Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is this "You" you speak of?: Memory as pneuma-tic device?

[First post is here. Oh--and regarding my absence from here: Families are weird, complicated things.]

. . . there are few of us who are not protected from the keenest pain by our inability to see what it is that we have done, what we are suffering, and what we truly are. Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only.

--Samuel Butler, Erewhon (as quoted in William T. Vollmann, Argall)

Yes, well, Mr. Butler. But Mr. Magritte's painting would appear to be a reminder that the veracity of even so superficial a thing as appearance is suspect.


In the first "What is this 'You'" post, I'd promised to do a bit of reading on the idea of pneuma and then return to this. Well: I followed links and leads using this as my starting point. As you can see both there and in Raminagrobis's comment at that first post, one gets into the weeds very very quickly regarding this topic, so I'll not dwell on pneuma's intricacies here except to note that, no matter the specifics of those intricacies, the close association between "breath" and "spirit" persists. In a later post, I'll want to return to this and offer up the observation that, whatever Cartesian philosophy's other virtues, it is not helpful in this instance. In this post, though, I want to play with an idea on the periphery of pneuma: what we say about ourselves and how we say it--in other words, the relationship between memory and language/writing.

Some more musing below the fold.

As good a starting place as any for this discussion is Marcel Proust's great celebration/exploration/exhaustion(?) of the theme of memory, Remembrance of Things Past (more recently translated as In Search of Lost Time). Good Modernist that he is, for Proust's narrator Marcel many individual memories "remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest [of a "long-distant past"]; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection" (Vintage edition of Swann's Way, pp. 50-51). But, as the justly-famous tea-and-madeleine scene at the end of the first chapter of Swann's Way makes clear, memory needs help--even animation--from something Marcel calls the self:
It is plain that the truth I am seeking lies not in the cup but in myself. The drink has called it into being, but does not know it, and can only repeat indefinitely, with a progressive diminution of strength, the same message which I cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call it forth again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. . . . What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day. (48-49, emphasis mine)
But it's equally clear that, for Marcel, these memories have some sort of prior existence apart from the self inside which they are stored and that seeks them out; they're not "created" ex nihilo. Rather, though Marcel does not, here, quite get around to saying it, it is language that "creates" memories, that renders them visible: the flesh of memory becomes, through words, a virtual flesh.

So far, so good. In his novel, Marcel poses as something like a stenographer of memory, not passively (he has to will these memories to come) but impartially recording them. But thanks to the post-structuralists following in Modernism's wake we've come to recognize that language, to the extent that it mirrors reality at all, is at best an imperfect mirror, no matter how faithful to that reality we strive for our language to be. This is no one's fault; it is inherent in language's very nature. Words are not that which they "say at," to borrow Addie Bundren's marvelous phrase from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. The opening pages of The Loop, French novelist Jacques Roubaud's new novel, explore this dilemma:
[E]very line in the story of this memory contains a great many implicit conclusions. And it is here that error, if there is any error, lies in wait for me at every turn. For in memory, in my memory (I am speaking only for myself), there is only seeing. Even touch is "colorless," anesthetized. I have no other adjectives to identify this apprehension of material things by thought alone, without form or sensuous qualities, as they arise in their grey and pasty conceptual clay (as certain early theories from Antiquity pictured it). In the process of remembering, I do not feel that my finger is cold, nor do I feel the mild and already fading sharpness of the scraped and frozen dust. I know--because it is commonly and universally known that frost exists and that this mode of the physical existence of water is cold--I know, therefore, that the night was cold, and everything that follows from this. And I recall this knowledge based on experience, as one says. But the image that I reconstitute at this moment is numb to this knowledge, it is indifferent. (from here)
Error, for Roubaud in this novel, is especially fraught with anxiety, given that his narrative's subject is the memory of his recently-deceased wife. For obvious reasons, he wishes to be as faithful to the memory of her as he was devoted to her--and yet language is unable to permit that.

[Just as an aside: Roubaud is very much worth your time if your tastes run in the direction of "novels" that, um, disrupt those things we tend to take for granted about novels--little things like, you know, structure and narrative--and exceedingly precise descriptions of things/scenes/people. There's a passage in his novel The Great Fire of London (described by its publisher as "the ruins of a novel") in which he describes, for the length of a few pages, a night-time photograph his wife had taken while holding the shutter down to extend the exposure and holding the camera very steady against her chest. Roubaud finally notes that the image is slightly blurred because he remembers that she was having trouble breathing that night (and it would be lung cancer, if I recall correctly, that eventually kills her). It's heartbreakingly beautiful: the idea that she--more precisely, her breathing (yes, one could say, her pneuma)--shapes this photograph's image even though she doesn't actually appear in it in the usual sense.]

The ability to be completely faithful to memory is thus an irresolvable dilemma even for the truthful among us. How easy it is, then, to be unfaithful to memory when it suits our purposes. That's where Vollmann's novel Argall comes in: it's subtitled, "The true story of Pocahontas and captain John Smith." This is because Vollmann (or his narrator, "William the Blind") suspects that Smith's chronicle, the General History of Virgina, is less than forthright as regards his abilities as the leader of the Jamestown colony--yet, of course, his is the record of that time we're most familiar with . . . and, of course, it is chiefly through Smith that we know Pocahontas, the story of whom does not appear in the first two editions of the General History. Pocahontas was a real person--that is not in dispute--but what is uncertain is our collective memory of her.

[In case you're wondering, Vollmann is an acquired taste--easily as verbose, and probably as smart, as David Foster Wallace, but lacking what I take to be Wallace's lack of presumption, his awareness that he didn't have everything figured out. There's a knowingness to Vollmann (that's the charitable way to put it) that I find off-putting, especially over the course of a 700-page book. But, you know. Consider who's telling you this.]

For Pocahontas, for all of us, there is the flesh-and-blood entity, and then there is what is remembered of her/us. Yet, if not for the latter, we cannot later recall the former, whether or not we personally knew her/them . . . and, moreover, that later recall, no matter how we try to make it otherwise, will always be a betrayal of, even the memories themselves.


Doc said...


So, okay: words don’t do it for me at all. Smell, sight or sound stimulates my memories. And even that is not quite right – my senses evoke the emotions of the memory, what I was feeling, what the others involved were feeling, the tone of the situation if you will, rather than words, which are there but are but footnotes, as though the memory were an XKCD comic my mouse lingered over…

Memories are far and away different than my recollection of purchasing a baker’s dozen pastries to bring into the office yesterday.

I used to think this due to the passage of time. Or strong emotion. But the older I get the more I believe it is because memories are all in some way beyond pneuma or spirit, they are even more primal; the green smell of spring grass, the a priori knowledge of a woman you’ve just been introduced to, the taste of a powerful wind blowing…

Words just trigger lists and collections of lists that order days, weeks and decades, catalogue the years; my mind sends a clerk for the right date and, voila, there’s the report.

But memories…

R. Sherman said...

Totally off-topic comment.

Don't ever apologize for a comment at my place, if for no other reason than I'm a lawyer. By definition, I'm incapable of being offended.


I'm glad your still among "the posting," my friend.


John B. said...

The last shall be first . . .

Thanks, Randall. I'm not by nature intemperate, and I don't like it when I am--especially in the space (virtual or otherwise) of someone whom I know and like very well. But thanks again.

Doc: Thanks for commenting. If you haven't already and if you read nothing else by Proust, you should read those last few pages of "Overture," the first chapter of Swann's Way. Marcel basically says what you have to say about the nature of memory, that it's as though they almost have an existence apart from us, even though we're their receptacles. I suppose that it's in the attempt to render them that we begin to realize just how ephemeral they are: They're there, we can see them, damn it; but there's something about them that will always elude our ability to record them. Along those lines: I didn't include it, but just before that passage by Roubaud that I quoted, he says something to the effect that memory does not lie--the clear implication being that the attempt to render them with words is doomed to be less than faithful.

Doc said...

John - will take your advice. haven't read Proust; he's always been on "the" list, but every time I think about it i look at the size of the tomes and weigh that against the miniscule minutes available every day and just sigh...but what you wrote about his thoughts strikes me as true; words simply aren't part of the equation in tose instances, i just know. the other thing that sometimes strikes me as apt is jung's notion of genetic memory, which would certainly explain my inability to do anything receive them...maybe that's why self is ineffable: it's the code below the OS, if you will. it could probably also explain -along with the newly discovered 'religion' center in the brain - why those of 'faith' are staunchly so; it's in their bones...good to see you back.