Jun 7 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 06 here.)

I.

These actions [of remembrance] are inward, in the vast hall of my memory. There sky, land, and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten. There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it….

––St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE)[1]

One of my motives for starting this series is to get to know contemporary fiction better. For recently I’ve had more luck getting my non-fiction writing published.[2] But I haven’t quite given up on fiction, though I think I need more practice. So I won’t deny that I study the stories in this series in hopes of one day becoming a better fiction writer.

Again, the essence of a story is its center of gravity—the thing holding together what would otherwise be a chaotic mass of random thoughts. The essence of a story doesn’t necessarily confine that story to a particular “form.” No, the essence of the story doesn’t necessarily formalize its story. Why? Because the essence may organize that chaotic mass of random thoughts into something only slightly less random than it would be without an essence. Just a few steps away from oblivion might be all it takes for something Dadaist to arrive at definition.

In other words, something out of the chaos of the page suddenly renders itself in the mind of the reader; something in-and-of the story is realized to be significant, weighty, and indeed, grave. Whatever appears grave gathers the attention of onlookers, which is why we rubberneck at the residue of fatal car collisions as we continue to contribute to rush-hour traffic. So too does the reader’s attention become centered on such gravity. Thus the essence is indeed a story’s center of gravity.

II.

Memory’s huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and reconsidered. Every one of them enters into memory, each by its own gate, and is put on deposit there….

––Augustine [3]

The essence of “The Unraveling,” (via New Pop Lit) a short story by Tianna Grosch of the woodlands of Pennsylvania, occurs when Dex, a card shark conman, somehow witnesses his wife-girlfriend Elizabeth being fatally thrown out a six-story window. Yes “somehow,” because either Dex, or someone coming to collect Dex’s debt, threw her through the glass. Or perhaps she threw herself out. In Elizabeth’s last moments she mentions having been pregnant, so maybe she aborted her pregnancy, and once Dex found out he pushed her in a fit of rage. Or perhaps she felt so guilty about the abortion that she jumped herself (again, it’s never fully explained to readers; and that’s okay).

But regardless of what really happened to Elizabeth, Dex feels guilty. The narrator is unknown, unnamed, and tells the story almost completely from Dex’s point of view. There is, however, an extended flashback from the point of view of the doctors of Lethe who perform the memory-removing procedure on Dex, and there are indications that it may have been a botched operation.

Grosch leaves lots of possibilities up to her readers, but most of the story’s underlying concern is about Dex seeking a way to forget his horrible memory. So the essence might be about a guy presently wanting to forget his past fuck-ups. Philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983), although he was discussing group behavior rather than that of individuals, once remarked:

A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in … reckless strivings.[4]

Dex certainly doesn’t glorify his past; but, being human-all-too-human, he probably has an exaggerated view of that past. Thus it might be said that “The Unraveling” is a story of his reckless strivings.

“The Unraveling” takes place in an unnamed city, one in which about the only details a reader can gather are that this city has gamblers, violence, and a subway. But throughout most of the story Dex is trying to get to the town on the outskirts of the city called Lethe. It seems like a place almost impossible to get to, not unlike the impossible journey to get beyond the city limits in Alex Proya’s film Dark City (1998), a film whose tone and mood reminded me much of “The Unraveling.”

III.

How then can [memory] fail to grasp [itself]? This question moves me to great astonishment.…

––Augustine [5]

Like Grosch’s narrator, the narrator of the story “Jonah and the Frog” (via Five on the Fifth) by Texas writer James Wade is also unknown, unnamed, and tells the story completely from Jonah’s point of view. The essence of this story occurs when the character of Jonah vomits up a living frog––a frog which seems to represent Jonah’s struggle to excrete a painful memory, but one never fully explained to readers. It is clear, however, that Jonah seeks to purge some unknown guilt.

In literature, a frog is usually something between vermin and varmint––not quite a bug, not quite a beast––but in her novel Barren Ground (1925) Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) once compared painful memories to a beast:

Recollection. Association. It was morbid, she told herself sternly, to cherish such fancies; and yet she had never been able entirely to rid her memory of the fears and dreads of her childhood. Worse than this even was the haunting thought that the solitude was alive, that it skulked there in the distance, like a beast that is waiting for the right moment to spring and devour.[6]

Based on mentions throughout the story of “the docks,” “the water”––as well as “The Quarter” being a place where one can publically drink all night––I suspect “Jonah and the Frog” takes place in New Orleans. And in this story, Jonah spits out a frog; somewhat of an inverse of the biblical whale/fish spitting out Jonah the Prophet, though I admit connecting modern New Orleans (surrounded by swamps) to ancient Nineveh (modern Mosul, surrounded by desert) seems too weak for a strong reader to seriously contemplate.

IV.

The affections of my mind are also contained in the same memory. They are not there in the same way in which the mind itself holds them when it experiences them, but in another very different way such as that in which the memory’s power holds memory itself. So I can be far from glad in remembering myself to have been glad, and far from sad when I recall my past sadness.

––Augustine[7]

Both stories of “The Unraveling” and “Joshua and the Frog” focus on their aquatic environments. Both leading characters want to purge memories of guilt and regret. In this sense they remind me of the premise to a movie I’ve never seen, Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) starring Jim Carrey, for in that flick Carrey’s character tries to forget an ex-girlfriend via a surgical procedure:

 

Moreover, the theme that memories can never be completely forgotten runs through both stories. I believe that if Dex or Joshua were able to (somehow, paradoxically) convince themselves that their painful memories had left them, it would only be temporary. Eventually the memories, or fragments of them, would return. And when those memories did return, they would feel anamnesis: that is, they would remember something which they thought was unknown but was in fact something they already knew.

Anamnesis is one of the primary lessons Plato tries to teach in his dialogue Meno:

Socrates: ‘one thing I would fight for to the end, both in word and deed if I were able—that if we believed that we must try to find out what is not known, we should be better and braver and less idle than if we believed that what we do not know it is impossible to find out and that we need not even try.’[8]

Compare also Augustine, writing about 800 years after Plato:

The answer must be that they were already in the memory, but so remote and pushed into the background, as if in most secret caverns, that unless they were dug out by someone drawing attention to them, perhaps I could not have thought of them.[9]

And finally, consider Robert Graves (1895–1985):

It is not too much to say that all original discoveries and inventions and musical and poetical compositions are the result of proleptic thought—the anticipation, by means of a suspension of time, of a result that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning—and of what may be called analeptic thought, the recovery of lost events by the same suspension…. This explains why the first Muse of the Greek triad was named Mnemosyne, ‘Memory’: one can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.[10]

Both Dex and Joshua seem too close to their memories—both believe they need some “personal space” from certain mental pictures of their pasts. For Georgian writer Harry Crews (1935–2012): “Nothing is allowed to die,” including memory, “in a society of storytelling people.” Yet, paradoxically, “the only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[11] In other words, memory is a kind of storytelling to oneself, and apparently, neither Joshua nor Dex are capable of coping with their own tales.

And, as Dick Hallorann (a reoccurring character in Stephen King’s oeuvre) knows, memories cannot be completely banished: “Not memories. Never those. They’re the real ghosts,” warns Hallorann in Doctor Sleep (2013), which is the sequel to King’s The Shining (1977).[12] Both novels deal with alcoholism, that is, they deal with people addicted to a substance that allegedly helps them forget unpleasant memories.

Both Dex and Joshua, to their (or their authors’) credit, seek to transcend their memories, not simply destroy them. But by (mostly) destroying them, they prevent themselves from transcending them, as the hero Paul is able to do in Frank Herbert’s (1920–1986) Dune (1965):

He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future…. Things persisted in not being what they seemed…. He felt carnival excitement in the air. He knew what would happen if he drank this spice drug with its quintessence of the substance that brought the change onto him. He would return to the vision of pure time, of time-become-space. It would perch him on the dizzying summit and defy him to understand.[13]

NOTESwood

[1] Augustine, Confessiones in Saint Augustine: Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) X, viii (§14), p. 186.

[2] On language, religion, tradition: “Custom Versus Culture: A Modest Distinction,” Real Clear News, (Chicago), August 14, 2017. On recent Confederate statue removal at UT: “Between history and myth in Austin, Texas,” Fortnightly Review, (London), November 2017. On comparing Prince William’s recent haircut to Donald Trump’s: “A charming sense of novelty,” Fortnightly Review, (London), February 2018.

[3] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§13), p. 186.

[4] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §50, p. 68.

[5] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§15), p. 187.

[6] Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground. 1925, (New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. – Old Dominion Edition, 1945) I, v, 58.

[7] Augustine, Confessiones, X, xiv (§21), p. 191.

[8] Plato, Meno (85C–86E) in Rouse, W. H. D. Great Dialogues of Plato, ed. Eric H. Warmington & Philip G. Rouse, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, (New York: Mentor Books, 1956, Twelfth printing) p. 51.

[9] Augustine, Confessiones X, x (§17), p. 189. See also (X, viii (§12), p. 185) where the translator Chadwick notes:

Memoria for Augustine is a deeper and wider term than our ‘memory’. In the background lies the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, explaining the experience of learning as bringing to consciousness what, from an earlier existence, the soul already knows. But Augustine develops the notion of memory by associating it with the unconscious (‘the mind knows things it does not know it knows’), with self-awareness, and so with the human yearning for true happiness found only in knowing God.

[10] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: a historical grammar of poetic myth, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1948; Second Edition, 1975) 343.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 4, 126.

[12] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 45.

[13] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books Premium Edition, 2010), “II. Muad’Dib,” 583.