“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” Marcus AureliusIn recent decades, memory has been assaulted from all sides. The designs and interests of the dominant hegemonic system, along with intercultural transmissions facilitated by knowledge and experience of the ways others remember and preserve their past—and, therefore, the existence of the universal culture of the mass media—represent a challenge to our supposedly differentiated past.
The growing cultural worldliness, the accelerated technological developments, the effects of economic globalization, and the corporate models have managed to constantly interfere in each and every realm of our social and political life, and at every opportunity threaten and question those referential signs and narratives of the past.
To paraphrase Buñuel, you have to begin to lose your memory, even if only piece by piece, in order to realize that memory is what your life is made of, what keeps you alive. Life without memory is not life at all. Your memory is your coherence, your reason, your feelings, and even your action. Without it, you are nothing.
Retaining the past not only means rejecting the atrocious acts you committed and are capable of committing, and the sober lesson of history; it also means celebrating your own death and the loss of your family, your friends, and lovers who shaped your life; of those places that tugged on and insinuated themselves into your heart and your imagination through their personalities, their words or their generosity of spirit, their passions and their mischief.
Nowadays, everyone seems to agree that the continual commemoration of events from the past is just as important as the events themselves for the creation and preservation of group identity, of who you are. Doubtless, who you are and where you come from can inform, if not condition, your way of understanding the world. Yet who you are does not necessarily determine where you are headed. Who you are, as far as all else is concerned, is not a timeless and immutable, coherent and pure, isolated and fixed proposition. Who you are is also the result of the contradictions, hesitations, graftings, and insertions you have experienced to co-exist with others, to interrupt, dominate, or revive others. So, you belong to an ongoing process of becoming, in which new meanings and changes are forged, not simply additions or absorptions, but interactions that continually transform your condition.
The very fissures of this syntax, its intervals, its pauses, its changing voices, transform this text and the images of this text, of this magazine, in a meditation on the difficulties of building a coherent and final work, suggesting that there is always another, yet-to-be-realized, and perhaps true one that stays separate from the conditions under which you live, without ever actually promising more to come.
It is now difficult to draw the line between past and present.
Do you understand? Think of Death in Venice. Between tonight and tomorrow, where will Tadzio have been? Between tonight and tomorrow, you know it is Tadzio, only Tadzio.
Along the same lines, between Heraclitus and Antonio Machado, Alan Dugan is still more fatalistic: “it all / goes by, that is the thing / about the river.”
Reviewing history, you repeat with him that all is temporal, that everything is lost, including art: mortality puts a period to all the pretentious human sentences, to all human creations.
For those who have converted recollection into an industry that both aims to escape the homogenizing shipwreck of global culture and question the fragility of its identities through the family album, memory is usually considered the gauge of what one treasures of one’s own past. Assuming this is so, memory is discriminating, selective, like a filter that supposedly eludes the banalities of existence. Yet, to what point does memory reflect the fragmentary gratuity of experience? To what extent does it coincide with that other more detailed and perhaps more impartial recollection of data and documents conducted, for example, by academic institutions and political, judicial, and police bureaucracies?
When you think of what you left behind, when you write about it, when you read its multiple official, collective, or personal stories, when you look over the books, the photos, and the culture and history that order its past, and when you realize and try to document its present or preserve what is left for one of its possible futures, it is impossible for you to evade each and every one of those questions that decompose the coherent reflection of what you were, of what you are, and of what you could be. Not only has memory transformed your subsequent experience, but that experience has simultaneously been responsible for altering the original memory that you supposedly had. The significance of the past, then, has been transformed. The significance and the form are not in the events, but in the systems that transform those events into present “historical facts.”
This is equivalent to recognizing the function of human constructions as creators of meanings, which implies that a single, essentialized, transcendent concept of “genuine historicity” does not exist.
The past, therefore, is something different from its history, and memory is something different from both. Memory could be a construction that follows the experience of the past. The past, one could then say, is not the main agent that determines consciousness.
But where do so many questions lead you?
Nothing about this makes you unique or special. Dugan suggests you go to Egypt, that you go to look at The Sphinx.
It’s falling apart. He sits
on water in the desert
and the water table
He has lost his toes to the
blasts of the Saharan
of a mere few thousands
The Mamelukes shot up
because they were
because they were
The British stole his
because they were
It’s in the cellar of the
where the Athenians lost
To what extent have these questions contributed to the formation of who you are, of your character, your tastes, your aversions, your secrets, and your neuroses?
It is hard to resist the temptation to provide your past with form and meaning, even if it is deceitful. It allows you to model yourself as you wish and at your convenience. It allows you to create a frozen image of what you want to be. In fact, if not all, many of the memories that are passed off as “real events” are influenced by other memories, diaries, photographs, and old letters.
Some recollections are based on anecdotes and tales that have been repeated so many times they end up being mistaken for reality. And others, plotted into the family mythology and passed on from one generation to the next, seek to transcend their trivial nature or their irrelevance in order to become “memoirs.” The memoirs recently published by a recognized North American writer describe, sometimes endearingly and thoroughly and other times without any apparent structure, a series of events and activities the interest of which escape me: a collection of antique Roman crystal glasses, visiting his mother at the hospital, buying a dog, a session with the psychiatrist, memories of his first sexual experiences, the difficulties with a neighbour due to a tomato plantation, the relationship with a gay friend, the frustrations of entertaining distinguished and famous friends…
The realm of memory is thus an unstable and appalling place: when you do not have to tame the overwhelming force of your nostalgia, you have to distill the unmistakably real details from the murky muck of sentimentality. In both cases, the task is not an easy one, because both entail subverting the conventions of what is demanded by the industry that has been created around memory, and both imply that we will never really be able to return.
Actually, involuntary memory and return tempt you as much as they horrify you. Beforehand, you know that the memory you have is whimsical and fragile. You know that time and distance have idealized the past to the point of making it unrecognizable. Where you were sure you would find the house in which you once lived, there is now a shopping center, and the tree under which you declared your love was carried away by time and replaced by a hotel. “This is no longer me”—you say. Irrationally you are proud of your own transformation, of your development, and, nevertheless, in your memory, you condemn yourself to remaining always identical to yourself, immutable and essential, uncontaminated and faithful to the image you treasure. “But I was never me …”
What sign, what picture, what text, or what music would invoke your name?
Those signs—do they merely ready us for memory, or do they prepare the ground for the imagination? Do they belong to an immutable and essential space, contiguous to our recollection, or are they simply reminiscent of similar qualities, standing between two sensations that merely resemble each other?
Who shapes the narrative accompanying memories? How can you trust the images and the stories?
How can you be “what remains” if you are missed?
Yet how can you be lost if you leave a trace?
Rufus Wainwright, “Grey Gardens”, Poses, Dreamworks Records, Beverly Hills, California, 2001.
Alan Dugan, Seven Poems, New and Complete Poetry, Seven Stories Press, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, 2001.
Gabriel Motzkin, “Memory and Cultural Translation”, Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, editors, The translatability of Cultures, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1996.
Saul Bellow, Collected Stories, Viking, New York, 2001.
Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories, Making Time in a Culture of Amnesia, Routledge, New York and London,1995.
Octavio Zaya, “¿Memoria? ¿Qué Memoria?”, in Mundo, Magia y Memoria, Carlos Pinto Editor, Instituto de Canarias, La Laguna, 1997, ps .21-26.
Charles Merewether, “Perturbación en el Archivo”, in Más Allá del Documento, edited by Octavio Zaya and Mónica Amor, Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2000.
Suzanne Lafont, in Another Objectivity, by Jean François Chevier and James Lingwood, Idea Books, Milan, 1989.
Guilles Deleuze, Proust & Signs, translated by Richard Howard, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000. (First published by George Braziller, Inc. 1972).
Leslie Deverolux, Roger Hillman , editors, Fields of Vision, University of California Press, Berkely/Los Angeles/ London, 1995.
Gary Smith, editor, On Walter Benjamin, Critical Essays and Recollections,
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England.
Margaret Atwood, “A Path Taken With all The Certainty of Youth”, Writers on Writing, The New York Times, New York, March 11, 2002.
V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.
Octavio Zaya is a writer, curator, and editor from the Canary Islands living in Boston. He is Director/Executive Editor of atlanticajournal.com