1. Cutting Through the Stack
Sifted from the hundred seasons I’ve known them (counting six a year in New England*), the sequence turns on that trick of memory which stacks our years like pancakes, perpendicular to time, so to speak, cutting through any number at once at a marked, recurring point.
*Noel Perrin aptly calls the two supernumeraries “Locking” and “Unlocking”; traditional names are “Hunting” and either “Sugar” or “Mud,” depending on one’s temperament or occupation.
—Richard Kenney, Orrery, Introduction
Soon after moving to Seattle from New England last year, I saw a billboard for the symphony that said, “SEE VIVALDI’S FOUR SEASONS / IN A CITY WITH ONLY TWO.” Only two? To New England’s six? I began to feel, I don’t know, a little . . . bereaved.
A former New Englander (and current Washingtonian) himself, Kenney says that the years of our memories are stacked like pancakes. For me it feels more like the spiral of ribbon fries (to stay culinary), or the helical thread of a screw or the worm in a worm drive: an unending slope, without the comforts of discreteness or countability. Whether hotcakes or hardware, though, that strange, fascinating trick of memory works exactly the same—our life history available to us, it seems, a deep seasonal wedge at a time.
But what happens when your seasons change?
A year passed. Winter changed into spring. Spring changed into summer. Summer changed back into winter. And winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight on into autumn.
—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
When I went to Galway, Ireland, to study abroad in August 2004—my first time living outside of the Northeast—I felt as though six months of my life had been jettisoned on my flight over. When I left the Northeast, it was the end of summer: the nights blanketed in humidity still, the racket of crickety heat just starting to quiet, the days sharp with yellow and blue. But after the long redeye from Logan to Shannon Airport, I stepped out of the automatic doors into a pea-soup fog—everywhere I looked I saw damp green cloaked in gray. I recognized the scene: early April. How long had I slept? No, I realized, rather the clockwork revolution of the Earth had skipped a beat, two beats, a full half-year. By the time I got used to thinking of myself as being in “springtime,” the days were spluttering shorter and shorter, the sun not rising but skipping across the horizon like a stone. Where was I? Everything felt wrong. When I touched back down at Logan, it was a mid-December sunset, the entire landscape a bright pumpkin-orange. I nearly wept. How to explain: it was as though I’d come to meet myself at the gate.
When I moved from Rhode Island to Seattle the August before last, I sensed, again, that something wasn’t correct. The feeling of disorientation I had had in Ireland was back, but it was thinner and more pervasive. As the months played out, this feeling didn’t go away. I just didn’t feel quite “myself ” in Seattle and couldn’t figure out why.
I walked around in my brand-new life like—well, like it was a brand-new life, not an extension of the old one. I had become what philosophers call a “p-zombie,” looking and acting for all the world like a normal human being, a normal Seattleite—commuting every day on the #48 bus, playing frisbee at the Montlake Playfield, going for walks in the Arboretum and around Union Bay, geocaching in Discovery Park, seeing plays at the Seattle Center, drinking beer on Pike/Pine—but lacking a certain indescribable mental quality. Things didn’t resonate, didn’t reverberate somehow. Life was like a fake wood table. It did everything that tables were supposed to do, but it lacked a certain satisfying thunk. What was that thunk? It was the oddest sensation, intense but subtle, like closing one eye and losing the third dimension: but how can the depth of your experience bottom out? What would that even mean?
I realized, with a dizzying, sickening feeling, what felt wrong: I had amnesia.
3. The Grammar of Memory
For self-consciousness . . . it is essential for me to know that I have a life history that can be reconstructed at least in broad outline. We know that there are pathological states in which someone can forget who he is. It follows that knowledge of one’s identity is not simply a matter of course.
—Karl Popper, All Life is Problem Solving
I want to begin by saying that I had forgotten is a tautology . . .
I was visiting some actor friends of mine the other night in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, and we got to talking about the difference between writing and acting. I recalled the movie The Lives of Others, where the oppressive government of East Germany forces the playwright character to write in secrecy; however, his director friend makes the point that there’s no such thing as secretly directing plays by oneself. For a writer, the creative process births something that then stands outside the birthing process. For a performer, though, the moment of creation and the object created are one and the same.
This odd duality-in-unity is also a feature of remembering. It is this way that memory works, not the other. A memory is not an artifact but a performance, not serried letters standing at attention forever but a restless cast that must be marshaled anew each time.
We seem to wildly misrepresent memory in the English language. We talk about “having” and “losing” memories, like they were some kind of receipts to be collected from exchanging time for experience. But is a performance of a play, whether it happens or gets cancelled, something you can have or lose? You can only bear witness, hope that the curtain goes up when you expect it will . . .
[T]he first thing she asked was whether I’d suffered any memory loss and I wisecracked back: “Not that I can recall.”
—Terry Pratchett, “Terry Pratchett: ‘I had a stroke—and I didn’t even notice,’” Daily Mail, 11/5/07
We treat remembering and forgetting as opposites when they don’t work the same way at all—we can talk about the point at which we remembered something, or the number of times we remembered it, but to talk about when we forgot to pick up milk at the store, or how many times we’ve forgotten, say, that the house we grew up in used to be red, doesn’t make sense. Further paradox: remembering something for the first time after experiencing it, we might just as easily say, “Oh, I’d forgotten about that!” as its exact opposite, “Oh, I’ve never forgotten about that!” So what is or isn’t forgetting, then?
4. Garbage Collection
. . . and no one in
this gossamer summer, no one comprehends that
early fall exists . . .
—Inger Christensen, Alphabet
Programming languages like Java feature a type of automatic memory management called “garbage collection”—periodically something called the “garbage collector” will sweep through all objects held in memory and determine which memory blocks to free up. How does it know what to trash? It does something called a “trace,” which starts at the program’s root and proceeds to all parts of memory referenced by the root, and then all parts of memory that those parts reference, and so on. When the trace is complete, the garbage collector knows which parts of memory are “reachable” through this tree of references and which parts are “unreachable.” If there is no pointer, or series of pointers, to a place in memory, then there is no possible way for the program to get there. And so it doesn’t matter how much data is there, how intact it is, how valuable: it’s gone.
“Involuntary memory”—memory not retrieved by a conscious act of will, but spontaneously conjured by one’s environment—was first brought to scientific attention in the late nineteenth century by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, and the term itself was coined in the early twentieth by French author Marcel Proust, whose most famous passage has the narrator catapulted into the past by a bite of madeleine. Oddly, though, and despite a longstanding distinction between unwilled “recognition” and willed “recall,” according to the 2007 volume Involuntary Memory edited by psychologist John Mace, “it was not until very recently that cognitive psychologists began to study this memory phenomenon.”
This is what Richard Kenney means when he talks of “that trick of memory,” what Robert Creeley means when he says, “So does May’s mind remember all / it thought of once,” what Inger Christensen means when she says, “no one in / this gossamer summer, no one comprehends that / early fall exists.”
Like a face or a voice—and far broader—a season is a locus of pointers.
We tend to think of human memory loss as the data being compromised, not the pointers.
But this was my predicament: my “life history,” still intact, not yet overwritten, had become unreachable. I had lost my pointers. With my present groping for my past, I realized how many of the necessary pointers were environmental, involuntary, outside of myself. How dependent I was on “that trick of memory,” activated by the Northeastern seasons, to rhythmically reanimate my own past.
It disturbed me, at two different levels. I was realizing that, all along, it hadn’t been within my control to access the memories I’d wanted to. And knowing that I now had huge inactive areas in my brain made me fear the garbage collector.
5. Cutting Through the Stack
I am offered, with coffee, a madeleine. The only recollection it provokes is of reading Proust.
—Keith Waldrop, The Silhouette of the Bridge
Unlike Waldrop, I haven’t even read Proust (though I have read Waldrop), so I go to a café, eat my very first madeleine, and remember nothing. Days later I eat my second and remember the first. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere . . .
This past August things started to change. Driving back to Seattle after a trip out of state, I couldn’t help thinking about first arriving, my worldly possessions stuffed in the trunk and backseat after my road trip from the East Coast the year before. It was my 366th day in Seattle, and everything was, for the first time, familiar. Thunk.
When I talk about my “roots” in a place, I mean something very specific. I mean echoes. I mean pointers, the kind that seem to float in the air of a season like a fragrance, the way one puts on cologne by spraying a cloud and passing into it. (I think of scent because our recognition for it is so strong and our recall so poor, and because— coincidentally?—it’s generally considered to be the most powerful memory-trigger of all the senses.)
As with the madeleine, so in Seattle, my second year continually brings back the first. The second eye opens to depth perception, parallax— the mnemonic webbing that makes a place home, that makes me myself.
I think memory is a kind of sonar turned on itself, an ultrasound: we make a pulse, and the echoes that come back to us show us our shape.
Brian Christian’s writing appears in AGNI, Seneca Review, Gulf Coast, Best New Poets, and Ninth Letter, on the web at Conjunctions and McSweeney’s, and in scientific journals such as Cognitive Science. He was named “The Most Human Human” at the 2009 Türing Test, and an excerpt from his new book by that name (Doubleday, 2011) is the cover story of the March 2011 Atlantic. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Christian holds degrees in philosophy, computer science, and poetry from Brown University and the University of Washington. He lives in Seattle. (updated 2/2011)