One of the great gifts of mankind is our memory. Without it, we could be greatly impoverished, though, as gifts go, it is a double-edged sword: a donor as well as a tormentor—sometimes a pot of gold, sometimes a Trojan horse.
I see memory as tripartite: good, bad, and whimsical. By this I would mean memories of good things, bad things, and surprising things. But that is a slight oversimplification. Memory of good things is mostly a good thing, but not entirely; memory of bad things is mostly bad, but not entirely; whimsical memory is neither good nor bad, but unexpected and puzzling. Let’s look more closely.
Good memory reflects on good things that happened to us: a lovely lover, a picturesque place, a happy experience in theater, opera, concert, museum or cinema. Or just plain luck, as when I found in the street two twenty-dollar bills. It is basically a good thing, on the principle of Tennyson’s, “’Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.”
But there is the obverse of the coin, Dante’s “Nessun magior dolore/ Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/ Nella miseria.” Or “There is no greater hurt than remembering happy times in times of wretchedness.” And it needn’t even been misery; suffice for it to be daily drudgery and beastly boredom.
For this, there is solace in that great eraser, oblivion. Take Swinburne’s, “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” (If there is any blame at all, it is for that “most,” where “more” would, strictly speaking, be better grammar. Yet a perfectly plausible argument can be made for “most.”) But of course the benefit of oblivion cannot be guaranteed as long as there is thought, as the Serbian poet Milan Rakich (I transcribe the name phonetically) wrote, “When the heart cries out, thought is to blame,” thought that, often, is precisely unhappy remembrance.
The problem is that happiness, like perfume, is not duplicated by happy memory, just as the scent from a bottle of perfume is not tantamount to that which emanated from a beloved person. A superb landscape is not fully replicated by a photograph, and even a CD can only approximate the experience of great music hard at a concert.
The place where memory is blessed is in poetry remembered. There memorization is an undoubted boon. But nowadays, when the schools no longer prescribe it, memorization is becoming rarer and rarer. To be sure, do the younger generations even care for poetry? Unless, that is, it comes from a dubious surrogate, such as, say, Maya Angelou. The late Ernest Van Den Haag used to threaten me with a collection of her poetry, which he never enacted, and which, in any case, could be discarded before it became a clinging memory.
What does hurt is, for instance, memory of a Paris never to be revisited in my lifetime, or of the irreplaceable giant turtles of Galapagos, or of childhood Easter vacations in Dubrovnik or Abbazia (now Opatija). Or of a boyhood sweetheart. Or of my beloved dog Bari and cat Bibi. Or of marzipan potatoes, my favorite dessert, essentially unavailable in America, and by now as much conceivably even in their native Austria. And, apropos Austria, edelweiss, for which the Rodgers & Hammerstein song , however well remembered, is not quite a substitute.
Now what about bad memories, memories of unhappy things? Are they all bad? Like telling a female British journalist how I couldn’t grasp her collaboration with a certain lousy male journalist—who turned out to be her husband. This makes me, unrepentant, smile to this day.
Or the memory of having once hit my loving mother? Or of having, with my air gun, killed innocent sparrows. (Anouilh has a play dealing with that trauma.) Or having, as a Belgrade schoolboy, impressed by the son of the German Ambassador, given him on a class excursion my orange, pretending that I loved the rind as much, and eliciting his gloating comment, “Good, in future you can always give me your orange and keep the rind.” His father became a notorious Nazi.
Still, bad memories have their good aspect: one can derive from them what not to repeat. Think of Santayana’s famous dictum that whoever fails to learn from history is forced to repeat it, where history is tantamount to collective memory and can even stand in for the individual one.
I shudder to think of when my classmate Branko and I were looking out the window of my parents’ Lake Bled villa at the neighbor girls sunbathing. We were kneeling on a sofa, and I waited for the moment when Branko’s face was smack behind my posterior to break wind.
Or the time when a bunch of us schoolboys were on winter vacation skiing on Mount Kopaonik, and the winner of the slalom, I, was awarded a cake, which one shared that night with one’s dorm mates. There was one boy disliked by all of us for whatever footling reason, and I denied him a slice of the cake. Origin, perhaps, of my growing up a severe critic.
Funny how such childhood contretemps or peccadilloes can haunt the adult I seem to have become. How about the time during Latin class in my year at a British public school (the Leys, at Cambridge), when the chap next to me was asked to translate “husband” into Latin and was stuck for an answer. I whispered to him “Think of the English,” foolishly hoping that he would think of “marital” to lead him to “maritus.” Instead, he blurted out “husbandus.”
Venial offenses, these. Surely I must have committed much graver ones that I have conveniently forgotten. Which is a good thing about bad memories: that they lessen in time. As if the good things one remembers excused them. Thus, when I received in the mail the dollar bill owed to another John Simon, I dutifully forwarded it to the correct one. (Would I have done as much for a hundred-dollar bill?) But why did I not visit at the hospital my loving and beloved German prof, Karl Vietor, who, as he lay dying, sent me a supremely kind message through a fellow student who did visit him?
Or why did I not take to a film screening the woman who fast and flawlessly typed my very long doctoral thesis (in time for a prize that it, after all, did not win), only because I considered her too unattractive for a date where she could have been viewed as my girlfriend?
Well, enough of that. What about involuntary, whimsical memories? Day in, day out, there spring into my memory, totally unsolicited, proper nouns, titles, cognomens of characters in fiction or history, from sources that I may barely recall. Or mere common nouns, puzzling in their randomness, their lack of relation to anything concurrent? Sometimes I cannot even understand them, let alone associate them with anything of recent, or even remote, interest. It is as if all these things were rolling around in my unconscious, until, like a roulette ball on a random number, they came to rest at a small window into my consciousness. Or is this merely the beginning of Alzheimer’s?
I wish I could recall the exact word that came up seemingly from a literary work’s earlier version that I cannot even recall having read. The chance of this happening was perhaps one in a trillion, if that. O thou mischievous memory, what time I have wasted trying to comprehend thee!
In his lovely poem, “I Remember, I Remember,” Thomas Hood paints enchanting pictures of things and states remembered, and contrasts them with his dreary reality. Four lines from it run. “My spirit flew in feathers then,/ That is so heavy now,/ And summer pools could hardly cool/ The fever on my brow.”
I doubt whether any memories—good, bad or whimsical—can cool the fever on my brow. Yet such as they are, the whole lot of them, they can ignite the fever in my heart, which helps me be a more sentient human being, and that, surely, is a good thing.