Speak, memory

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by Richard Nilsen
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If you have ever stood out on the rear deck of a ship at night, you might see in the dark water a bright wake, illuminated from within, almost like the mirror image of the Milky Way over your head. It is the glow of millions or billions of microscopic dinoflagellates who are churned by the propeller into producing bioluminescent light, much like the light of a firefly. It is a stunning thing to see: A long line of radiance behind your vessel drifting back into the horizon.
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And so our past recedes from our moving present and the glow is memory — the wake of our selfhood.
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I recently got an e-mail from an old friend, who raised a question he had asked our former colleague:
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“I asked Sal, or prompted him, about why memories seem so powerful. Even though I’m not a person who sees the past through totally rose-colored glasses, point-memories from childhood — and even as ‘late’ as the early ‘80s — now, can elicit a kind of rapt attention when I recall them.
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 “Sal e-mailed me back that it was because the ‘air was suffused with possibility,’ or, as I erroneously remembered his remark, the ‘air tingled with possibility.’ Makes me think of the time-space foam from which the universe burst forth like Athena from the head of Zeus, according to some cosmologists.”
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The more I thought on this, the more I came to believe Sal had it exactly backwards. Those early memories that seem so indelible and so fraught with meaning have that permanence and power not because of the open path ahead, but because they are the bedrock on which we build our “selves” — our sense of who we are; the terms of the definition we write about our inner identities. Those early memories are the bricks on which we construct the foundation of our being.
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As such, these memories are not simply recollections of temps perdu, but the parts-box from which we take the walls and hinges of the edifice we build, that is our personality, our personhood.
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What my friend was calling “point-memories,” are something I recognize for myself, and I believe most people have such memories. They are not merely scenarios replayed in our minds, but aggregations of event and emotion. Not just what happened, but how we feel about what happened.
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From the memories, we pick and choose, perhaps unconsciously, and construct a story, which we take to be the essence of who we are, but the self is more than a coherent narrative. The self is that singularity, that dimensionless point, as in geometry, that is the center of consciousness, with no dimensions of its own, but that, again as in geometry, can generate a line, which can generate a plane, which can generate a third dimension which exists in the fourth dimension of time.
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But however distinct, however vivid and indelible, memory alone cannot define selfness. Selfhood comes in layers.
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In the beginning, as it says in the Vulgate, “in principio,” the self is the object of stimulus; poke it with a stick and it flinches, like a sensitive plant or a clam.
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It is the dimensionless point behind the eyes that sees, between the ears that hears, that tastes, feels, smells. For John Locke, it is the tabula rasa upon which life will write its book.
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But, as Steven Pinker demonstrates in his book, The Blank Slate, we enter this world with baggage. “Individuals differ in personality and intelligence,” he says. The genetic inheritance governs just how we react to these stimuli. We may be inherently grumpy, or suspicious, or happy, or simple-minded, and that humor colors the incoming sensations.
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I grew up at a time when we were taught, “It is all cultural.” It was dogma that we begin at birth absolutely empty, and life begins filling us up, shaping us into the vessels we become. It was an orthodoxy that allowed for the eventual perfectibility of humanity and society. But science has shown it just isn’t so.
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This was brought home to me with a thunderclap when after 40 years, I re-met my son, the child of divorce, who I hadn’t seen since he was less than a year old. There had been no contact between us; I doubt he knew who I was. But when I saw him again, finally, as an adult, he was wearing the same kind of clothes I wore when I was his age, the same kind of eyeglasses; he read the same kind of books; he spoke in front of crowds about movies — something I have often done — and, the clincher: In his home office, scattered with books and music and movies, just like my home office, there was a world globe turned upside down so that Antarctica was on top. In my home office back in Phoenix, there was a world globe turned so Antarctica was on top.
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It was as if we were subatomic particles linked across the universe in a kind of quantum entanglement. The only explanation was in the genes we shared.
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But this combination of the stimulus-reaction colored by innate tendencies does not yet create a self. That comes with the recognition that there is an entity that is doing the reacting. It is me. I am seeing, I am hearing, I am touching. Ego est (pronounce it as if it were a fast breakfast food: Eggo). An infant at first does not seem to distinguish between himself and the rest of his environment. But at some point, the division between self and world becomes fixed; the skin becomes a physical barrier of the psychic separation.
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From this point, we begin accruing the memories, the continuous barrage of stimuli, that eventually create our backstory and personality. This is the glowing wake we can see from the taffrail. This trail of memory is what many take for the self. It is necessary but not sufficient.
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What has fascinated me is how baroque and prodigious memory can be. Some years ago I took to writing an autobiography, not for publication, but for sharing with my brothers. I asked them to do the same for me, so we might catch up on the parts of our lives after we separated and went away to college, took up jobs and wives. What I discovered was that every memory I examined was connected to six others, and each of those to six more, and so on, almost endlessly, building up a past in vivid detail that I did not know I possessed. Each room I entered had six doors, and whichever door I chose to open gave me access to another room with another six doors. It was like a Borges library. There is a vastness inside our craniums. The stars of the night sky populate the inner dome of my skull as the ocean depths gurgle down around my amygdala. As in Andrew Marvell’s Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ does straight its own resemblance find,/ yet it creates, transcending these,/ far other worlds, and other seas;/ Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”
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It is an old idea of Medieval thought, that everything in the world finds its reflection in the mind, one-for-one. As if every part of a life were still there, buried in the many dusty closets of my self.
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But, again, this midden of memory is not the whole story. We are not self-contained personality bubbles. The trace of memory cannot explain the wild idiosyncrasies of who we are. There are more layers.
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As we pass through life, we take on roles. I become a father, a grandfather, and these archetypes become part of my self. Husband, wife, boss, employee, student, teacher — they are all roles we don as if they were a suit of clothes. They may be imposed from the outside, but they become  internalized.
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Then, too, added to the mix of self must be considered the opinions of others, who see you through their eyes. If someone sees you as a dummy, you are apt to bumble, if they see you as cruel, it will either make you more so, or will challenge you to prove them wrong. Those you know, either intimately or casually, become part of your selfness.
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Finally, there is the cosmos. It can also define you. The time and place you are born in part governs who you are. The cosmos may give you a bad hand: It gives you a genetic disease, or you lose a leg in a car accident or a war. You could be a woman born into a society that stones women to death, or dropped into this planet during plague years. It all becomes part of who you are.
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Layer on layer. “Muchos somos,” as Pablo Neruda wrote. “De tantos hombres que soy, que somos,/ no puedo encontrar a ninguno:/ se me pierden bajo la ropa,/ se fueron a otra ciudad.”
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“Of the many men I am, who we are,/ I cannot find a single one;/ They are lost under my clothes,/ they’ve left for another city.”
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You keep adding to this self even as it begins to crumble. The older you are, the more complex your self, trying endlessly to make it cohere.  Until, ultimately, it all vanishes. As Herman Melville confessed to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne: “I have pretty much made up my mind to be annihilated” — the quintessence of dust blown from some very old book.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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