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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Memory - The Art Of Remembering And The Trick Of Forgetting


Forgetting is an art, for once memories have been stored in the occipital lobes, they are hard if not impossible to dislodge.  Millions of dollars, therefore, have been spent trying to neutralize them, force them down further into cerebral cortex, rendering them less painful, or exhuming them for analysis.  Freud insisted that there are important memories shelved in the brain like leaky tins of sardines.  The dribble is unpleasant, unsettling, and irritating; but unless we can throw them out for the nasty bits of storage that they are, we will continue to smell like old fish. 

Holistic psychologists have postulated that not only is it difficult if not impossible to remove memories once they have been engraved in one’s memory, but their removal would be tantamount to unnecessary adenoidal surgery – painful and unnecessary.  Memories – good or bad – are what define us more than present reality or future possibility.

We carry around the contents of dark closets, scary basements, and light, airy summer porches; and to purge them willy-nilly or even selectively would be to alter our being.

Bart Larabee spent years trying to understand his complex relationship with his mother.  Depending on the psychiatrist, she was either a vixen, Mother Teresa, or Hedda Gabler.  She was never simply a mother who, saddled with a child she may or may not have wanted (accidents, sexual abuse, or indifference), did what she could to manage, to survive the trauma of another person in a perfectly rhythmic household, and to provide what little care and support she could muster.


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She too was a product of a complex marriage,  the ingredients of which were salinity, alkalinity, and acid, all thrown into the beaker where he was conceived.   His mother, although from an old New England family with the finest pedigree, had the genes of an unfortunately mixed heritage – a grandfather who had gone mad; an great-uncle who had robbed the treasury of Lancashire County; and a variety of old-maid aunts who had refused to accept their sexual penury and had scandalized Waltham.

His father had Catholic rectitude on his side; but after his great-great-grandfather who had been considered for canonization by Pius VI, the line weakened and dissipated, and by his time, the Larabees had lost all moral spine and spiritual courage.


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When Bart began to uncover his ancient family history in an attempt to lay blame for his psychosis on long-deceased ancestors,  his therapist cried no mas, and said that Bart had to take responsibility for whatever demons, ghosts, and saints that resided in his inner rooms.

Bart, in other words, not only could not accept the past, but refused to.  The history of long-forgotten ancestors was as much a part of who he was as the random insults and flattery of today.  He refused to forget or ignore.

“But where do we stop?”, asked the frustrated analyst.  “How far back in your storied history do you want to go?”

“As far back as it takes”, Bart replied. “Back to the Garden of Eden if necessary.”

The case of Bart Larabee, the psychiatrist had to admit, was a tricky and  thorny one.  He could not completely dismiss his patient’s ancestry, although he was not one for historical relevance when it came to psychiatry; but he was reluctant to give Bart the leeway he sought for resolution.  His meanderings through the 19th century would lead nowhere, and of that he was certain.

On the other hand Dr. Lowenstein had had many patients who not only had a dismissive regard for their past, but who refused to acknowledge anything beyond childhood.   Anthony Carlone, for example, refused to come to grips with a harridan grandmother who imprisoned, tortured, and dismembered his mother because of Sicilian jealousy and twisted love for her son.  Nor could the patient accept the fact that his grandfather, one of the few intellectuals that Calabria had ever produced, had committed suicide because of being left by a Calabrese male lover.
After many fruitless and futile sessions, the psychiatrist decided to end his professional relationship with Bart.  Every case has its limits, he concluded, and playing along with  Bart’s dredging of anecdotes and minor events from 100 years ago seemed unethical.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described memorist who believed that the past defines being more than the present, momentary; and the future, only possible.  The past, made up of millions of memories, impressions, and moments of sharp insight, is the only reality; and Nabokov devised a system by which he fixed memories in his mind as indelibly as engravings on a metal sheet.  He played and replayed memories of childhood so that he would never forget them, and by so doing insured that they would be protected from the revisionism of future recollections.


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Nabokov accepted the good with the bad; the traumatic with the epiphanic, the ordinary with the romantic.  Nothing was to be edited or tampered with because all – as it happened – was what made and described him.

Most of us fall somewhere in between.  We are happy to recall memories of lost lovers, quick to shut out images of emasculating grandmothers and ineffectual fathers, and content with parsing present, past, and future, to metaphysicians.  We all like to remember former lovers, especially when the rustling of dried skin and the bad breath of our wives awaken us; and we all shake off images of dark woods and sexual malfunction.   We curate our memories according to our own musical score.  If we were to let them free, the resulting cacophony would be deafening.

Bert unethically was shifted from pillar to post by one stymied psychiatrist after another.  For one thing Bert did not seem particularly disturbed or upset.  Like most in the medical profession, psychiatrists were in the business of healing; and if the patient said the was fine, then he should be sent home and the appointment book cleared to make room for other more needy patients.

Saul Lowenstein was the one psychiatrist who threw a spanner into the wheel of fortune, and spared Bart Larabee more unnecessary second opinions.  Lowenstein, although a well-trained and –practiced Freudian, had a more fundamental grounding in philosophy.  His Psychiatry, Metaphysics, And Dealing with Philosophical Angst, had won him a Feldman Prize for its groundbreaking insights into the functional relationships between cognitive mind and psyche.  In brief, Lowenstein said that the modern psychiatrist should not ignore existential angst in patients; and that for these very highly intelligent few, responses to life’s essential conundrums were as important as dealing with simple psychological trauma.



However, once having accepted the importance of genetic legacy and the indiscretions and mania of distant uncles, what was a therapist to do to help assuage the anxieties of patients.   The past may well be a philosophical construct, but a mother’s fondling in the bathtub was a more urgent and immediate problem.

Bart’s problem was that he was obsessed by memory, and it completely edged out the present and obviated the future.   His obsession was so twisted, however, that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to erase the slate or reorganize, reclassify, and reassemble his memories so that they made sense.  In other words to rewrite the libretto in light of the way he had turned out.  Mnemonic revisionism, some therapists had called it; but they had gotten caught in Bart’s intellectual trapeze act and were unable to help him distinguish between living and theoretical memory.

In the end Bart gave up trying to be ‘normal’.  He played and replayed his mind-tapes over and over again – Nancy Booth’s pubescent breasts; Berthe Hansen’s neurasthenic sexual insatiability; Katy Botliwalla’s dark skin; Usha Ismail’s orgasmic minaret howling; Herbie Peterson’s frogs; and Aunt Leona’s corn fritters.  He was one of the lucky ones who before it was too late, came to accept all memories as valid and indispensable.  Bart was indeed a Nabokovian who valuated memory highly; but was less particular and discerning than the Russian.  In one fell swoop Bart jettisoned psychiatry, mid-century Weissian metaphysics, and memorist fol-de-rol.

Bart was right in one thing – the past is indeed what defines us most; but he differed from other theorists in differentiating between the onus of the past and freedom from it.  Once one accepts the past as an integral, indisputable, irrefutable, and permanent part of individuality, the happier and less complexed one becomes.   In global terms Santayana’s warning that  ‘Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” means little to psychologically struggling individual.  Repetition is not the issue. Acceptance is.

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