The Mission Memory

Furnishing our Present with Specters of the Past

Illustration by Jesse Reisch

This article first appeared in the November/December 1996 issue.

MY MEMORIES ARE DANGEROUS. DANGEROUS TO ME, dangerous to others. If you have a look that jibes with one of my memories, I may like or dislike you without reason and our lives may change because of that. One memory can stop me from an act that seems beneficial, while another goads me into trouble. My memories are both indelible and unstable. They appear unsummoned and disappear -without warning, as though with a will of their own. A fragrance, a color, a snatch of song can gladden or depress me. I can’t escape my memories, but when one has departed, I can rarely make it return / can’t, but a stranger’s laugh or an old-model car turning the corner can.

How much of my inner life is at the mercy of memories that seem forgotten? I get word that a childhood friend has died. I haven’t thought of him in 30 years not once and might never have thought of him again if left to myself; yet, by chance I hear that he’s dead and the memory of him overwhelms me, and I am sad for a week. Where did he go, within me all that time? And what gives that memory the power to change my days so unexpectedly I break appointments, drink too much, sit and stare out the window? And then an essay I’d been unable to finish (hence a paycheck I’d been unable to collect) suddenly becomes clear, the words tumble out of me (and the rent will be paid), and all because a memory that had been hiding suddenly came out into the open.

Memories change. They contradict each other. The memory you have of someone at 10 is not the same as the memory of the same person that you’ll have at 20, at 50, at 80. At the age of 10, I had a father, but not really. Papa worked, but there wasn’t any money, and then he was gone, and there really wasn’t any money. There was welfare and illness and evictions and terrible fear, and then children’s homes, but no Papa anywhere. And then, years later, I am 27: a good and gentle man becomes my friend. He is my blood, he is the man I was named after, he is my father, and over the years we laugh and take drives and talk and argue, not a boy and a man, but a man and a man. And the memory of that coward of my youth, who called himself, and was, my father, shape-shifts with the memory of this friend of my manhood, who is the same man, but not really. The memories eat at each other and collide.

I remember my mother, so pretty when I was a boy, and how everyone laughed when I promised to marry her. I remember her weeping when there was no money. I remember her sudden incandescence when she went mad, her seriousness, her humor, her brilliance. And then I am full grown and she is an old woman, selfish, receding, willful, a woman I have little to do with. I speak to one of my brothers, I speak to my sister, of that very same woman, that very same man, our parents, and they don’t know who I’m talking about! And I don’t know who they’re talking about! We sit in a room and speak, and the room fills up with memories, and we can hardly see each other through those memories.

Within everyone is a cacophony of memories, many songs being played at once by many instruments in different keys. As still as I may sit, my life is sometimes an almost indecipherable inner noise, the noise of many memories vying with one another to rise into my awareness or sink deep beneath it. Images of childhood, distant friends and long-gone loves mingle with fresher impressions of people at work and last night’s meal, and all these mix with snatches of symphonies, scenes from movies, passages from books, advertising jingles every single one a memory. All these jostle one another in a continuous flow, interrupting whatever I try to think about. For interruption is one of the qualities of memory. Memory is always insisting upon itself, pushing upon our consciousness whenever our concentration upon the present lapses. Memory’s assertion is so constant that we don’t think of it as an intrusion; we just take it as a matter of course that this is the way the mind works. Which is to say: the way the mind works is to boil constantly with an unending flow of memory.

And this was true in far quieter times than ours: the great Zen meditators of centuries past wrote again and again about how difficult it is to achieve a single moment of clear mind-fulness, which they defined as a single moment free of the images of memory. I try to find some coherence among my cacophony of memory, and I call that effort my life. But it is a life made of, and lived in response to, memory.

When we walk down the street, our memories accompany us. How many faces do you see on the street that are open to the present, that react spontaneously and without fear to what’s around them? To see such a face in a month in a year! is an event. The faces we see, and the faces we carry, are closed, and behind those set expressions is a turmoil of memories held in check. The deep sadness on face after face on any street in any city in the world what is it but a kind of benign gargoyle that fronts the cathedral of our memories and wards off onlookers from the cavorting of our fantasies fantasies that are merely memories at play?

The clothes we wear every day are, literally, our memories or a reaction against them, an attempt to display or conceal them. The businessman, the therapist, the teacher, wearing clothes designed not to be too personal an expression, are walking about concealing their memories. The punk kid with outrageous hair (who actually comes from a nice suburban home) is doing the same. The Texan who’s never been on a ranch but dresses like a cowboy is both concealing his real memories and claiming a memory he never lived. The young actress who comes to Hollywood and dresses to stun with her beauty is obliterating her common memories for an image (i.e., a memory) of glamour. We wear our memories, or the denial of them, on our backs.

We furnish our rooms with our memories, and our resistance to them. How much is your home like your parents’? How many objects in your home are mementos, reminders? How many middle-aged men drive Chevys because their fathers did, or won’t drive Fords because their fathers wouldn’t and don’t even consciously remember that that’s the reason for their choice? How many marriages begin and/or end because of some inner or outer resemblance of our spouse to a parent? As our children grow, they are always in competition with our own memories of them how they were as infants, how they were when they were most delightful (usually before adolescence). And in their eyes, we are always being compared to the parents they once idolized, the parents who knew everything. All of us accompany each other through a labyrinth of ever-shifting memories, and the memories are so strong that should a day or hour come when we truly feel we see each other, see each other right now, that is an event! And it quickly becomes what? Another memory just another memory in contest with all those memories that once, as a living moment, it had the grace to escape from.

Life, in this sense, is made of memory. Memory is its substance. Or rather: memory is what life becomes, virtually as soon as life begins. The present is constantly, almost furiously, becoming memory. By the time we go to bed tonight, the events of today will live within us not with the multiplicity of the present but with the selective focus of memory what we concentrated upon, what was important to us, will stand out, rather than the flux of the event. We are never quite in the present, but are always meeting the present. And what we meet it with is memory the expectations, habits, desires and fears that began as events and then were transmuted through memory into behavior. We go to business appointments with our moves choreographed by our memories of other appointments. We date a prospective lover both energized and hampered by our experiences of other lovers. We raise our second child constantly counseled by our memories of the first. Memory is always our insistent companion.

Every response, every belief, every action, every emotion can be seen as a wave of memory breaking on the rocky shore of the present. And the impact of the present is gauged by how much it becomes memory, how it joins, or fails to join, our memories and the place it takes among them. A day or a month when nothing happens much differently from what’s already happened, a time when nothing makes a significantly new impression, is blank to us pleasing, perhaps, in its safety and predictability, yet not really memorable. Which is to say: not really lived, for we mark and judge our lives by the memorable.

The present only stays present for a fleeting instant, and then most of it is lost entirely and irrecoverably while some of it, a few impressions, take on new life as memory. An automobile accident, a visit to a foreign country, the onset of an illness or its cure, a child being born or getting into trouble or leaving home, getting or losing a coveted job, the leave-taking or death of a parent those are the stories we tell, to ourselves, to others and to our therapists. And even then the memory is different from what happened. As C.S. Lewis wrote, of his grief for his dead wife: “Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. . . . The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness will be gone.”

When something becomes memory, it becomes us, a part of us, and it begins to behave as we do. How can that not be so? For we remember what we related to. We remember our “selections,” as Lewis put it. But as for the actual person we are trying to remember, their “otherness” is gone. Their freedom to act. To change. Their unpredictability. Their power to influence us, without the filters that are inherent in how and what we remember. So as time passes, we cannot be sure how much of what we remember is a re-creation in our own images. Your mother as she was when you were young, and your childhood friends, and your old flames become almost fictional, like characters in a novel. They can’t phone you, surprise you, upset you, challenge you not in the form in which you knew them. So memory is a kind of eating. It’s how we consume and subsume others. When others become our memories, they become what we are. How we highlighted their qualities, what they meant to us as time goes on, that is what’s emphasized by our memories, while the real person is slowly lost. We look into the mirror of memory and think we see another, but in so many subtle ways, all we really are seeing is our own reflection.

We look at photographs, attempting to ignite our memories and to keep an accurate vision of those who have left our lives and those who remained but have changed with age. But something terrible has happened here. The photos have taken the place of what might have been our memories. Lovers and friends I’ve lost track of I have to really work to separate the memories from the photos. I feel cheated, fooled. In my effort to keep these people, somehow I’ve lost them even more than if there had been no photographs. Today, no personal image, no reflection, even and most especially our own, is untainted by borrowed imagery. For we live in an era when images abound by the million, by the billion, on screens, on posters, everywhere, inescapably. Even the shanties of the poor in the horrid subcities surrounding the new megalopolises of South America and Asia are wallpapered, literally, with movie posters and pages torn from magazines that feature glossy images of models and performers. Media is like a labyrinth of memory we are lost within. For memory is imagery. Imagery is the means by which memories adhere to consciousness.

Your memories are not only your life thousands of hours of movies and television have taken root in your consciousness. We can’t help it, we constantly compare the scenes of our lives with scenes from the movies, and in the depths of memory, these scenes blend; the images of actors become archetypal for us, and they cavort in our dreams as autonomously as the most crucial people of our direct experience. It’s as though our dreams can’t tell the difference.

If our dreams can’t tell the difference, that means we can’t tell the difference, not really, not in our depths. We are perceiving something as experience that is not experience, but is, rather, a fantastic puppet show that uses real people, real eyes and hands and legs. Consciously, we pretend to know the difference, but our dreams, our depths, have been fooled utterly.

Our memories have been augmented and altered by the bombardment of images that is our new electronic environment. This is what’s qualitatively new today about our relationship to our precious memories, the substance of our very lives. Before this century of motion pictures, televisions, glossy magazines and advertising, we were not constantly confronted with images of other human beings upon which to project our inner lives. Before the motion picture, it was rare to see other people kiss, be naked or do violence. One rarely experienced intimacies not one’s own. But now the heightened projections of movies and TV have cast their stark and lurid light inward, upon memory. Many, especially those born since 1950 and brought up in front of televisions, live in a confusion (all but taken for granted) between the real and the media-induced when it comes to the memory of something as fundamental and intimate as a kiss.

No wonder so many sit before televisions half the night; the television has become easier to remember than ourselves. And no wonder our faces, as we walk the street, are so set in sadness: so much of what we remember now isn’t even ours.

And the little that is ours, is ours alone. Until only a few decades ago, most of us lived in stable communities. We saw our neighbors and families and workmates year in and year out over the course of a lifetime. Your memory wasn’t your singular burden. Others remembered you over the course of your life. And they rarely moved far away; they were there, supporting your memory, remembering you every day as you remembered them. You couldn’t forget yourself, because they wouldn’t forget you. And they wouldn’t forget your family. For each family kept not only its own history but the history of the other families in the tribe, the village, the neighborhood, going back generations. Their memories of one another and their memories of their community were ‘refreshed by constant conversation.

Yes, this was in many ways confining. It wasn’t easy for people to reinvent themselves in such a world. When Jesus came back to Nazareth and spoke his truths, the community that had known him all his life said, “Who is he to speak to us this way? He’s just the son of Mary!” And Jesus concluded that a prophet was not without honor except in his own birthplace. Our contemporary lack of community allows for unheard-of freedoms, not the least of which is the freedom to reinvent oneself, but the price for this freedom is our loss of memory. Our constantly shifting communities cannot remember themselves. Unless you become quite famous (which is to say, separate), the city you live in cannot remember you. The burden of memory is now put wholly upon you, scattered family members and a few distant friends and across these distances, you and your friends already are memories to each other, memories reinvigorated by occasional visits.

It can be said that America was founded upon the sacrifice of memory on the capacity of a person to leap away from the grip of centuries of history. But then it must also be said the price of America’s promise has been our fragility of identity, our sense of loneliness, of having no place that is solidly our own, no place that remembers us as we remember it. Even psychotherapy, which is one of the ways through which we observe and remember each other in the most detail, has yet to consider how many of us have been crashed by the enormous effort to remember ourselves and our families alone, without the reinforcement of community.

Isn’t this a way of saying that we each are now forced to remember our collective history alone? Millions of books line the shelves, thousands of people tune into the History Channel, but history is too huge it can be fully remembered only by a people, a culture. It cannot be remembered alone. No matter how much you may know about the Civil War or the Depression, the history of first-century Judea, or the life of Thomas Jefferson, one person can only retain fragments, and that’s not enough knowledge to make itself felt daily in a culture. Only shared knowledge, shared memory, becomes a cultural force. But with historical memory, we are more and more alone alone in a world of images blasted into our consciousness from entertainments and advertisements, until one’s grasp of reality becomes less and less sure. As images subvert every memory, private and collective, intimate and historical, it becomes harder and harder to pierce through them to some reality. We live now in a chaos of imagery.

So it is no wonder that studies are published nearly every month detailing what our children cannot remember. Most of our kids don’t know in what century the Civil War was fought, nor the decades when the World Wars and Vietnam occurred. How can children pierce the electronic trivialization of our collective memory and find firm ground? How can children remember, when there’s no community to remind them, no constant environment of older people who are the memory for the young? It is no wonder that kids now punctuate their sentences with “like” and “sort of,” as in, “Like, it was, like, sort of a sad thing, and I sort of just, like, stood there.” This is language that speaks of the shattering of impressions and the uncertainty of memory. It is language that speaks of an unendurable sense of bafflement that must yet be endured, because it is life. What kind of witnesses can such children grow to be to others, to themselves and to history? What can they pass on when the afterimage, the memory, of any event must be as broken as their language?

A devastation has occurred. For theirs is the language of pulverized identity both personally and collectively and what is a sense of identity but the primary function of memory? “Just, like, sort of” is the language of unspeakable loneliness, of being almost without memory in the face of events, for these children are assaulted at all times, and on all sides, by too many images for their memories to be distinguished as their own. I can imagine no more disorienting loneliness.

If you would see the disorientation in one of its more pathetic forms, drive across America during the summer. At Monument Valley, the Hopi Mesas, Canyon de Chelly, Key West, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park and the Big Bend over and over you see families pop out of their minivans with their minicams, sweep the view with their video equipment and their still-cameras, pop back into their vans and drive off. Usually, they snipe and gripe at each other throughout the exercise, smiling only for the camera. They stay 10 minutes at places it would take long, quiet hours and days truly to see. When you notice family after family in place after place behave in exactly the same manner, you can’t mistake it for anything but a state of trance. No one is actually having an experience, for they have become convinced that the only worthy form of memory is that which can be electronically recorded. They are limiting their experience, and therefore their memory, to what can be electronically recorded, i.e., electronically remembered. They will go home and watch their tapes on television watch them twice and three times, perhaps, showing these scenes to neighbors and Mends, spending more time watching the tapes than they spent at the actual scene. Their capacity for memory has been so devastated that only when these vistas are flattened and reduced can they bear them. Only on their televisions does the beauty appear real to them. They open their memories only in the controlled and contained environment of their living rooms. When the children of these people speak their shattered, fragmented syntax, it is because their experience has been shattered.

Such “vacations” are only the most public example of this electronic memory. In small towns and big cities, at least one window in almost every house is lit at night with the moonlike glow of a television screen. This phenomenon is draining the history, the memory, from all of us.

If we are never quite in the present, but always meeting the present, and if what we meet the present with is memory then what memories do these people possess with which to meet their (and our) present? How can such a people retain and remember their part of the collective history? What have they to pass on? History disappears behind them as they destroy the experience of the present.

Therefore some of our history, yours and mine, disappears, too, because we cannot carry our history alone. That is the nature of collective memory. We are not always in each other’s presence, but we are always in each other’s culture, so what happens to you in some way happens to me. That is the secret and the message of memory. Hence we willy-nilly enter each other whether we like it or not, through the subtle intercourse of memory.

Your destruction of memory becomes part of my memory. It can’t be helped. Will it work like a computer virus and slowly destroy my capacity for memory as well? And your work to discover and explore memory be it through art, psychotherapy or the way you live your intimacies also becomes part of my memory. That, too, can’t be helped or stopped. Why else are artists and thinkers and anyone who works in the service of humankind valued? Will your work meld with mine in some observable or not-so-observable way? Have we forgotten, in this destructive age, that construction works upon the same principle as destruction which is, simply, that one thing leads to another?

Memory is how we become part of each other. Whatever dances our memories perform within us, however they rise and sink, however they hide and then suddenly reappear, however dangerous or tempting or inspiring they are, however they ambush, threaten and challenge us memories are the most common, and (though untouchable) the most tangible, experience we have of one another. They are how we become one another’s experience.

Henry Miller was fond of quoting his friend Fred Perles: “The mission of man on earth is to remember.” To re-member. To put back together. To re-attach a lost member. “My memory stammers,” James Baldwin wrote, and my memory does stammer as it re-members, puts back together. My memory is imperfect because it is my memory, particular and fragmented, but it is all I have to offer everyone I’ve shared life with. My mother is dead. When I remember her, I am putting her back together and participating in the mission of humanity with my mother, my father, my family, my lovers, my friends some are dead and all of us are dying, and through memory we are putting each other back together as best we can. And passing each other on to the future passing each other on as memory.

For humanity has always believed that to remember through storytelling, through art, through religion, through intense silence, through talk, through therapy, whatever is its mission. People living in utter obscurity will write their names, or the names of their lovers, on a wall. Why? It is an act of defiant memory. It is the most distinctive human gesture. Not the use of tools; many mammals use tools. Not laughter, loyalty, love or even language; the more we know about our fellow mammals, the more we understand how they share these qualities. But the name or sign scrawled on a fence or carved on a tree, the graffiti in a bathroom or the hieroglyphics on a tomb that is what’s most distinctively human about human beings. The compulsion to record and share memory.

My memories are dangerous, and so are yours, because they are alive because they insist upon themselves, because they play by their own rules, and in many strange ways (and these words are not the least of them) they demand to be recognized, re-cognized, known again, seen again, remembered. Brought back to life. Because life is so strong that experience itself refuses to die without a struggle. A fragrance, a stranger’s laugh, a snatch of song may bring the most hidden experience, long past, back into the present to be dealt with, lived through again, learned from or not it, the experience, may fulfill or upset you, may reveal or destroy you, yet even by destroying you, it has lived again.

For there is an insistence within experience itself to continue, to go on to the next thing yet keep its identity a kind of life after death. That insistence is what we call memory.


Illustration by Jesse Reisch

Michael Ventura

Michael Venturas biweekly column appears in the Austin Chronicle.