Memory and understanding: A story in four parts

To provide some context: 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the sudden death of my brother, Matthew. Matthew was the eldest of five, 16 at the time, and I was the youngest, four years old at the time. I think a great deal about memory and this is a very big part of why. Last night, I spoke with my siblings about Matthew. This is for them.

Part I: Nostalgias

I’ve never been uncomfortable with not understanding, and I’ve made peace with not remembering. But I cannot think of understanding and memory in isolation from one another.

That I can ‘recall’ the feeling of not understanding is an appeal to a memory I think I have; that I can ‘recall’ anything at all with some degree of certainty implies that I understand the contents of the memory — that I can recreate the circumstances in which the moment occurred, and I can come to some personal consensus about the feelings involved.

As ‘good’ memories might be imbued, in the moment or in retrospect, with ‘good’ feelings, so are ‘bad’ memories with ‘bad’ feelings. But feelings are always ambivalent, and retrospect can be a powerful moraliser, so any ‘certainty’ would be tenuous at best, suspect at worst. Moments of fear can be remembered fondly, with humour and disbelief at the absurdity of fear in what seems, from a distance, quite innocuous: getting roused on by Mum for coming home with “the wrong bread” is recalled with laughter, though no one was laughing at the time.

My point is that ‘memory’, for me, cannot be thought without ‘understanding’, and when one ‘remembers’ or ‘understands’, one makes assumptions in the present about assumptions in the past. One invests some ‘truth value’ in feelings of the present that are invoked by stories, familiar sensorial experiences, or the mere act of recalling, which is often culturally imbued with a particular kind of nostalgia.

Svetlana Boym distinguishes between ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia. The former refers to acts of memory that attempt to reconstruct a ‘lost past’ that may or may not have had any bearing in reality. Think of Trump’s promise to “make America great again”, invoking a post-war, upwardly mobile, industrial utopia, which, if it did ever exist in the way he suggests, was only available to a very exclusive group of people. This kind of remembering is also deceptive in the sense that it implies that such a past is retrievable — that, with the right conditions, we could somehow revive this moment, despite the various local and global forces by which such a reconstruction would be impeded. In other words, it doesn’t adequately account for the conditions that made something possible once, and that may not cohere with current conditions. Consequently, ‘the past’ is dehistoricised and decontextualised.

Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, understands the constructive character of memory. It does not seek to ‘restore’ a lost past, because it understands that one’s image of the past is coloured by investments in the present, and that the past was possible due to conditions that may no longer be accessible in the present. In short, it understands memory as incomplete, imaginative, sometimes cheeky, and always mediated by various personal and structural forces, some of which are unintelligible to the rememberer.

Part II: (…)

Around two years ago, I got off the bus in Mayfield on my way home from work, walked into a tattoo parlour, and asked for the following symbols to be tattooed onto the ridge of my right wrist: (…).

I first saw this symbol in one of my favourite novels, Georges Perec’s W or the Memory of Childhood, which I studied in the previous year, and had been thinking about since. It follows two parallel narratives: one resembles an autobiographical account of the author’s life as a child, growing up in France during the Second World War; and one as a ‘fantasy’ story of an island called ‘W’, which is commonly considered an allegory for a concentration camp.

Perec’s mother is believed to have been taken to a concentration camp, though the narrator does not know for sure. He recounts, on a few occasions, the last moments in which he saw her at the Gare de Lyon in France. Each time, the story is inadequate; the narrator seems to search for the mental images with which he could build an accurate description — a “fairly adequate reconstruction” even — but repeatedly falls short. After one such attempt is a brief departure to life on W, followed by a blank page containing only the ellipsis inside parentheses. This marks the centre of the book. Part II then begins, and the stories continue as though the preceding pages do not exist.

Part III: The text will not yield

My memories of Matthew are compilations of fragments of assorted senses and feelings. They may be sparked by a few familiar phrases (“blo-blo-sha-shao” being a notable example), the sight of a particular garment of clothing, or the riff of The Offspring’s ‘Keep ’em Separated’, a song truly scratched into my soul.

These artefacts pull me toward moments that may or may not have happened: I am in the lounge room (trying to recall what it looked like before the renovation), wearing undies and a pair of plastic toy shoes (which I am told I wore obsessively), with a ribbon in my hair (which I am sure I’ve seen in some photo of me as an infant). The Offspring is blaring, and I’m mimicking a surfer, shifting my weight back and forth, as I balance on an invisible board. And it’s only now that I really try to access this moment that I realise: despite it being so closely connected with Matthew in my head — as though he were dancing with me — I can’t see him in the frame. Was he even there? What year was this song released? Did I even dance? I was so sure that I did.

This uncertainty is characteristic of my memories of Matthew. There is just so much by which they are mediated. There’s the simple interruption of time and biology — does anyone remember anything clearly before they were five? Then there’s the possible interjection of trauma — could my mind be trying to protect me from the loss and chaos that might now accompany these memories? And there’s always the fickleness of documentation — we seem to think that if we capture a moment in words or photographs or video that it will remain as it was in that moment. But documentation means little without context, and I can’t begin to situate these fragments in a time, place, circumstance, or emotion. Any meaning I attach to them is retrospective, informed by the eclectic bits of information I have tried to weave into some sort of memory mosaic. This can’t tell me what one was thinking or feeling when one danced to The Offspring, or sat with two mates, smiling for a photograph that would come to be treasured by a grieving family.

If you read this mosaic — these words, images, sounds and smells — it won’t tell you anything. But there’s a freedom in having to find other ways to understand memory, moments, and what they can do to and with us.

Part IV: A fairly adequate reconstruction

My admission that I remember little of Matthew — including even the sound of his voice — tends to elicit sympathy. I don’t understand this. I can imagine that it would be nice to recall a moment with some certainty as to what was happening and how I or others were feeling, that this might bring some comfort or catharsis. But there can be comfort in uncertainty too.

I can only speak for myself — effectively a baby at the time of Matthew’s passing — but I’ve come to accept and respect my cognitive gaps. How I describe what I did yesterday might be completely different to how someone else would describe my day. This doesn’t mean anyone is ‘wrong’, just that we’re using different resources for our respective tellings. I might highlight the sensorial elements of experience; another who cannot access this information might provide a clinical, procedural recount of what happened when, in which place, and with which concurrent events.

My resources for remembering Matthew are at once scant and full to the brim. Time, date, and place are useless to me, but the will to sit with fragments and flashes, and honour the labour of imagination enables me to play with the possibility of particular memories, while understanding their limitations and omissions.

I cannot retrieve the resources I never had, nor imbue my stories with any more ‘truth value’ than that of Dylan’s ‘rolling stone’. But I can accept them for what they are, can be, and can do. I can think of the moments that I am able to construct with humility and gratitude. I can treat the moments recalled by others with the same reverence, and do my best to understand the resources from which they are weaved.

Sometimes, though, I can simply accept their value as stories; I can leave questions of ‘accuracy’ to the wind, and appreciate the mere act of remembering and sharing the moments that we believe have had some hand in shaping who we think we are. I happily tend toward the latter.

Written on Sunday, December 25, 2016, in the granny flat on Hammond Road, originally published on my personal blog.

Edit: I was going to wait until I got home to upload this, as I’m currently on the bus from Sydney to Melbourne. However, pulling out from Central, I look to my left and notice a cafe called ‘Cafe du Nord’, which reminded me to google whether Perec referred to the “Gare de Lyon” or the “Gare du Nord” (fittingly, I couldn’t remember). Then, not two minutes into the trip, vintage Offspring plays on the radio (‘Self Esteem’ to be exact, which I think is on Smash?). So here I am, tethering my phone to my laptop, and hoping that neither run out of battery before I make it to Southern Cross (they almost certainly will).