I’ve been dipping into a fascinating book, In Search of Memory, by Eric R. Kandel, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize. A particular passage has been sticking in my head in which Kandel addresses “the role of memory and dysfunction in other forms of mental illness, and even in the biology of mental wellness.” Consider how much we count on not just our thinking faculties, but our memories! Our past, the past of others—experiences and what we learned from them—enable us to process what is happening here in the present, right now.
How can we make sense of something as simple as ordering a coffee, if we can’t remember having done so before? How much easier it is to care for a newborn when it’s your second than your first. All those memories of not only what you did before, but how you coped. Or, the flip side, if you’ve been through a terrible experience, a trauma, then some completely different experience can bring it back with a smell—flowers at a party, and suddenly you’re remembering the scent of carnations at your cousin’s funeral.
We need this, the push of memory, it makes us who we are. Sometimes it seems to define us, but we use it to define ourselves: what we accept and what we resist, in our pasts, in our families, and in ourselves. Kandel points out “that depression often compromises memory severely.” Experientially, as well as biologically, this makes sense. A foggy, under-energized brain has trouble pulling up what has happened, what needs to be done. Mental inertia can paralyze thought and action. We need the ability to recall the past—individually and culturally—in order to move forward.
While I was working on the book about my father (Exit Wound: Suicide is Not a Love Story), I often returned to a quotation from Freud, in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” as a sort of ballast, a reminder or held-out hand:
“[W]e do not even know by what economic measures the work of mourning is carried through; possibly, however, a conjecture may help us here. Reality passes its verdict—that the object no longer exists—upon each single one of the memories and hopes through which the libido was attached to the lost object, and the ego, confronted as it were with the decision whether it will share this fate, is persuaded by the sum of its narcissistic satisfactions in being alive to sever its attachment to the non-existent object.”
Rereading this passage now, it seems a bit harsh, but the gist of it is true. Not that we stop being attached or cease to care for the person we’ve lost, but that we have to pass through the period of recurring pain; we have to return to a life we are living, not just a life we are living with death (the lost loved one) by our side. After a loss, we keep encountering things that remind us of the deceased, concrete things in our daily lives (a room, a book, an upcoming event, a smell or even a feeling), and, too, our minds come upon eruptions from the past (that picnic two years ago, a wedding, learning to play backgammon, a fight). The future chimes in too—he or she will not be here for…. We need to experience these reminders, these pain-filled memories, but then we need to begin to see things through a lens that is not only shaped by who is missing.
I will be tackling the subject of grief (so inter-tangled with memory), in one of my upcoming posts. But memory not only pertains to what we’ve lost, it is a frame for what we have experienced—and who we are.
We pull our memories into narratives—into stories—in order to find coherence. We need the past, on some level, to make sense. We need to glue together the details and events; they need to stick together, and form something comprehensible. My almost-three-year-olds’ activity with the scissors comes to mind. He loves to cut—and cut and cut. If I turn away for just a few minutes, the table and floor are soon scattered with multi-shaped, sometimes jagged, small and large, fragments of paper—white, red, crayoned or markered or plain. It’s a mess, and until I can bring myself to pull out the broom or stoop down to scoop them together (and those pieces always catch here and there, scatter further and resist the pull of my fingers), they seem overwhelming. Sometimes I ignore them for hours.
Okay, so my housekeeping is less than perfect. But the point here is two-fold. It takes energy and effort to make order from chaos—whether the mess of memory and history, or the mess of a preschooler—and I feel so much better once it’s been done. Honestly, not just the dining room, but the whole apartment, even my outlook on other things that need to be accomplished, looks better. I’m not really trying to make an argument for spending more time cleaning up. (Though I suppose I’m reminding myself it might prove useful in more ways than just the possession of a cleaner apartment.) But that our minds are similarly affected by fragments of memory—thoughts and experiences that have not been organized and integrated into our sense of self impede us, slow us down.
I know I had this experience in working on my memoir about my father. The research, thinking, reading, and writing were sometimes traumatic—I was at times reliving my father’s death, the long wind up (decades of depression), and then, too, the blood-soaked aftermath. But, through this process, I gained a way of speaking about his death (about suicide), not just to others, but to myself. I would be lying if I pretended that this was a neatly confined period—research, write, remember, then it’s all done—though I think for a while I thought of it this way. I probably needed to. But then more experiences come along—marriage, having children of my own—and those need to be joined to the narrative too, not always a seamless process.
For me, the process of remembering (thinking things through and integrating them into who we are) is as valuable as the result, both of which are somewhat elusive, like memory itself. But I feel better when I’m doing it—thinking about the past, thinking about the present, remembering. Memory isn’t just about what happened—in the past—what is done and concluded. Memory is the essence of who we are—in the present and the future. As Kandel writes,
“It is, of course, memory that weaves one’s life into a coherent whole.”
~ As I was wrapping up this post, I came upon an interview with Austin Ratner, in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, when his excellent debut novel, The Jump Artist, came out in 2009. The Jump Artist just won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In the Plain Dealer interview and in another interview in Harper’s, Ratner talks about the role of memory, trauma, and loss in engaging ways. Check out the interviews (links above) and then the book…here! ~
~ More on our need for cohesive stories next week (and the next), when I hope to finally get to the topic of Dave Duerson (the former NFL player who killed himself last month) and the subject of grief. ~
~ New fragments will also be popping up at karakrauze.tumblr.com ~