22 February 2011

Memory Relentless

I have a memory of an interview on National Public Radio from a few years back with Maurice Sendak. In the interview he expressed a depressing view of his own life and his memories of it. The gist of this (my own memory is fuzzy enough that this is not verbatim) was that he found his memories to be relentless; that he would associate from one thing to another and it was inevitable that he would eventually arrive at something painful, too painful to escape from to a next painless association.That is not exactly what he said, but I can clearly recall his use of the word "relentless".

One of the stories which he told of his early life was unforgettable. His family was first or second generation in the United States; they were Jews who had immigrated from Poland. All of their family that stayed behind were wiped out by the Germans in the war. This was a horrible experience to be related to, but it contaminated their American life. He said his mother would not allow him to forget it for a day. If he was late to the dinner table, his mother would tell him, "your cousin Benjamin would love to be able to come to the dinner table on time, but he can't because the Nazis killed him."

Now Sendak was born in 1928. Unless they had some special inside information (possible but not likely) Maurice was 17 years old in 1945 when the full horror of what happened in Poland during the war finally became common knowledge. When I heard this story on the radio, I thought "my God what a horrible thing to say to a child." This was the tone in which he presented it. I was surprised when I looked at the dates because, although that is a horrible thing to say to a child, a seventeen-year-old is not a child; and I wonder if he was not exaggerating for effect and even perhaps he might have made the whole thing up.

The other strange thing in the interview was he said he was in psychoanalysis for 25 years and he had never been happy until just recently. It was a rather sad presentation for such an apparently successful writer and man. Perhaps those of us with less relentless memories are very fortunate.

1 comment:

M said...

Despite the feeble quality of what is typically considered "normal memory" we brazenly reconstruct our own set-in-stone "reality" from the most fugitive of impressions. This point was really driven home to me on a visceral level by engaging in the visual memory training of 19th century French artist Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Basically you go into a room for five or ten minutes and try to absorb and memorize a particular visual display--a still-life, for example. You then go into an adjacent room and attempt to graphically reproduce from memory the exact visual set-up that you just studied intently. You then go back and compare the drawing from memory to the real thing. Suffice to say, this type of feedback reveals an incredible amount of inaccurate visual laxity and precision (although it improves with practice) while amplifying the assumptive proclivity of human recollection(winging it). And if most of our thoughts are memory emanations and reconstructions, any talk of objective analysis, especially when it comes to fleeting or emotionally traumatic incidents, seems like a incredibly daunting task.

And perhaps that is why certain meditation practices, such as the Taoist Water tradition, seek to simply dissolve that which was never accurately apprehended in the first place.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.