before the amnesia sets in…
The other day I watched a play. Curiously, the play was called ‘The Blue Mug’, and the organizing idea of the play was memory. The characters were different individuals, and the content their memories (or the lack thereof). It was a delightful account, at once hilarious, real, absurd, and even evoking pathos every now and then. It wasn’t a linear, structured narrative, that play. It was experimental, improvised, and had quite a bit of personal involvement from the cast, and their memories. A couple of case histories from Oliver Sacks’ ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’ were adapted, and improvised upon. It was, so to speak, loosely based on Sacks’ book. And that was curious, since I’ve had a number of conversations about that book of late, including a review on this blog. The theme, memory, seems to have been a common thread running through these conversations.
It was a good play. That’s about as much as I have to say about the play itself. The word I am going to play with, analyze, feel up and fondle is ‘memory’. All that feeling up and fondling is metaphorical (of course!). Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic, as Dumbledore would say. And they are. For words epitomize that most enabling, and I daresay the most defining, of human inventions we call language. It is in words that we find all our notions of beauty, of freedom, of war and of memory, encapsulated, and expressed. But I digress. We usually picture ourselves as a product of our past actions, moments, and memories. Our past is the reference point that uniquely identifies our ‘self’. To imagine a loss of memory is to come to terms with losing a part of one’s being. On the other hand, to remember nothing beyond a specific ‘cut-off’ time in the past is to be stuck in a permanent being, with no hope whatsoever of ever becoming anything beyond it. This is the case with the character played by Ranvir Shorey in ‘The Blue Mug’, a middle-aged man who still thinks he is a 20 something youngster, for he has no memory of his life after that. Every conversation he shares with anyone vanishes into oblivion soon after, with no remembrance of it. He is reduced to nothing but successive sensations, each following the other, and promptly forgotten when the next one shows up. And he doesn’t know it.
The act of recall is often one of reconstructing the past as we imagine it to be in the present moment. It’s not always a faithful reproduction of the past, coloured as it probably is by one’s self-image, real or imagined. And one’s self-image evolves as life goes by. We perhaps choose to ignore a lot of our memories, to forget them, either because they are not quite consistent with our present self-image, or they are just not important to us any more. This forgetting happens all the time, albeit subconsciously I suspect. Sometimes we end up tweaking our memories a little, for whatever reasons, conscious or otherwise. We seek a continuity between our past and the present moment, a sort of linear narrative to our lives, which are anything but linear. Life is a complicated network of interrelationships between different people, connected by choice, chance, or necessity. Even in a biography, I suspect, a large chunk of the subject’s life is not covered, aspects that were perhaps uninteresting to the average reader, and not very important in the light of the subject’s more important contributions. Indeed, it’s impossible to cover a life story in a few pages of a book, for life’s stories — in all their impermanence, their possibilities and their penchant for the trivial — are best written in people’s memories. In Harry Potter, memories are where the stories of Harry’s, and many others’, past are hidden. And in that magical world of J.K. Rowling’s making, Harry has direct access to those memories!
The prospect of false or biased remembrance is what makes me think diary writing is probably a valuable exercise, albeit a feeble muggle substitute for memories. But then, words are our most inexhaustible source of magic (and the only one for us muggles), as the Great Wizard says. I suspect a personal journal, updated in real time (more or less), can give one access to the past as it was, rather than as one imagines it to be. If you experience a moment you think you will cherish as a precious memory, make note of it — put it down in words, images, sounds, or in any other robust time capsule you can think of. Do that before the amnesia sets in, so that when it does, you can open your time capsule and look at your memories for what they were, and recover a part of your being.