Tuesday 7 November 2023

Memory is Curious, Capricious

   Memory is curious, capricious, incalculable, inexplicable, like all other realities. What is it? Is it a thread? No, rather a nerve rivulet conveying what is left over of a vital experience from somewhere in the past to the present instant. The loss of memory begins with attenuating this flow until it almost stops. Thereupon this something that hitherto had a warmth, as if it were an extension, no matter how remote, of our blood-stream, ceases to be part of us, never to be reintegrated with ourselves, even if we do recapture it and save it for mere use. So much of what only the other day seemed part and parcel of my mental furniture has faded and vanished before I have perceived it. Could I have retained it with timely effort? I could not have believed that I would forget my Greek irregular verbs, the dates of the kings of England, the succession of our presidents, the rivers, the capitals, the boundaries of our individual states. I find that I am forgetting them or have lost them already. Huge lumps of memory break away and melt into oblivion. Why? How? Is memory a tablet, a palimpsest, criss-crossed and written over and over, till no ground is visible through a tangle of inextricable confusion? It that why we cease to retain easily and then not at all after a certain age, and why the tablet breaks off at the edges and cracks in the middle? Again, memory seems to act as if it consisted of a pile of photographic negatives. During our best years these negatives present themselves unbidden when wanted. Now they ignore my orders. What has happened? Have they failed in energy and readiness, have they failed in energy and readiness, have they faded, or is it my ego that can no longer command their obedience?
Bernard Berenson, Sketch for a Self-Portrait (New York: Pantheon, 1949), pp. 15-16.