Once, Then, Gone: The Art of Recollection

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In her book-length essay concerning the color blue, Maggie Nelson notes the complications in conjuring memory:

The fact is that neuroscientists who study memory remain unclear on the question of whether each time we are remembering something we are accessing a stable “memory fragment”—often called a “trace” or an “engram”—or whether each time we remember something we are literally creating a new “trace” to house the thought. And since no one has yet been able to discern the material of these traces, nor to locate them in the brain, how one thinks of them remains mostly a matter of metaphor: they could be “scribbles,” “holograms,” or “imprints”; they could live in “spirals,” “rooms,” or “storage units.” Personally, when I imagine my mind in the act of remembering, I see Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, roving about in a milky, navy-blue galaxy shot through with twinkling cartoon stars.

In short, Nelson is interested here in the question of not what or why we remember, but rather how. And a good question it is: How do we re-member the past?

My mother has told me a beautiful story since I was quite young. The story goes like this: Once when I was very small I followed my father into the bathroom where he was replacing a broken mirror. Somehow—the events get fuzzy here—I ended up in the bathroom alone, and she found me there sitting in the middle of the pile of broken pieces, squeezing them in my small fists. At the moment she found me, there was a split second when—as she saw the blood and broken bits surrounding me—she did not move. She could see that I was watching myself amplified over and over in the strange glass. I imagine this is the first time I had ever looked in a mirror, but that is only my imagination—I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember this event at all, and yet one of my fondest memories is of my mother telling me the story as she rubbed my back on nights after I would have particularly ugly asthma attacks. And so my memories of these things—chronic childhood illness, my mother’s lilting voice matching the rhythm of her comforting touch, the idea of first seeing myself both fractured and plural—are yoked with the event itself, so that sometimes I can almost will myself to recall it.

It is said that there are five basic types of memory. While I’m certain the work of categorizing memory is much more slippery and complex than this breakdown offers, the types of memories we keep can be qualified in one of the following ways: long-term, short-term, episodic, eidetic, and sensory.

The first two refer to memory using a temporal model—the short-term is information we retain for as little as thirty seconds, while long-term memories live for years. Episodic refers to the memory of linked events, while eidetic refers to the still moments that are branded on the mind like a framed photograph. Sensory refers to the five methods by which we remember, corresponding to the five senses; for example, while one might forget the image of a first lover’s face or the sound of her voice, the memory of her smell might persist.

What is interesting to me about these types of memory is the relationship between them—here memory is achieved through a formula consisting of time’s duration, event sequencing, and sensory detail. And so, according to this breakdown and Nelson’s discussion of the mechanics of recall, memory is anything but stationary and fixed; it is actually an intricate net of signifiers that somehow cohere to characterize the past. Indeed, given these fractured and overlapping devices for retaining information in the mind, it is a wonder that anyone remembers anything the same way at all.

Because memory is such tricky territory and is simultaneously such a critical part of how we navigate the world and identify ourselves, that memory is subjective can induce a kind of shock. Think of the very visceral disappointment we experience when our memory of an event doesn’t coincide with someone else’s, or when the “evidence” does not correspond with how we recall things coming to pass. It seems like there are two ways to cope with this realization: we can either decide that our memory is wrong, in which case we might seek out other narratives to learn how the event unfolded “in reality” (sometimes inadvertently revising our memory), or we can decide that our memory is flawed, and investigate not only what really happened, but also why this disjuncture between that-which-happened and that-which-we-remember-happening exists.

We have all heard the claim, “The victors write the textbooks.” Among the many ways to unpack the phrase is this: that once upon a time history was bound to and relied on communally agreed upon facts. That is to say, there was not a culture of record the way there is now. There were not cameras and photographs capturing all human movement or digital archives where information was stored in “clouds.” While our methods for remembering have evolved, the ethical question at the heart of recollection remains: how do we tell about the past and who gets to tell it?

This is what I come back to when I think about my role in recording (or recalling, or recycling, or resurrecting) the past: How do we remember, and how do we remember ethically? To whom do memories belong, and how can we respect the fact that both individuals as well as collectives own and author them?

It’s a question I find myself consistently plagued with as I take on the art of essaying. The only way I am able to overcome it is to recognize the role of artifice in any act of narration. For the act of recollecting—whether a vague and hazy notion confirmed with evidence, or an ever-evolving trace that corrupts rather than completes—the act of recollecting is really just an apparatus for carefully curating an intricate web of was.

“A home is a machine made for memory,” Ander Monson notes in his study of the Möbius strip that is the future-past. And isn’t a book a machine made for memory, too? Or perhaps the truth is this: a book is a home, one that holds the nested ruins of each Once and also commemorates them.


Image: “Hilderbrand House, Memphis, TN.” From the David Nester Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.

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