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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Forget The Past Is One Thing–Being Unable To Remember It Is Another

Ronald Reagan in his last days had no idea that he was ever President.  Joanne Woodward now has only fading and flickering memories of her husband, Paul Newman.

Joanne Woodward

‘Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it’, said George Santayana, a reference to the temporal politics that place currency over history, and the need to restore perspective to our short lives.

More nihilistic philosophers and writers – such as Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare – saw history as cyclical, perpetually repeating itself because the human nature driving human action has never changed and never will.  The best we can do is to learn which particular expressions of human nature are most common and how to avoid them.  We cannot change self-interest, aggression, territorialism, and acquisitiveness; but we can anticipate and be prepared for them.

Vladimir Nabokov believed that the past was far more than one part of a time-space continuum, but the most important one.  The present is a chimera, he said, imagined milliseconds of ‘reality’, bounded by the possibility of the future and the long, defining, significance of what went before.  We are not just determined by the past.  We are the past.

Image result for images nabokov
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for…(Speak, Memory)
Memory is not only a recording of events of our own lives, but of those which preceded us; a future conditional, events prior to our birth but on which our existence – our past – depends.
I know…of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged-the same house, the same people- and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence.
He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated (Speak, Memory)
In his fear of time, the young man unknowingly extended it, for after seeing the film, memory was no longer contained by his years but by the real, associative past of his parents.  The image of the empty baby carriage suggested not only that he was not yet born, but that he would be.  Time was not only past, present, and future, but but made up of an infinite number of possibilities.  His panic came because he knew that he might not have been born.
The kind of poem I produced in those days was hardly anything more than a sign I made of being alive, of passing or having passed, or hoping to pass, through certain intense human emotions. It was a phenomenon of orientation rather than of art, thus comparable to stripes of paint on a roadside rock or to a pillared heap of stones marking a mountain trail.  But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one's position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge (Speak, Memory).
Alzheimer’s is not only a disease which erodes, diminishes, and finally erase memory; but it is the final, premature negation of life itself.  If, as Nabokov suggested, we are only what we were, then who are we without memory? Without the past there is nothing.  Without memory an old woman watching television in a nursing home can process nothing.  There are no referents, not clues to behavior, identity, or emotion.  The screen is as blank as the woman’s mind.

In the movie Still Alice, Julianne Moore portrays a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s.  A woman whose entire past has been built on intellectual and academic brilliance, discipline, logic, and insight finds that those very qualifying characteristics – what makes her who she is – are disappearing.  She understands that soon she will no longer be herself.  She will be nothing. She will not simply be a woman with diminished abilities, she will have no abilities; and not only will she have none of the talents and skills which defined her, she will have nothing to replace them.  She will become a cipher.

Image result for images movie still alice

Suicide while she is still lucid – while she is still herself – is compelling.  It is better to die whole – to remember her past while she still can and leave it intact  - than to disappear.

It is enough that we remember Ronald Reagan, say his admirers.  Although he might not know who he is or what he did, he will never be forgotten.  The fact that in his mind before his death he might have been a rancher, a grocer, or nothing at all makes little difference.  History is a repository for all events, personally remembered or not.

Ivan Ilyich, the main character in Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, has led a life of order and position.  A predictable, ordinary life was kept nuisance at check and unfortunate circumstances to a minimum.  When he is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is disoriented. Life was not supposed to have dealt out such surprises. 

He goes through phases of denial, anger, resentment, self-pity, and final reconciliation; but not before he realizes that his past, restricted within the narrow confines he imposed, had nothing to sustain him as he approached death.  He had nothing but a wife of convenience, indifferent colleagues, and no friends.  His career, marriage, and leisure had been nothing but pieces of his elaborate self-interest.

“We all die alone”, he said, terrified at the prospect of extinction with little hope for  what followed.  A distinctive, memorable past might have provided some comfort, but he did not even have that.

Alzheimer’s patients die with none of Ivan Ilyich’s terror because they no longer know what that is.  If there is any consolation in losing the past it is the absence of any fear of the future.
Yet few of us would prefer the death of Ronald Reagan, neutered and ciphered, happy but ignorant.  As much as death may terrify us, at least such terror validates our lives and our existence – a final confirmation of Descartes. 

Image result for images ronald reagan

How many of us would consider Alice’s option?  How many of us would have the decisiveness, the courage, and the absolute belief in individual value to commit suicide rather than die senseless?
Few, I suspect; and who is to say that dying without the fear of death has no value? 

Nabokov’s mnemonics are important for the living, not only the dying.  Every day that we are able to recall and relive the past is a day meaningful beyond its measure.  The longer we live, the more important the past becomes, and the more full and fulfilled life can be.

Living in the past is no idle dismissal of the present, no refusal of ‘reality’; but another life, a life recalled – one of far more substance and value than a virtual one where reality and fantasy are spliced with little purpose of character or identity.

Nietzsche said that in a meaningless world the only validation of existence is the expression of pure will.  Nabokov said it was acknowledgement of the past.

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