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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Memory–The Only Validation Of A Life Lived

There is nothing romantic about tripe soup, but one cannot choose one’s memories; and Robert Alton's dinner at the Munteanu Restaurant in Bucharest featuring the Romanian specialty, a spicy soup of offal in broth with Usha Ismail have been forever twinned.

Tripe soup

One thing about memory - one can never decide which ones will stay and which ones will go, and why soup and Usha Ismail – one tasty but ordinary; and the other beautiful and permanent – should be fixed in my memory will always be a mystery.

It is unfortunate that tripe soup is popular only in Romania.  Robert said that could not find a place that serves it in Washington and have his memories kick-started; so the lovely Usha could only be recalled through photographs, postcards (of the old Soviet-era spa hotel in the Carpathians), and teary letters.

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He used to try Nabokov’s mnemonic method – deliberate retention of immediate events and frequent, repetitive recall to fix the memory as part of the personal archive – and he ran the reels of dinners, lovemaking, trips to the Carpathians over and over so that he would never forget them; but the memories either faded or were crowded out and all I was left with was tripe soup.

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He loved Usha very much. There was enough in common – education, professional experience and interest – to overcome the dramatic differences in breeding and background.  She was a Karachi Parsi whose family, along with the Tatas, Birlas, and Aluwalas, had built Bombay; but who moved to Pakistan not long after Partition to repeat the success and build the country’s major city into a regional maritime and trade center.  He had always wondered at what point culture trumps personal affect if not love; that is, when are cultural differences so pronounced that they get in the way of intimacy; but Usha and he apparently had enough psycho-social resonance that nationality and religion were unimportant.

The ease of memory recall is a function of the degree of emotional involvement and the depth of love or disappointment of the relationship.  In Usha’s case, Robert needed little more than the tripe soup and the trips to Sibiu, the Carpathians, and the Black Sea to keep the memories alive.  Not so for Berthe.  Robert had played the reels of tape of his long midsummer nights in Copenhagen and, ironically, in Islamabad, so often that there was no way that they could ever lose salience or permanence.  Or so he thought.  When the relationship ended, it was more a question of how quickly and completely he could erase the tape of his affair than how to retain and curate it.

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The voodoo drums in the mountains above Kenscoff are rhythmic memories of his time with Louise, a French Canadian doctor with whom he spent four years, off and on in Port-au-Prince.  He could never sleep once the drums started and spent hours on the balcony of the Splendide listening to them. He remembered his excursions to Carrefour and the dancehalls on the water, to Macaya Beach on the South coast, or dinners at Côté Cour Côté Jardin, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Petionville; but for some reason memories of them were too vague to call up the substance of his relationship.

Recollections of the toilettes and the Haitian ironwork marlins on the walls intruded, and broke up the integrity of his relationship.  No matter how he tried to rewind the reel and go back to his table on the terrace, the wine list, and the pleasant maître d’, he could not.

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Why is memory so capricious and incomplete? As Nabokov said, the present is instantaneous, immaterial, and useless; and the future only imagined possibility.  It is the past that most defines us.  The more we remember, the more whole we are.  The more we forget, the more diminished. Yet we dwell more on the future and the inconsequential features of the present than the past; and before long it has become as inaccessible as an old 8mm film uncared for in a basement.

As most people age, they regret missed opportunities, love lost, and unhappiness unavoided. The good old days might have a general appeal; but individual lives are judged far more harshly. The true memorist – or rather, those who understand the unique, one-time-only life of the individual and fight to retain its memories – is one in a thousand.

The irony is that even as one comes to appreciate the defining value of the past, it fades and diminishes in importance.  A life remembered is nothing compared to the eternal life to come, say the religious or spiritual. Fragments of romantic memories are not worth keeping let alone recalling when put in the context of infinite life after death or eternal extinction.

Tolstoy spent decades trying to decipher the meaning of life.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a chilling story of a dying man who cannot believe the mistakes and miscalculations he has made in his short life.  How could he have so misunderstood the nature of life, let alone friendship, society, and family? Had he known how conclusive and abrupt the ending of life could be, he would have husbanded his life and curated its memories. Caught between a meaningless life and the prospect of eternity, he panicked. There was no way back and no way forward.  Happily in the minutes before death he had an epiphany which explained all.

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Memory plays tricks.  What we remember may have little bearing on what actually was. Psychological researchers suggest that perhaps only ten percent of what recall is real, and the rest filled in by friends and family. The tape Robert played of his midsummer evenings with Berthe in Copenhagen may be corrupted and inaccurate. The integrity of his past, no matter how much he might value it as essential to his being, might only be a pastiche, fragments of events randomly put together.

Memory, however faulty, is all we have. It is worth something. The cynical say that memory is a cruel trick.  A suggestion of meaning in a meaningless world.  The spiritual say that the past like the present is illusory, bits, scraps, and pieces of physical dross which hold us back from spiritual evolution.

It is neither. It is the composite reality which defines us; and those of us who remember most when we are on the edge of life are the most complete and fulfilled. 

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