Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognize elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognize.— Northrop Frye, The Great Code
In Augustine’s Confessions—the original of the species of literary prayers—he devotes a whole chapter to memory. It is as fine a psychological and spiritual study of that faculty as you could find anywhere. Like a stone in the palm he turns it over and over, tracing out the striata, smoothing its roughness, feeling its weight and shape. He ponders the strangeness that he can remember remembering just as he can remember forgetting, and that somehow forgetting must also be in his memory. “Who can fathom such a thing,” he marvels, “or make any sense of it?”
The book was written a decade after his baptism into the Catholic Church on April 25, 387 CE. The chapter is like a traffic roundabout that directs the story of the events that drew him—both feverish for God and anguished at surrendering up his old ways—around toward the climactic moment in the garden of a friend’s house when his defenses gave way before a tidal surge of longing for belonging. All of that before he spun off in another direction to discuss the Trinity.
Like a viral agent, Augustine gets in through the weak places in our skin of defenses. As much as I rise with him to that summit of emotion at conversion, it’s the passages on memory that I’m most vulnerable to these days since my memory itself seems increasingly vulnerable. Of all the potholes in the road to life’s end the ones that I swerve to avoid the most have to do with losing my memory. Even more than going blind, that seems the worst of the fates, because as Augustine says, “my memory is me.” So I build habits and routines that can bridge my absentmindedness and defuse my anxiety.
Augustine’s analogies reveal him seeking out the deep crevices where memory hides in the mind or striding down the aisles in a capacious warehouse, or pausing at one of many doors in a long corridor to the past. He searches confusedly until “the dim thing sought arrives at last, fresh from depths.” In an envy-producing flourish he boasts that some things are brought up easily, properly sequenced and recalled at will, “which happens whenever I recite a literary passage by heart.” We should all be so lucky.
Alas, my current experience has me hacking my way through a landscape tangled with kudzu into a formless forest with few distinguishing marks. More positively, I see myself swimming from island to island in the sea of memory, regarding them as the tips of sea mounts that go down into the darkest depths, but give us stability in the meantime.
I’ve also realized that for some years now I’ve been re-experiencing some of the pivotal artists and musicians who have helped to construct my inner world. Without design, but surely with some intent, I’ve collected concert videos of Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul McCartney’s “Good Evening New York!” and Billy Joel’s “Live at Shea” concert, along with most of U2’s concert videos, as well as reading biographies of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, CSN, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Mick Jagger. These are of a piece with going back to books I’ve picked up over the years about Edward Hopper, Paul Klee, Georges Rouault, Marc Chagall, and Wassily Kandinsky—artists whose works are the windows of my soul. Their music and their art evoke the memories that continue to form my experience.
As I write, it is 37 years ago that John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota in New York City. As hard as it is to imagine, he would have been 77this year. He died at 40 in 1980 and will be, as Dylan sang, “forever young.” Like many of us, “midway through this life he awoke in a dark wood.” I wanted to see him grow older, and to understand how he found his way out, and what his wit and wonder might have created had he lived.
Which brings me back to memories and the loss thereof, and the regaining of them through our tricks to stay afloat, as well as the silent entrance of memories half-formed, but more strongly sensed only when our striving ceases and our fences drop.
All those years ago, John said it well:
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all
— In My Life
We are both the shapers and the shaped when it comes to our identities. We are drawn to those in the arts who sing our stuttering words, who sculpt our unformed desires and paint our fears in light. As Northrop Frye says in the epigram, our imaginations recognize what we may not consciously see. When we need it, it will appear. Like the Zen saying goes, “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will arrive.”
Sometimes memory is a slow train.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, for 28 years. He is now adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C., and adjunct professor in business communication at Stevenson University, Maryland. This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog, Dante’s Woods. It is reprinted here with permission.
Image Credit: Guilherme Stecanella / Unsplash.com
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