proust on memory and the image: the last lines of swann’s way

Image:Grave of Proust.jpg

When Proust ran out of time.

The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.


—Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1913; translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin).

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siegfried kracauer on memory and photography

Siegfried Kracauer in 1930.


Forced to leave fascist Germany in 1933, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) began a period of exile that would last the rest of his life. It was thus in Paris and then, after 1941, in New York that he would write the works for which he is known in the Anglo-American realm: a "social biography" of Jacques Offenbach (Orpheus in Paris, 1937), a study of Weimar film (From Caligari to Hitler, 1947), an aesthetics of cinema (Theory of Film, 1960) and a meditation on the philosophy of history (History: The Last Things before the Last, 1969). What Kracauer abandoned in Frankfurt and Berlin was not only his native language but also a career as one of the major cultural critics of the Weimar Republic. Trained as both an architect and a sociologist, in the mid-1920s Kracauer became one of the editors of the feuilleton (arts and culture) section of the important, left-liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, a paper in which he eventually published nearly two thousand articles on a remarkably wide range of subjects. While many of these were more or less incidental journalistic pieces, others, such as "Photography," were sustained philosophical reflections. It was in these pages that Kracauer effectively pioneered the genre of sociological film criticism, undertook a pathbreaking series of analyses of the new "employee-class" (collected in 1930 in a book entitled Die Angestellten), and published major essays on Kafka, Benjamin, Weber, Scheler, the Buber-Rosenzweig translation of the Bible, the genre of biography, to name just a few. Together with his friends Adorno, Benjamin, and Bloch, whose work he published regularly in the feuilleton section, Kracauer also wrote philosophical and sociological analyses of daily-life phenomena in the tradition of his teacher Georg Simmel. In these quotidian micrologies focusing, for example, on the architecture of cinema pal- aces, unemployment offices and arcades, on travel and dance troupes, best-sellers and boredom, on neon-light displays and mass sports events, Kracauer developed a genre motivated by the following programmatic insight: "One must rid oneself of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on people. They are much more deeply and continuously influenced by the tiny catastrophes which make up daily life." The publication in translation of a collection of these essays from the Weimar period entitled The Mass Ornament will finally make available this important and until recently largely unknown facet of Kracauer’s work.



. . . Memory
encompasses neither the entire spatial appearance nor the entire temporal course of an event. Compared to photography memory’s records are full of gaps. The fact that the grandmother was at one time involved in a nasty story that is being recounted time and again because one really doesn’t like to talk about it-this doesn’t mean much from the photographer’s perspective. He knows the first little wrinkles on her face and has noted every date. Memory does not pay much attention to dates; it skips years or stretches temporal distance. The selection of traits that it assembles must strike the photographer as arbitrary. The selection may have been made this way rather than another because disposition and purposes required the repression, falsification, and emphasis of certain parts of the object; a virtually endless number of reasons determines the remains to be filtered. No matter which scenes a person remembers, they all mean something that is relevant to him or her without his or her necessarily knowing what they mean. Memories are retained because of their significance for that person. Thus they are organized according to a principle that is essentially different from the organizing principle of photography. Photography grasps what is given as a spatial (or temporal) continuum; memory-images retain what is given only insofar as it has significance. Since what is significant is not reducible to either merely spatial or merely temporal terms, memory-images are at odds with photographic representation. From the latter’s perspective, memory-images appear to be fragments but only because photography does not encompass the meaning to which they refer and in relation to which they cease to be fragments. Similarly, from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.


The meaning of memory-images is linked to their truth content. As long as they are embedded in the uncontrolled life of the drives they are inhabited by a demonic ambiguity; they are opaque like frosted glass that hardly a ray of light can penetrate. Their transparency increases to the extent that insights thin out the vegetation of the soul and limit the compulsion of nature. Truth can only be found by a liberated consciousness that assesses the demonic nature of the drives. The traits that consciousness recollects stand in a relationship to what has been perceived as true, the latter being either manifest in these traits or shut out by them. The image in which these traits are to be found is distinguished from all other memory-images, for unlike the latter it preserves not a multitude of opaque recollections but instead elements that touch upon what has been recognized as true. All memory-images are bound to be reduced to this type of image, which may rightly be called the last image, since in it alone does the unforgettable persevere. The last image of a person is that per- son’s actual "history." In this history, all characteristics and determinations that do not relate in a significant sense to the truth intended by a liberated consciousness drop out. How a person represents this history does not depend purely on his or her natural constitution nor on the pseudo-coherence of his or her individuality; thus only fragments of these assets are included in his or her history. This history is like a monogram that condenses the name into a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament. Eckart’s monogram is fidelity.* Great historical figures survive in legends that, however naive they may be, strive to preserve their actual history. In authentic fairy tales, the imagination has intuitively deposited typical monograms. In a photograph a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow…


* The German mythological hero, faithful protector, and counselor Eckart warns the Nibelungen at the border of the Rüdegers Mark of the threatening Hunn danger. Kracauer here plays on the association of Eckart and fidelity as manifest in Ludwig Tieck’s 1799 fable "Tannenhauser and the Faithful Eckart" and Goethe’s 1811 text entitled "The Faithful Eckart."


—from Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography.” Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436.


clive james on poetic memory: “rilke was a prick”

 

Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel. On the periphery, names and attributes of real people have been changed and shuffled so as to render identification impossible. Nearer the centre, important characters have been run through the scrambler or else left out completely. So really the whole affair is a figment got up to sound like truth. All you can be sure of is one thing: careful as I have been to spare other people’s feelings, I have been even more careful not to spare my own. Up, that is, of course, to a point.

Sick of being a prisoner of my childhood, I want to put it behind me. To do that, I have to remember what it was like. I hope I can dredge it all up again without sounding too pompous. Solemnity, I am well aware, is not my best vein. Yet it can’t be denied that books like this are written to satisfy a confessional urge; that the main-spring of a confessional urge is guilt; and that somewhere underneath the guilt there must be a crime. In my case I suspect there are a thousand crimes, which until now I have mainly been successful in not recollecting. Rilke used to say that no poet would mind going to gaol, since he would at least have time to explore the treasure house of his memory. In many respects Rilke was a prick. 

—from the preface to Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs (1980)

i remember . . .


From the Too Much Money & Too Little Purpose Dept.:  I removed another 300 –odd books from my home office in preparation for the new hardwood flooring.  Goodbye, Carlos Fuentes! Ta-ta, Octavio Paz. I hope you enjoy life in my filthy stinking recycling bin! You taco-bending burrito boys shouldn’t have tried to rise above your station in life and aspire to be like me, a true Norte Americano writer-genius! (Not to mention that I am also an ill-educated & charmless monoglottal vulgarian).   



Addie sez: I love the smell of Coppertone in
the morning. It smells like –  Vicky, the annoying
brat I aim to bite but good.  

 
A  Proustian moment (or my impoverished version thereof): The smell of suntan lotion always makes me think of the novels of Harold Robbins.  I remember an afternoon at the beach when I was eight or nine years old… I’d been out swimming by myself (who would let their kid do that these days?) and came ashore only to find that my family had abandoned me, though the car and the towels and chairs were still there. Cool! I thought – this is kind of like one of those ghost boats they find floating in the Bermuda Triangle.  After a while the novelty of reflecting light from my brother’s watch crystal into the eyes of the other beachgoers wore off, so I idly read a few pages at random in my mother’s suntan lotion-soiled copy of The Carpetbaggers.  Baffled, I wondered aloud to my fellow beach attendees:  “Why is she reading this? Why would anyone read this? I only read books that have UFOs or dinosaurs or Nazis in them!”  No response was forthcoming from the stupefied sun-worshippers around me.  After a while, the resounding silence to my questions put me in mind of the comments about the residents of central Ontario made by my brother just that morning on the drive to the beach – hmm, even though they’re grownups, maybe they can’t read…  why do they all have Toronto Maple Leafs towels? Having not yet attained the Age of Reason, I could not, on that sun-soaked afternoon so long ago, compute the permutations and combinations of possible narratives involving dinosaurs, UFOs and Nazis. But I could – and did – check out the breasts on the hot blonde lying next to me. Now I only read books with nicely-breasted blondes, and/or Nazis, UFOs and dinosaurs. So it goes.

 

 

elina hirvonen’s when i forgot: “memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about”

if you are interested in the effects of time, memory & violence on the human subject, then buy and read this book!

  

Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot opens in a Helsinki cafe where Anna Louhiniitty is drinking coffee and reading Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway — or maybe it’s Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. However, she is soon at the mercy of intrusive memories of her brother, Joona, whose mental breakdown seems connected to the events of 9/11. Eventually the recollection of the impact of violence on both her family and her boyfriend’s — his father came back from Vietnam a broken man and died in a V.A. hospital — overwhelms her. Anna is forced to try to do the impossible, to break free from her past and develop a less painful identity, one which . . . pardon my psychobabble . . . From the publisher’s jacket copy:

An astonishingly assured and compelling debut, When I Forgot explores the relationship between a sister and her brother, the past that they share, and the painful memories that shape their lives forever.

Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been institutionalized when she falters, and in that pause her world splinters in a blazing display of memory and madness, of childhood security treasured and shattered, and of families blighted by psychological trauma—her brother’s and that of her boyfriend’s father, a Vietnam vet. September 11 serves as a backdrop for the story, and the Finnish perspective on America and its politics is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. 

 


 

the opening pages of elina hirvonen’s when i forgot: 

 

1 

Why I’m happy

I’m happy because I have a steam engine (that works).

I’m happy because I have Daddy Mommy Sister Grandma and got a Stiiga bike for Christmas.

I’m happy because I’m in the science club and when I grow up I’m going to be an inventor and win the Nobel Prize.

I’m happy because I get to live my whole life in free and independent Finland and because my Heavenly Father loves me and takes care of me.

Joona Louhiniitty 3A

 
2

I can make it. This day.

There’s the smell of sun-warmed dog shit and damp earth. A bent woman in winter boots from the eighties and a child in muddied jeans whose tongue darts out around his icecream moustache. There’s the long morning when you don’t
have to look at your watch.

There’s the café where you get old-fashioned coffee and thickly iced mocha squares and where you feel like someone’s just told you a secret. There are the clacking trams and the footdragging kids on their way to school and the grey-headed women who prop each other up as they cross the street. There’s the book I got from Ian. There’s Ian, who loves me.

There’s the book.

There’s the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water.

You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work.

I’ve read Virginia’s suicide note many times, but keep coming back to it. What did the rocks look like? What was she thinking as she sank under the water? Did she have time, before losing consciousness, to regret what she had done?

 

 

3

 

I first saw Ian three years ago in a university lecture hall. He had been invited from ColumbiaUniversity in New York as a visiting lecturer for the literature department’s Virginia Woolf seminar. Ian was fortyish, but looked older. He was in brown corduroys and an orange-yellow sweater and the same kind of bumpy-soled health sandals that my mother wore when we were small. He stood in front of us looking thin and a bit hunched, a glass of water in one hand and a sheaf of paper in the other, turning his head back and forth looking for a place to set them down.  

The girls in long skirts and the boys who pulled their wispy hair back into ponytails talked loudly about literature (‘Orlando like totally expanded my sexuality, man’) and last night’s party (‘So I wake up on some fucking tech student’s floor and I’m like uh sorry’) and Ian kept saying excuse me, excuse me please to get everybody to quiet down. Finally he set down the glass and the pile of paper, stamped his sandal and shouted ‘Shut the fuck up!’

When Ian started to talk, we were all quiet. He sat on the table, pushed the papers aside, and took a sip of water. His gaze was intense and his voice deep and dark, as if someone were humming quietly just behind his words.

First Ian told us why he became a literary scholar. ‘I’m convinced that it’s important to remember. Only by remembering can we understand something about ourselves. But I happen to have a terrible memory. I wanted to fill in the gaps by stealing from others.’ Ian looked away, took a drink from his glass, and began talking about this dazzlingly intelligent woman who lived a hundred years ago and who wanted to capture even the tiniest movements of the mind, to dive into a person’s inner world in a way no-one had ever done in the history of world literature.

His voice tightened something in my throat. I wanted to raise my hand and tell him that remembering isn’t really all that great. Memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about. I wanted to stand up, make the note-taking and enthusiastic nods stop and shout that all I want is an escape from memory.

Ian’s face flushed and his hands drew swoops in the air. His hands were thin and his wrists were hairy and I wanted to put my hand there too.


4

The phone rings before I get to the end of Virginia‘s letter.

‘Where are you?’ My mother’s voice as doubting as ever.

‘Transcribing an interview,’ I lie. ‘What?’

‘Don’t get angry. Could you please go see Joona?’

‘I told you already. I want to make up my own mind when to go.’

‘Yes, you told me. But it would mean a lot to Joona if you’d go now. He needs you. To get better.’

Oh fuck off. That’s what I want to say. Fuck off and let me live my own life for once. But you don’t talk like that to your mother. Not any more, now that you’re grown up and living in your own place. Not to the mother who has to care for Joona like some gigantic child. Not to the mother who in her whole life never had a door she could lock against other people’s intrusions.

‘Joona is not going to get better.’

‘He could be less unhappy. He says you don’t care about him any more.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Joona asks about you all the time. What should I tell him?’

‘You don’t need to say anything. I’ll go out there when I get this done.’

He says you don’t care about him any more.

Where does he get off saying that? Where does he get off using a smarmy, crappy, hypocritical word like ‘care’? Caring’s been poisoned by children’s songs and politicians. If only we could all just care about each other we’d all be happy happy happy.

But he’s right, I don’t care about Joona. What I feel for him is something else. Nothing warm or fuzzy or happyhappy. I feel more towards him than anyone else in the world. I wish he would just vanish and I’d never have to remember anything about him.

 

When I was born, the world was already full of Joona. He had golden hair, a bright voice, and a racing car covered with stickers, which he crashed over and over into the yellow painted wall of our room. One day the paint cracked into flaky figures and father locked the car in the attic.

Joona played sad songs on his brown plastic recorder and sat for hours with a picture book in front of him without turning the pages or saying a word. He dreamed of dropping me along with carrots, turnip cubes, and celery stalks into Grandma’s old iron pot and stirring my pink baby flesh into a savoury stew. On bad days he crept over to my white crib and pulled my downy hair out of my head with both hands. On good days he pulled a blanket over the table in our room and we crawled under it to play. We had a torch and mashed banana and played Jonah in the belly of the whale. Joona pulled me into his lap and rocked me back and forth. I imagined behind the blanket a stormy sea, on whose waves our whale would rock up and down for ever.

Joona’s golden hair and ringing voice are my first memories of the world. For a long time I was sure that Joona was the whole world.

On my plate there is a half-eaten mocha square and a ring of coffee left by my cup. The man at the table next to me stares into space and a tram clanks by outside the window. I close the book and run my fingers over its rough cover. I feel like apologizing to the people in the book.


5

When I was five and Joona seven, Father drove into our yard in an old hearse.

We were swinging with my mother. Joona sat alone on one swing and she held me in her lap in the other. When we heard the car horn, all three of us jumped up and ran to see what was happening. The car was big and black. The radiator grille had a big dent in it and someone had drawn a huge peepee in the dirt on a back window. I hoped my mother and father wouldn’t see it. I tried to look like I didn’t notice anything.

Father ran his fingers along the steering wheel. He had rolled the window down and ‘Roadrunner’ was playing on the radio. His hair was messed up in the back, he had unbuttoned his top shirt buttons and golden chest hairs curled up out of the opening. He drummed on the wheel with his knuckles to the beat of the music and smiled so wide his teeth showed. My mother’s hand was hard and tight around mine.

‘Henri,’ she said. She sounded as if she had to make an effort to control her voice. Father closed his eyes and lifted a finger to his lips.

‘Please don’t.’

‘We agreed.’

Father turned the music up and got out of the car. He smelled like he’d been at sea. He came up to us and lifted Joona and me in the air. My stomach flipped over.

‘Let’s go for a ride,’ he said. ‘A spring outing.’

Father pulled Mother close and I got squished in between. Father smelled of sweat and pipe tobacco and Mother of grass and her pink face lotion. Their smells mingled and plunged into me till I felt dizzy.

‘Have dead people driven in that?’ Joona asked. Father said they had. ‘But they’ll be happy to see a smiling boy in the back seat.’ My mother didn’t say anything. She turned away and I cried out, because at that moment I thought she would never come back. But when after a while she returned, she had put on a flowery Marimekko scarf and on her arm she carried a basket she’d bought at the market. In the basket were a bottle of juice, a package of cookies, and sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper. We climbed in the car, all four of us, Mother in the front seat next to Father and Joona and I in the back. The car’s leather seats were hot from the sun and stuck to the backs of our legs.

‘Maybe there’s dead spirits in here,’ Joona whispered. I thought of wrinkled old grandmas and grandpas sitting on the seat with us, nodding their tiny shrunken heads and eyeing the other cars for more dead people. The sun shone in through every window and when Joona sat in just the right spot, the peepee on the back window thrust up out of his head like a horn. Mother laid her hand on Father’s thigh and I could see in the rear-view mirror how they both smiled a little. I turned around and knelt on the seat and waved at the bearded man in the car behind us, and laughed when the seat back hummed against my stomach.

We’re a happy family, I thought. It felt like the sentence had flown into my mind from the page of a book. I imagined myself a rosy-cheeked pigtailed girl from a children’s book, off on a huge exciting adventure for which someone had already written a happy ending.

Father drove fast. The front windows were open and an earthy wind blew my hair into my eyes. Mother clung to the hem of her scarf. Father honked his horn as he passed a Volkswagen beetle. The driver showed us his middle finger. Joona responded by making a circle with his thumb and forefinger and pumping his other forefinger through it. I stuck my thumbs in my ears and made a raspberry with my tongue.

‘Henri,’ Mother said quietly when Father passed a carrot-coloured Lada and two other cars. I saw her hand squeezing Father’s thigh so hard her fingers were white. Father put his hand over Mother’s and laughed. ‘Ain’t it great, kids?’ he shouted over his shoulder. We mumbled something, because we didn’t want them to get cross.

Vad i helvetemenar du?’ Mother asked when Father passed a speeding sports car with its windows open and a motorcyclist wearing a leather jumpsuit: What the hell do you think you’re doing? Mother always spoke Swedish when she didn’t want us to understand. My stomach twisted and my skin got goose bumps, even though it was hot. I tried to take Joona’s hand, but he had his clenched in fists and was staring at the back of Father’s neck with a face as blank as a doll’s.

‘I’m enjoying life!’ he shouted as if my mother were a long way away. ‘You should try it some time. Just once!’

Then Father shouted: ‘Shit!’

Glass tinkled.

Mother screamed.

Something went crunch. As if someone had broken a small bird’s neck.

I was on the floor listening to a banging noise coming up out of the car. The carpet smelled like wet dog. Joona breathed warm air onto the back of my neck. I scrunched my eyes shut and waited for someone to come and lift us out.

Mother was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Father said it wasn’t serious. His shirt front was splotched with blood from her nose. At the top, where the shirt was open, the blood had dyed his chest hairs into reddish-brown clumps.

When the ambulance men helped Mother into the ambulance, he didn’t say anything. I sat on the curb and wrapped my arms around my knees. I didn’t say anything either. Or else I was screaming. I can’t really remember.

‘Mother was just in shock,’ Father said. ‘When she comes back, everything will be like before. She will probably look funny with her nose all bandaged up. But otherwise everything will be fine. Just like before.’

We were sitting at the kitchen table and Father was grilling hot sandwiches. Joona knelt on the chair on his hands and stared at the wall. He hadn’t said a word all evening. Father set the steaming sandwiches in front of us. Ham, pineapple, melted cheese. When Joona picked up his knife to cut into his sandwich, Father grabbed his hand.

‘Let us pray,’ he said. ‘Let us thank the good Lord for watching over us today.’

The chair banged on the floor as Joona jerked his hand away and jumped up from the table. His cheeks were red and he looked at Father as if not really seeing him.

‘What if it wasn’t God?’ Joona asked in a grown-up voice. ‘What if it was the devil going into you and driving like crazy?’

‘What?’ Father said. Red splotches appeared on his neck. ‘What did you say?’

The radio beeped to signal the hour. A piece of paint the shape of a face had flaked off the wall. I took a bite of hot cheese. Tears popped into my eyes. I held the milk glass with both hands and drank. The milk ran cool into my mouth and all the way down to my stomach. It felt as if it were washing me clean on the inside. Washing me away.

—from http://www.tinhouse.com/books/catalog_wif_ex.htm

what would céline do?: inaugural post

 

  

more gallic wisdom from the frenchman’s roy rogers   


Me: All work and no play. Such are the wages of management… that, and not being able to tell co-workers what I think of their cognitive powers and their practiced disdain for matters hygienic. Oh well, best to forget it and move ahead… but maybe I should ask myself “What would Céline do?”…

   

Louis-Ferdinand: The biggest defeat in every department of life is to forget, especially the things that have done you in, and to die without realizing how far people can go in the way of crumminess. When the grave lies open before us, let’s not try to be witty, but on the other hand, let’s not forget, but make it our business to record the worst of the human viciousness we’ve seen without changing one word. When that’s done, we can curl up our toes and sink into the pit. That’s work enough for a life time.

 

—from Death on the Instalment Plan
 
 
 

 

pablo neruda on love, time & memory

 

IF YOU FORGET ME

 

I want you to know

one thing.

 

You know how this is:

if I look

at the crystal moon, at the red branch

of the slow autumn at my window,

if I touch

near the fire

the impalpable ash

or the wrinkled body of the log,

everything carries me to you,

as if everything that exists,

aromas, light, metals,

were little boats that sail

toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

 

Well, now,

if little by little you stop loving me

I shall stop loving you little by little.

 

If suddenly

you forget me

do not look for me,

for I shall already have forgotten you.

 

If you think it long and mad,

the wind of banners

that passes through my life,

and you decide

to leave me at the shore

of the heart where I have roots,

remember

that on that day,

at that hour,

I shall lift my arms

and my roots will set off

to seek another land.

 

But

if each day,

each hour,

you feel that you are destined for me

with implacable sweetness,

if each day a flower

climbs up to your lips to seek me,

ah my love, ah my own,

in me all that fire is repeated,

in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,

my love feeds on your love, beloved,

and as long as you live it will be in your arms

without leaving mine.

 

—from Pablo Neruda, The Captain’s Verses
(
translated by Donald D. Walsh from Neruda’s
Los Versos del Capitán of 1952 and published
by New Directions in 1972
).

Go here to see "If You Forget Me" presented with visuals on
YouTube.