If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
Lately, with past assignments wrapped up and the start of the fall semester still three weeks away, I’ve found some time to pull books off my shelf that have been patiently waiting for me to crack them open and give them a whirl. Yesterday I turned the final page of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, a fable about the end of the world. Imagine a city, a sort of halfway hangout for the dead, populated only by people who remain in urban limbo only so long as someone else is alive who remembers them. Now imagine a virus that wipes out the entire living population save one. Everyone left in the city is connected by the threads of a single person’s memory, some threads that intersect and are woven together, and others that are tangential. There is a beautiful passage toward the end of the book that got me thinking . . .
Hearts stop beating. People put guns to their chest. There was no one and nothing she could ever know well enough to make it stay. It had been one of the chief preoccupations during the last few years of her life: the notion that there was not enough time left for her to really get to know anyone. Most people would say it was ridiculous. She understood that. She was only in her mid-thirties, after all. But whenever she would come into contact with someone new, someone whose stories she didn’t already know by heart, sooner or later that person would start talking about days gone by, and she would get the sad, sickening feeling that too much had already happened to him and it was far too late for her to ever catch up. How could she ever hope to know someone whose entire life up to the present was already a memory? For that matter, how could anyone hope to know her? The way she saw it, the only people she had a prayer of knowing or being known by were the people who had been a part of her life since she was a child, and she hardly even spoke to them anymore. Just her mother and a friend or two from high school, and that was about it. As for everybody else she met – well there were too many shadows behind a person and too little light ahead. That was the problem. And there was no force in the world that would remedy the situation.
Juxtaposed against Brockmeier’s surface notion that a single, meaningless encounter with an individual is enough to grant them a place in the city is the rival and perhaps more poignant idea that no encounter is truly meaningless. As I read that passage, of course I thought about blogging. How I’ve come to rub digital shoulders with so many different people and the minutia of their lives. I don’t know your whole story, the things you’ve lived through that have rattled your world and shaped who you really are. I share things here that are mere glances at my essence. And what is minutia to you, and to me, sometimes comes from deep inside, a place dark and at times impenetrable.
It’s like trying to read a book by starting at the end. You might get away with claiming to have read the book in certain circles. So-and-so? I know them. But in reality you’ve only read the Cliff notes. There are far too many pages left unshared. Explicated. The stuff of a memoir left unwritten.
What is past is prologue, someone once said. How deep do we dare dig . . .