anything but utensils, appliances, furniture, and ventilation.  Either their past lived far more vividly in their minds than Merry’s ever did; or the past meant far less.

Meredith never romanticized the past even in her later years. Nor was she ever overly optimistic or pessimistic about the future. She was enough of a determinist to accept a random universe and the consequent unimportance of any particular action or event.  Nor had she ever been a ‘live for the moment’ idealist.  Yet, like Nabokov, she had a clear understanding that the past, as impartially and incorrectly remembered as it is, is all that we are.

Image result for images nabokov

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