Topical Guide 22
I have to return to the text of yesterday’s episode (the first half of the preface to “Do Clams Bite?”) to explore a major theme:
Memory, Remembering, Forgetting, and the Search for Lost Time
CONSCIOUSLY TRYING to revisit the past is a little like trying to see back through a long tunnel or, more accurately, one of those corrugated metal culverts through which streams are allowed to run under roadways. Bear with me through this. The culvert itself is the set of your current prejudices, desires, antipathies, enthusiasms, regrets, and whatnot that restrict your view of the past. You peer through this narrow tube and see only a tiny circle of light, though you are certain that there is more back there at the other end, beyond what you can see. Apparently, just looking won’t be enough. You are going to have to crawl through the culvert and see what is back there. If you make it all the way through, you will be surprised by what you find. You will have the odd sensation of being in unfamiliar territory and yet recognizing everything.
Little Follies, “Do Clams Bite”
We find a little of everything in our memory; it is a sort of pharmacy, or chemical laboratory, in which our groping hand comes to rest now upon a sedative drug, now upon a dangerous poison.
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, The Captive, “Flight of Albertine”
We know that in his work Proust did not describe a life as it actually was, but a life as it was remembered by the one who had lived it. And yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. For the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection. Or should one call it, rather, a Penelope work of forgetting? Is not the involuntary recollection, Proust’s mémoire involontaire, much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory? And is not this work of spontaneous recollection, in which remembrance is the woof and forgetting the warf, a counterpart to Penelope’s work rather than its likeness? For here the day unravels what the night has woven. When we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting. However, with our purposeful activity and, even more, our purposive remembering, each day unravels the web and the ornaments of forgetting. This is why Proust finally turned his days into nights, devoting all his hours to undisturbed work in his darkened room with artificial illumination, so that none of those intricate arabesques might escape him.
Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” in Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn
One of the schools of Tlön has reached the point of denying time. It reasons that the present is undefined, that the future has no other reality than as present hope, that the past is no more than present memory.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
[more to come on Friday, June 11, 2021]
Have you missed an episode or two or several? You can catch up by visiting the archive, or you can download a free ePub of the annotated version of “My Mother Takes a Tumble,” the first novella in Little Follies, including the full text and all of my annotations.