Tag Archives: memory

The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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Spontaneity

I don’t mean the it’s-8-o’clock-on-a-Monday-let’s-get-in-the-car-to-Vegas!! type of spontaneity.

spontaneity

I mean the kind where you’re ready and able to be open and engage with anyone, anywhere, no matter what is happening.

How many times have you gotten the opportunity to talk to someone you really wanted to talk to — and totally screwed it up?

Exhibit A: Eric Kandel.

In 2006, when I was working at the Dana Foundation in New York, I helped put on Eric Kandel’s conversation with then-chairman (and dearly departed) William Safire at the 92nd Street Y. I read the galley proof of Kandel’s book In Search of Memory (which you should totally get) and did what side research was necessary to help develop interview questions, and in so doing fell in love with Kandel’s work. And, I’m not gonna lie, I fell in a little bit of love with Dr. Kandel, too.

Eric-Kandel-Laughs-e1271530014222

I mean, right?

You get the sense that he goes through life with this smiling attitude just by reading his book, and then you find out he really is laughing all the time and I mean be still my heart, man, he’s just a total joy.

I knew that after the event at 92Y, I was going to have the opportunity to say hello and ask him to sign my book, and I agonized about what to say for days and weeks. It wasn’t going to be the time or the place for a long drawn-out conversation on how Kandel’s work was affecting my perspective, but I did want whatever I said to be memorable and interesting and smart. Okay, brilliant.

So the event was over, we got the place more or less broken down, and Dr. Kandel was still there talking with a couple stragglers who, luck would have it, turned to leave just as I came up.

“Dr. Kandel,” my manager said, “meet Ian. He put together your questions, did research, bugs everyone in the office because he won’t shut up about you, blah blah blah,” everything to goad me on, but aside from “uh, good job up there tonight,” nothing, not one thing, that I’d planned to say came out. I walked away feeling sure that Dr. Kandel was thinking, “Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

Which happens over and over and over whenever I meet someone I have half an interest in meeting, whether it’s something anticipated like Kandel or something out of the blue, like running into William H Macy or Cate Blanchett at a stoplight (don’t even ask).

It’s akin to the feeling of regret I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where after you’ve failed to say something you absolutely should have, you’d do anything to have that moment back, but it’s not quite the same. That had to do with knowing full well in the moment what you should say and consciously not saying it because you can’t handle the vulnerability it requires. This is about not having a clue about what to say in the moment because too many thoughts and emotions are running through your head.

Which is what I mean by spontaneity – being able to relate openly and unabashedly with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The stuff that runs through my head at such times is laden with the ogres and trolls of ego, with misconceptions about who I am and who I want to be and how I want to appear and how I’m sure I must look, and the neuroses that attend to the distances between those four Shades of Ian.

I do this because I don’t trust myself to just be “myself” – whatever the hell that is – at the drop of a hat, or any other time, really, and so I get tangled up trying to figure out how to present.

I like to imagine myself as a composed, imperturbable, unflappable person, but the truth is I feel like a little kid in these – honestly, in most – situations. I think of my dad, and I think of some of my friends’ dads, and that’s what unflappable looks like to me. I mean, when was the last time the cat got Clint’s tongue, Coop, am I right?

Imperturbability seems to come from a combination of knowing who you are, and being in general not all that impressed with people.

There are two ways to achieve this level of equanimity – through arrogance and through abandonment. Though I have a feeling the uber-arrogant are never quite as comfortable as they come off. Or they’re sociopaths, which is a different post altogether.

sunyataTrungpa would say that you abandon your ego by developing compassion, and that one of the ways compassion develops is from sunyata, or emptiness. That can be a confusing concept if you haven’t been introduced to it, so for the purposes of this suffice it to say that sunyata implies “no ground” – that is, none of the ideas you have about yourself-as-you-are OR -as-you’d-like-to-be have any basis whatsoever.

Where do those ideas come from in the first place? you start to wonder.

They come from other ideas, which come from society and memory and impressions and dreams and hopes and fears fears fears and not from anything actually solid. So they don’t actually mean anything or have any actual basis in reality. Which after a time frees you from trying to be, well, anything. It frees you from TRYING, and allows you just to be – to be whatever the situation calls for.

Besides which, Cate Blanchett, I guaran-effing-tee you, is NOT worried or even thinking about what kind of person you are. Ever.

If you can get those two ideas down – the conviction that we are always on shaky ground and the humility that no one cares – then you can begin to realize that the person you’re so intimidated by isn’t all these things that you and the world at large have built them up to be. In that moment, that person is nothing more than just a lump of flesh, decaying and rushing towards death at more or less the same speed you are. And thus can be dealt with as you are. However you are. Not as some other, whatever other, version of you you’re not.

So, then – how do you put into practice this notion of emptiness, how do you develop your compassion, how do you shrink and slay and shatter your ego if you’re not a Buddhist?

Well, you start by doing something for someone else. For your wife or your kids or your parents or your sibling who never does anything for you or that guy at work you can’t stand or that woman at the market who you don’t know anything about except that she wouldn’t know a good deed if it smacked her in the face like a tennis racket. You do these things and you put other people ahead of your own needy little needs, once a day or once a week or even just for once in your entire life, and you’ve started to cherish  your own ego a little less. You think, “That good deed didn’t come from the guy who I think would sweep Cate Blanchett off her feet at a stoplight. Where did that come from? Who did that come from? Who’s this person that does good things for other people and makes their life a tiny little bit lighter?”

gollumDo more things for more people more often, and you’re practicing not cherishing yourself more and more. And the less you cherish yourself, the more you realize there’s no self there to guard so jealously and get so worked up about – let alone multiple selves to completely freak out about – so there are way fewer walls or fences or obstacles of any kind, really, between you and whoever you happen to run into.

Which means that the next time you look up from your phone to find you’re standing next to Cate Blanchett, you can relate to her with spontaneous compassion – as a simple person, in other words.

You can be patient with your mom. You can be generous of spirit, even with that malcontent at the grocery store.

This carries over into the other kind of being-ready-to-say-what-you-mean, because in the process of preparing your soul for baring at a moment’s notice, you’re also preparing it for baring no matter what the risk. To the extent that spontaneity and vulnerability combine, you become tougher and tenderer. Tenderer, because you’re laying your heart open, and tougher, because there’s nothing that can come of it that you can’t handle.

And in case you’re thinking, “Those men he mentioned earlier, those paragons of the virtue he’s making out of unflappability, those white Baby Boomer American men, they didn’t do any of this touchy-feely pseudo-Buddhist crap. Why’d he even bring them into it? What’s he talking about?” True, they didn’t get to be the way they are by practicing lojong and reciting mantras. They got to be the way they are by having seen a thing or two in their day, and realizing through those experiences that in so many ways we’re all the same – just lumps of flesh heading towards destruction – and because of that, they’ve abandoned any pretense of uniqueness, in themselves and in others, and it’s like, “You’re a lump of flesh, I’m a lump of flesh, let’s see what we can make of this moment. Ready go.”

So yeah, that’s an option. Just keep your head down and do your thing and be generally nice to people and probably you’ll wind up a sage old dude/womanequivalentofdude. All this I just rambled about is just a way to be conscious of what’s happening to you, and to maybe speed up the sageness a little. If you’re interested in that.

If you’re not, go ahead and be uncomfortable as a whore in church next time you see Cate. No skin off my back.

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