The persistence of memory dali

The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali (1931)

For the longest time, I considered memory to be a writer’s worst enemy – especially if the work depended on historical facts. Yes, history is a beautiful spine on which to sculpt your writing so that it stands tall and true, but personal memory at some point invades, intervenes, blurring and bridging the boundaries of the textbook with the private lens. In its nature, memory is a treacherous creature, with a cat-like, self-serving temperament. It is biased, nimble-fingered, secretly sand-papering over the unsavoury while lengthening, gold-leafing and glorifying a fleeting moment.

Writers cast their buckets into the deep, dark well of memory, often to draw broken fragments of things real and imagined. We wrestle with its imperfect sequencing, the colour and timbre of our emotions. We agonise and doubt the integrity of the ingrained, painfully drafting and redrafting, until the event itself is depersonalized, no longer an original of itself and by default divorcing ourselves of any responsibility for it.

It is in times like these that we run and take shelter in the bosom of artistic license – when we cannot do the thing justice and the ink on the paper gleams wetly back at us, judgmental and doubtful of its own meaning. We cringe when the thing itself is butchered by a moment of caveman yammering, when what was needed, but was tragically absent, was the balanced, civilized and surgical precision of semantics.

In short, for the purely fictional writer, historical fiction can be a blessing and a curse. But it is all we have, and we write, not out of pleasure, but out of necessity, a desperation to record and in the off-chance, to immortalise a part of ourselves.

Therefore memories are fossils. Ribbons of magnetized tape that hold the code to not only our lives but countless others. DNA that irrevocably binds us all together. A mesh of voices whispering in the head, trapped.

What makes me write about the persistence of memory today? It is partly inspired by Penelope Lively’s booker prize winning novel Moon Tiger which I have reviewed here if you are interested in reading my thoughts about it. Lively treats memory in a different way. Her novel is about history, and centres around a historian (who is sadly losing her mind and is dying from cancer), but staring in the face of father time and realising she hasn’t got very much time, our determined protagonist comes to a startling conclusion: that memory, like time itself, doesn’t have to be ‘in sequence’ at all.

The past and present can exist in tandem, and is interwoven on purpose to show stark similarities and a very pronounced pattern than history, indeed, repeats itself. The life of Claudia Hampton and a fragment of ammonite are one and the same. Her memory of her last night with her one, true love in the searing heat of Cairo is superimposed on the Egyptian friezes of pharaohs and their sister-wives.

The big picture that emerges is one that suggests the following: are we just fragments of some god’s memory floating in the ether of space and time? Is this why this pattern is condemned to repeating itself? Why we are persistently reminded of our shortcomings and forced to reenact an event like a hiccup of history seven generations down the line? Why an abnormal chromosome assumed to have phased out, returns with a renewed aggressiveness?

Lively’s treatment of memory and time has made me think about my own work, and how really time and history aren’t really difficult to write about. It is our obsession with wanting everything to be linear, ordered, in sequence, that makes us fret. The concept itself is a fault by default. Some of the best novels I have ever read do not have linear timelines, as they are far more faithful to the way human memory behaves.

Reading Moon Tiger has relieved me of this expectation in my own work in progress. Whether we like it or not, memory and history has a way of surviving beyond us. For this I am thankful. I am even more thankful for the fact that language itself, one word, after another, after another, is distilled history itself, and as we write and talk we are constantly shuffling from one age to another without even knowing it.

Here, Claudia Hampton in one of her lucid moments makes her memorable speech about language:

Today language abandoned me. I could not find the word for a simple object – a commonplace familiar furnishing. For an instant, I stared into a void. Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. Later, I made an inventory of the room – a naming of parts: bed, chair, table, picture, vase, cupboard, window, curtain. Curtain. And I breathed again.

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, and survive and survive and survive.

Profound, isn’t it? How the alpha and the omega of everything may very well be, just words. And they will persist, beyond memory.