- on gingko
- on the durability of collections
- on remembering storytelling games
- on how i lost my memory on inauguration day
- on the old and the new
- on repetition
- on forgetting
1. on gingko
An advertisement persuaded me that a substance called gingko biloba
(origin unknown, but very likely to be from the jungles of South
America) was good for the memory. This appealed to me. With more
memory, I reasoned, I would have more knowledge - I would know more
people, recall more emotions, pass more exams. I would have more
in my mind. Whilst musing along these lines, I chanced upon an artefact
designed for the very purpose of recalling knowledge, to wit, a
book, entitled Theatres of Memory (Verso, 1994) by one Raphael
Samuel, which provided a ready confirmation of my suspicions. This
is what I read:
Memory, according to the ancient Greeks, was the precondition
of human thought. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was also the
goddess of wisdom, the mother of the muses ... and therefore in
the last analysis the progenitor of all the arts and sciences ...
Requiring no further persuasion, and without any further delay,
I obtained a supply of small brown pills; one of which I swallowed
religiously first thing in the morning, every morning. And then
I waited for the memories to (re)appear.
Whilst waiting for the memories to kick in, it might pass the time
to wonder about what we mean by memories, and what they mean to
us. What does it mean to recall a sensation, situation or sensibility?
On the one hand, we have abstracted, Enlightenmented accounts of
the past. There are structures in place to preserve the Apollonian
memory of dates and details, of kings and things. But, as Jerzy
Grotowski also said (and still says, somewhere), "We have in our
body an ancient body, a reptile body, one can say."
In an interview, Lyall Watson (author of Jacobson's Organ and
the Remarkable Nature of Smell, W.W. Norton & Company: 2000)
claims that smell brings back the most memories, and that we react
the most instinctively - that is to say, the most physically - to
smell. The thing is, smell, that primal function, involves our material
interaction with our environment. We see in the distance, we touch
from the outside, but to smell requires that we make the outside
part of our inside, that we establish it as part of ourselves.
So what do we remember of and with our reptile brains? What Old
Self lurks there? Who peers at us through these hazes of rationalisations,
elucidations and interpretations? What kind of knowledge is hidden
there? Do repressed memories, in fact, return? Are memories kept
at a boil under the pressure cooker of the Superego? Will memory
erupt if left unchecked? Two possible metaphors of memory right
there: Is it food or volcano?
And what about emotional memory? In recalling what something felt
like, you need to relive it, to make it present, to make it real.
Perhaps the trigger, the repetition which recalls a certain emotion,
is not an act of unearthing, as in depth psychology, but rather
a demonstration and re-enactment. So, to remember an emotion is
to recreate it, and it becomes an emotion of the moment. Repeating
this sensation leads one to believe that emotions might be permanent,
or, at the very least, consistent, yet it's simply the repetition
and the recall of a habit (as Hume would have it) or a ritual (if
you're more into that sort of thing).
A third interesting aspect of memory (besides its relation to the
body and emotions) is the idea that thoughts about the past might
prove to be as substantial (or substanceless, for that matter) as
thoughts about the future. To even begin to think about the past
is to think about it as completed, as having reached its apotheosis
in this very moment. Yet what is ever completed? What is ever finished?
Life, eventually, perhaps.
So anyway, to get back to the experiment with the pills - what
happened? Was I, in fact, able to achieve the recovery of my mind,
body and emotions?
Well, what happened was that at some point, after possibly as long
as eight months, I forgot to restock and somehow stopped my daily
consumption of ginko biloba, the magic memory-making meal - and
I seem, for the moment, to have forgotten whether or not they ever
really did much by way of good. But I bought some more the other
day ... just in case.
2. on the durability of collections
More and more I've been suspecting that the durability of recording
devices is on the decline. Wasn't the first writing on stone, and
bone and broken skin? Even clay lasted longer than paper. And now,
here we are with this electricity, this pliable effervescent medium.
It might take a long time to shatter iron and stone, but with one
movement of my finger I could erase, in a matter of seconds, all
At least we don't have to remember lists anymore. Lists are now
a practically forgotten genre of literature, and we bid a fond farewell
to all those long lost litanies of genealogies. Now nothing needs
to be remembered anymore, since knowledge has been retained somewhere,
we hope; and we suppose that we could, at our earliest convenience,
retrieve it from the memory banks, from the data storehouses. But
the thing is, perhaps literacy (and perhaps particularly computer
literacy), is making us remember less, (or helping us to forget,
whichever way you choose to see it). With all these texts about,
it's certainly not a priority to memorise them anymore. At least
not in the much mythologised Western International Conglomerate.
Even education, though no longer (if it ever was) a fount of knowledge,
discourages "learning parrot fashion". Seriously, what would the
point be, today, of learning a list? The only possible reason would
be to prepare for a quiz ... now memories growing shorter ... sms
like ... gr8 ...
And the devices we use to contain this precious storehouse of all
remembered knowledge are now also growing flimsier. The reasons
for this are also perfectly comprehensible: with the relentless
rate of technological innovation, it wouldn't really make much sense
to invest in the longevity of the product you produce. From a manufacturer's
perspective, it would be counter-productive to go for durability,
certainly in the case of the mass market. Maybe - let's hope - some
governments are spending money on storing memories somewhere important
and under lock and key. But are they?
And what is this desire to have the past kept safe somehow? Why
are we collecting all this stuff?
There is that old Greek morality tale about the wisdom of planting
trees for the next generation, and so on. Sure, so maybe that's
one reason to collect - for future generations. Let's get more grain
for the family, let's do it for the gene pool. This could be a good
and moral reason.
So there might still be something laudable in the collector collecting
for others who are yet to come, but the solo collector at the end
of his life is an absurd portrait of despair. I have an image of
an aged Somerset Maugham (the story is told in a biography, the
name of which presently escapes me) clutching at his precious antique
table in his villa in Nice, crying, "If only I could take just take
this beautiful table with me." But then the collector realises:
what for? For whom has he been collecting? Now that he's going to
be dead, there'll be nobody there. He has, quite literally, been
collecting for nobody. Perhaps for the museum. For everybody.
The problem with preserving things for children is that children
require protection. They need space, they need trees to have been
planted for them. And we're running out of space. Why are we obsessed
with not only preserving ourselves and our things but with actually
reproducing ourselves so that our reproductions can look after our
things for us in the future? What avails it us, as the Good Book
says, to shore up treasures? Where's the sense in turning the earth
into a massive archive and retrieval system?
... and yet ...
... if only they hadn't burnt down the library in Alexandria ...
... so often ...
A healthy ecology requires a good waste management system, and
awareness of change. what is preserved, and what is burnt or buried?
What do we protect, what destroy? At least, with so many products
and things and manufactured items and memories littering the world,
it's a good thing they're disposable. At least we can bury them
somewhere, or dump them someplace, or burn them into the air, or
sink them under the sea. That's one worry off my mind.
3. on remembering storytelling games
MEMORY GAME ONE: BIGGER & BETTER
"They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game.
If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they
will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the
- From: Knots, a play by RD Laing, Random House:
Polite, probably male, acquaintances convene at a venue. Let's
call it a party. Perhaps one or two know one or two of the others,
and these could provide useful links between the group. Possibly
some strangers may even announce their names to the others and,
in so doing, exchange information about their situatedness within
a language, a culture, a generation, and even an economic demographic.
When all have bartered their names, the group converges in a circle,
possibly around a coffee table, or around a fire, or even just a
Whatever the case may be, at one point a topic is presented to
the group (this could be by the Joker, or the Alpha Male, or his
first lieutenant). If none of these can present a suitable topic,
try one of the following: shaving, cars, fights, accidents seen,
success achieved, money made, travels in exotic lands (or, if nothing
else is forthcoming, in London).
Once the topic has been introduced, each participant (who is also,
for the purposes of this game, a contestant) relates a story. More
points are scored if the story happened to happen to them, and less
if it's a story they've only heard told. So the anecdotes, the stories,
are told in turn, each player trying to equal or improve the scope,
variety or intensity of the story told by the previous player. Each
new story must, that is, be Bigger & Better.
The winner of the contest is the one who tells a story which best
exemplifies the type of story all the contestants wish they had
* * *
MEMORY GAME TWO: SHARING EMOTIONAL MEMORIES
Either in pairs or in groups of three or more, swap personal memories
of emotions. Relive them if need be.
* * *
MEMORY GAME THREE
Tell one another what you believe.
What do you remember about what really happened?
Relate the truth about the past.
4. on how I lost my memory on 10 May, 1994
This is a confessional tale. Yet with the distance of a decade
between the present and that fateful day, I am able to conceive
of myself as a character, as someone who I am not anymore. There
he goes, there he flickers, the shadow of myself in time, as if
already captured within the all-encompassing and definitive framing
of a photograph. But all photos are of ghosts, because there's no
one there anymore. (How sombre these old films are with their record
of the animated bodies of the dead.)
So here's the thing: On 10 May 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated
by the new dispensation, I went mad for a few hours. I took a holiday
from sanity. I took a ride outside of the everyday assumptions we
require to keep us afloat and floating the societal boat. More to
the point, I became what could later be described with a reasonable
amount of accuracy as a paranoid schizophrenic, and I relate this
here for the purposes of science, and in the interests of keeping
a record of an experiment.
You see, what had happened was that, only moments before my friend
and I joined the cheering crowds gathered on the lawns of the Union
Buildings to celebrate the dawning of a new day, we had each consumed
a tablet of Ecstasy (MDMA) and a cap of Acid whilst smoking some
Malawi cob. Well, it was either this that did it to me, that pushed
me over the edge, or it was the flyover of the SADF Air Force over
the Union Buildings, which I recall experiencing as a distinctly
tactile sensation of power changing hands.
Whatever the case may be, this was to be the last thing I remembered
for a while, since the next thing you knew, there I was, ambling
about the streets of Sunnyside without a memory. I couldn't remember
my name, or how things worked. I thought that I was either an old
man who had lost his memory, or someone who was mad. I wanted desperately
to know how systems worked, but was excluded from the knowledge
of names and positions. I could recognise a symbol, such as a traffic
light (a robot), when I saw it, but I didn't know what it stood
for. I was outside of the circle. To not remember is to be lost.
And God, what a relief it was when the memory came washing back
... in waves ... how wonderful to put everything back into place
... to be able to situate myself in terms of names and places and
people and faces, and to realise how I fitted into the network of
things. Without memory one is on the outside of the system.
Every system requires the memory of its ceremonial processes. Our
memories of ceremonial processes are, perhaps, more crucial to our
idea of who we are than, say, private memories. Public memories
provide places where it's possible to interface with a community
and to represent ourselves to them.
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits
and pieces, to realise that memory is what makes our lives. Life
without memory is no life at all ... Our memory is our coherence,
our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing
- Luis Buñuel, quoted in The Man Who Mistook his Wife
for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (Picador, 1985:22)
5. on the old and the new
What a wonderful thing to have as part of the naming of your country
the word "new", as in: the New South Africa. It's the same country,
but new. I'm sure it's never been done before. It must most definitely
be a first ... except, of course, for:
New England, New Brighton, New York, New Hampshire, New
Zealand, New South Wales, Newtown, New Caledonia, Newark, New Guinea, New
Delhi, New Brunswick, New Mexico, New Netherlands, New Quebec, New
Providence, Newtown St Boswells, Newfoundland, and New Bedford …
Sprinkled across the globe, these promises of a new beginning,
of a fresh start ... Give us this day our daily oneiromancy ...
Where is our New Jerusalem?
In Madagascar, the dead are exhumed every few years and ceremonially
reburied. How does this affect one's memory of the dear departed?
On the one hand, this process recalls and remembers their existence,
their past presence; and yet, the confrontation with a gradually
disintegrating corpse - and, eventually, a skeleton - must also
have a sizeable effect on a family's perception of what has become
of their loved one. In honouring his spirituality, they confront
themselves with the brute material reality of his death.
What is it with the carefully preserved and made-up corpses of
the West? Is it not a perversion to try to make them up to look
the way they used to look, to recreate a plasticised artefact, a
silent taxonomy? Why not come to terms with change? What are we
doing when we try to patch that body together again?
But it's not only the alleged "West". How strange that such radical
revolutionaries, such fervent destroyers of all that was counter-revolutionary
… why is it that Lenin, Mao, and - for a while - Stalin should have
had their corpses preserved for display? It seems revolutionaries
have a hard time hanging up their hats.
In perpetual revolution, to rest, to simply stand still, is counter-revolutionary,
so you just have to keep moving. The Dadaists, the Futurists the
Beats, the Punks - they all said, "Let's keep starting again, let's
keep burning the bridges, let's loose some bombs." But did they
ever think of themselves as purveyors of a new tradition? It would
have been most contradictory of them if they had, since they were
grounded in opposing established traditions; but needless to say,
they probably did.
Still, what do these rock 'n roll voices say, that tell us to live
in the present, to live in the moment? Being (Feeling) Alive Now.
Love Now. Sex Now. And does this expressive Romantic Self require
the will to forget, or does the past simply sink and disappear into
a sea of sensation? Perhaps the drive towards the moment always
somehow requires the body.
Let us bear in mind that Socrates himself warned about nailing
the soul to the flesh by means of sojourns into the sensory. Every
passing pleasure, he maintained, fastened it (the soul) more tightly
to the flesh. What happens then, the old gadfly would have had us
know, is that when the body goes, so too does the soul evaporate
into air and disappear with the mortal remains. So in his view,
the immortality of the soul is not a given. It depends on how abstracted
your soul happens to be at the time of your death.
Carlos Castaneda says something similar differently, in that if
one wants to have the soul go on after the inevitable demise of
the fleshly, then one should attempt, with training, to achieve
the ability to cohere and exhale your soul with your last breath,
to force it into a unity. Perhaps it's the soul which the lovely
young girl in Reza de Wet's Breathing In breathes in, and
which rejuvenates her ... the last essence of a man. Pass the word.
(A note on referencing, for the sake of the transparency of influences,
might be in order here. I must confess that some of these quotations
are second hand, i.e. I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly where
Carlos Castaneda says this, because I've yet to read so much as
a single line the man's written. This particular story was told
to me by one Evan Morris in the packing area of the late Exclusive
Books branch in Sunnypark, Pretoria, where he was enthusiastically
relating, instructing and educating me in the teachings of Carlos
Castaneda who was himself under the influence of Don Juan who was
himself under the influence of, probably, peyote. There it is.)
Since we're on to the motivational books, what is one to make of
the brand of popular psychology which emphasises creating positive
thoughts about the future? But what "they say", about the many myriads
of flickering thoughts that constantly flit around, and which soon
disappear, have little effect on the world of Will and Action. They
maintain that what we really should be doing is not remembering
the past, but rather thinking about the future. Envisioning it.
Imagine, sitting for a time each day just focusing on the future,
dreaming about one's success, picturing one's position in it. One
rolls this idea around like a planet in one's brain, creating, maintaining
the faith ... "They say" thoughts, being, as they are, composed
of energy, are of the same substance as matter, which is also, after
all, a form of energy. To remember is not only to recreate, then,
but also to generate.
Which of these worlds would it be best to inhabit? Is it better
to spend more of your time venerating and ritualising the old or
the new? Where can we turn? The promised New Age is already a tradition;
enclosed, classified, and gentrified. In fact, it's always founded
itself on Ancient Wisdom, on traditions of yore. One could well
imagine someone saying, "Gingko biloba was used by the Aztecs, so
it must be good for you."
6. on repetition
... relapse ...
... review ...
rescued by repetition
would we be realer being "re"ckless?
7. on forgetting
Somebody said (and this is yet another regrettably uncreditable
paraphrase arising from memory) that one could no more expect a
man to remember everything he'd read than one could expect him still
to contain all the food he'd ever eaten. Perhaps this is what makes
some professors stiff-lipped and arch-backed ... they're simply
bloated with information ... they need to get rid of some ...
(I have in mind, here, the memory of a gray-haired Australian
Asian Studies expert at a conference dinner in Sydney seven years
ago, who became visibly distraught as he castigated his mind for
not being able to dredge up the memory of the name of some expert
to whom he wished to refer in the course of his reasonings across
the Pad Thai in Wooloomooloo.)
In Oliver Sacks's already quoted The Man Who Mistook his Wife
for a Hat, Sacks narrates a story about "Jimmie", a man with
a twenty-minute memory, who doesn't realise how old he is, who thinks
he's still twenty-two. Sacks pushes a mirror in front of him and
forces him to confront the old man he's become, but the poor patient
doesn't react very well to this form of therapy:
He suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the
"Jesus Christ," he whispered. "Christ, what's going on? What's happened
to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy?" (p. 24).
Perhaps we might react the same if our cells could remember their
whole slow tortuous evolution up to now, if we really could remember.
Can we really comprehend just how old our souls and cells might
be? Eugene Ionesco had a schoolboy nightmare of it being the end
of the holidays, and remembered waking up to find the holidays had
only just begun. In later years, as an old man, he had the same
dream. Only this time when he woke up, he would discover that he
really was at the end of the holidays ... that he was old ...
So we grow old ... and forget ... A friend of mine's father was
dropped off at a care centre for those afflicted with Alzheimer's
Disease, and the attendant there advised them to not visit him for
the first few months ... they wanted him to slip into darkness ...
to be released from these rituals of memory ...
Why do we forget? Do we ever decide to forget? No, forgetting comes
about due to negligence, and also, well, it just comes about. Languages
are born, they live, they die ... that's how it goes.