Oh the moments, how they slip through our fingers, seemingly lost to fading memory before we can even claim to have felt them. This month on the Ark Review, we are exploring ephemera; those things so tied to the present that simply cannot come with you into the future. Today, Anne Kristin Kristiansen writes about the beauties and complexities of past and ephemeral moments, of observations and memories.
‘I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order.’
This is how the movie Arrival by Denis Villeneuve begins. We hear the voice of the character Dr. Louise Banks while the camera slowly moves into the room and shows, first of all, the ceiling, tilts down showing some of the interior and zooms further in on the window, where we see a beautiful landscape in different blue tones. Somewhere between day and night—either dusk or dawn. In some places, this moment is called the blue hour. A French expression for it is: ‘entre chien et loup’ – ‘between dog and wolf’. Slight and calm music underlines the words making understand how this would feel with the clarity of a direct message. If a pensive conclusion, summed up after a long path of thoughts, had a sound, then it would sound like this.
– Serious, thoughtful, calm, clear – very deep.
If this remark sounds a little ironic, it’s because I am a little amused upon how easily the impression works, yet it doesn’t take anything away from the excitement and appreciation I have for the opening of the movie. On the contrary, noticing this weird element in it adds to and increases the interest.
So to say: Expressed irony as admiration for the weird in situations.
Besides, I agree, memory is indeed a strange thing. Beautiful as well. And it still never works like I thought it did. Anyway, here is an attempt at catching the most ephemeral I know of – moments and memories. Both.
Moments, if they turn into something, turn immediately into transformed fragments, called memory.
These memories are the only access we have linking back to those moments.
But by remembering these transformed fragments/memories, they become already something new. A new moment.
Let me try to visualize it, with moment on the left and memory on the right. The order events should be read from left to the right. Then, an arrow leads back from the right (the memory) to the beginning (the moment). And it starts again. Anew. In between there are some other important steps of course. (Yes Dr. Louise Banks, I’m bound by its order.)
To explain the aspect of the new in memories more fully, I would like to refer to a work of Jorge Luis Borges. He has this wonderful story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, where a fictional author writes a review about his friend and colleague, the author Pierre Menard, focusing mainly on one of his most important, but also largely unrecognized work: his re-writing of Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes 300 years earlier. Not the whole thing, but at least parts of it. Menard’s reason for doing so, as he writes to the fictional author of the review, is to point out that ‘The final term of a theological or metaphysical proof—the world around us, or God, or chance, or universal Forms—is no more final, no more uncommon, than my revealed novel.’
But of course Menard doesn’t want to mechanically transcribe the novel, nor copy it, he wants to create identical lines. The question arises of how to approach this task. Menard thinks about the different possibilities to make his idea come true and the first he arrives at, is to attempt a total identification with the original author, Cervantes. ‘Initially, Menard’s method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918—be Miguel de Cervantes.’ After a while Menard dismisses the idea. One of the reasons: He didn’t want to be an author of the 17th century in the 20th century. So he decided to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at the point where he can re-write the Don Quixote through himself.
Menard doesn’t think of his undertaking as a difficult one; just one that is impossible, at least as long as he is not immortal. The way he wants to succeed with his re-writing is not mentioned in detail, only that he has two rules that produce certain possibilities and restrictions: ‘the first [rule] allows me to try out formal or psychological variants; the second forces me to sacrifice them to the ‘original’ text and to come, by irrefutable arguments, to those eradications.’ He adds one more ‘artificial constraint’—as Menard casually and affectionately refers to his rules as well—which is, that it might have been a necessity to write this book in the 17th century, but questions, the necessity and remarks the impossibility of doing so after 300 years have passed.
The unnamed fictional author of the review compares the two books constantly and praises the version of his colleague Menard. Apart from the fact that those comparisons are funny to read, Borges gets the point across that the text depends both on the reader and the context of the text.
‘It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
This catalogue of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the ‘ingenious layman’ Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
History, the mother of truth!—the idea is staggering. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very fount of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not ‘what happened’; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor—are brazenly pragmatic.’
What does this have to do with memory and moments? Imagine Pierre Menard as the author of memory and Miguel de Cervantes as the author of the moment. Pierre Menard creates fragments exactly identical to the original of Miguel de Cervantes and still what he achieves is something different. New, one might say. And it exists in its invisibility. Always linked to the original. Memories do not have the same source either, as they depend on time, thoughts, circumstances and angles that change them. We change them. The only difference from the story is that we would probably never be able to re-write identical fragments. Still, our stories exist, and it is the memories and moments that allow them to do so. I know of nothing more insecure and beautiful in its existence.
To have these new-moments, called memories, linked back to past-moments, we, in order to be able to recall them, first have to see and then observe these moments. One could, to simplify it, put those two together and say: notice them.
However, it is us doing something and the way we will observe them is dependent on many aspects. Just to mention a few that come up instantly, and some have been mentioned through Borges before: culture, language, believes, the way we grew up, the experiences we gathered, sometimes expectations, sometimes clear moods. All this leads to some sort of perspective or, to what Sara Ahmed calls in her Essay Happy Object, angles.
‘So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point. The pedagogic encounter is full of angles. Many times have I read students as interested or bored, such that the atmosphere seems one of interest or boredom (and even felt myself to be interesting or boring) only to find students recall the event quite differently. Having read the atmosphere, one can become tense, which in turn affects what happens, how things move along. The moods we arrive with do affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods. Sometimes I arrive heavy with anxiety, and everything that happens make me feel more anxious, while at other times, things happen that ease the anxiety, making the space itself seem light and energetic.’
To read an atmosphere is nearly impossible, but still we do it and we need to, in order to be able to communicate with others, to manage our daily life, but it is an angled observation, a subjective one. Seeing and observing atmospheres or, to continue in my terminology: moments, is the base from which memories exist. Memories are linked to these observations, but not fixed. These memories become new moments and in which way, is dependent on our arrival.
Having said that, it sounds like a potentially dangerous argument to me. As if everything was in the eyes of the beholder, which I would never want to say—thinking of situations where the borders are clearly overstepped, where someone has been harmed, subject to injustice or has been treated disrespectfully and sometimes in the most cruel way, but I don’t feel capable of writing about those situations and I leave this to people who really know what they write about, if they chose to do so.
However, even the moments of insecurity in everyday-life, those dependent on communication, missing communication, our current state of mind, our arrival, our angles, can, at times, become cruel, and trigger bad experiences, insecurities, anxieties or unpleasant pattern, if not caught in one way or another. It’s a very thin border between observations and incident, and sometimes the border is so blurry that one can no longer see the sides. Sometimes there is no border left to see.
Everyone has probably experienced this in one way or another and here comes Roxane Gay. Now, before I quote her, I would like to mention why I think of her as so important for this topic. One of the aspects I mentioned, as one possibility leading our observation, is expectation. Gay as a theorist and writer about feminism, racism and paradoxical situations describes, in an incredible way, what it means to sense what is expected of one, and yet to feel differently about it and, in this case (coming in a few lines), still enjoy it. Because we can—once we have become aware of expectations that surround us, decide that we couldn’t care less. (All right, it’s often not as simple as it might sound, somehow those ideas, expectations or whatever one wants to call them seem to be less ephemeral than moments and memories, but it’s possible to handle them differently. And, to make it sound more likely for different kind of situations, let me add: want to do it differently, avoid those situations/ people/ places that cause them, or solve them – alone, with the cause or someone else.) Roxane Gay got me at times laughing so hard, while I looked at her with astonishment and admiration…
‘I do most of my leisure reading at the gym. I hate exercise. Yes, it’s good for you and weight loss and whatever, but normally, I work out and want to die. I knew I was in love with The Hunger Games when I did not want to get off the treadmill. The book captivated me. I wanted to stay in the world Collins created. More than that, The Hunger Games moved me. There was so much at stake, so much drama, and it was all so intriguing, so hypnotizing, so intense and dark. I particularly appreciated what the book got right about strength and endurance, suffering and survival. I found myself gasping and hissing and even bursting into tears, more than once. I looked insane but I did not care. I was completely without shame.’
And later in her Essay, What we hunger for, she sums up:
‘The Hunger Games trilogy is dark and brutal, but in the end, the books also offer hope – for a better world and a better people and, for one woman, a better life, a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn’t expect her to compromise that strength, a man who can hold her weak places and love her through the darkest of her memories, the worst of her damage. Of course I love the Hunger Games. The trilogy offers the tempered hope that everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.’
As I am typing Roxane Gay’s words, towards the end I see Simone de Beauvoir appear and, shaking her head, the feminist in Roxane Gay (I’m not talking of the bad feminist in her) does so too, but that’s just how it is. Paradoxical. And that’s maybe where they both nod.
Yes, observation is personal and subjective, but at the same time this observation comes with a package. (I secretly want to call it society-package, but I don’t.) It’s as if you go on a trip and take a bag with you. On the way you decide, what you need, don’t need, don’t need any more and what you grew fond of. That is, if you unpack it once in awhile and not just carry it around. Of course you add new things as well.
Remember, I wrote that the difference of the Don Quixote’s story is that we wouldn’t be able to re-write identical fragments? Here is Pierre Menard again: ‘Thinking, meditating, imagining, […] are not anomalous acts—they are the normal respiration of the intelligence.’
How much imagination is added is often questionable and the reason for insecurity and beauty. The unnamed fictional review-writer: ‘The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say—but ambiguity is richness.)’ Sometimes that is, I might like to add.
A last beauty of the capability of memory, I don’t want to withhold:
Oliver Sacks in his book The man who mistook his wife for a hat describes a situation in which a man, loses his sense of smell as a result of a head injury, which has caused him to loose a lot of pleasure in life:
(By the way: Jorge Luis Borges wrote his short-story Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote after a head injury he experienced himself, in order to test his ability of creativity and he felt verified afterwards.)
‘Life lost a good deal of its savour—one doesn’t realize how much ‘savour’ is smell. You smell people, you smell books, you smell the city, you smell the spring – maybe not consciously, but as a rich unconscious background to everything else. My whole world was suddenly radically poorer…‘ Astonishingly enough after six month the man starts being able to smell his favourite morning coffee again. Curious upon this happening, he consults the doctor, but the doctor ensures him that he has a total anosmia. ‘What seems to be happening – and it is important that it was only the olfactory tracts, not the cortex, which were damaged – is the development of a greatly enhanced olfactory imagery, almost, one might say, a controlled hallucinosis, so that in drinking his coffee, or lighting his pipe – situations normally and previously fraught with associations of smell – he is now able to evoke or re-evoke these, unconsciously, and with such intensity as to think, at first, that they are ‘real’. […] he calls up a smell-memory, or smell-picture, so intense that he can almost deceive himself, and deceive others, into believing that he truly smells it.’
This possibility of recalling past moments, ephemeral moments, observations and memories, to have them with us as an open archive, is complex, insecure and beautiful. Something between dog and wolf, day and night and always within the blue hour. I like this time of the day, because of its light.