Friday, January 1, 2016


Memory is one of our most interesting possessions; its failure, our possibly most grievous loss. What enhances its importance is its mystery, its surprises, its ultimate inscrutability.

Its chief competitor is our intellect, but intellect is measurable, comprehensible, transparent, less fascinating. We can assess what we know and recognize our ignorance. But both what we remember and what we forget are shrouded in a certain mystery; puzzling, illogical, challenging.

Why does this bit from our past suddenly pop up in our brain? Why in the name of God do we recall this and not something else—and recall it at this unrelated moment? We try to explain such things to ourselves, but virtually always fail.

In rereading my doctoral thesis, I came across a word I now no longer understood, but evidently remembered then. As I am making myself a hamburger, the word “phatic” crops up in my mind even though it has nothing to do with hamburgers or cooking or eating.  Another time I think about a woman I once loved while talking to a woman who merely interests me and bears no resemblance to the other, lost woman. Why this sudden uncalled-for remembrance?

Or take this. I am an opera lover and own a goodly number of operatic CDs, but definitely not Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamounix,” which I have never seen or even heard on the radio, yet “O luce di quest’ anima,” the title of one of its arias, suddenly crops up unsolicited in my mind. I may have read about it somewhere, but why recall it now, or at all?

Conversely, I own several versions of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and have seen it performed quite a few times. But then why when in a conversation I want to remember what comes after “Bocca bacciata,” I can’t for the life of me do so? I have to look it up“non perde ventura.”

Now take another example. Few movies have affected me as strongly as, during my boyhood in Belgrade, the Hungarian film “Deadly Spring,” based on a fine novel by Lajos Zilahy. In one scene, the gorgeous Katalin Karadi (I don’t have the accent for the second A) does a kind of dancing striptease while singing a terrific song “This Will Be Your Undoing” to the man who loves her.

Still, how come that I kept remembering that song, so many years later, as a Harvard student? Both the melody and the words. In fact, I kept singing it out loud in the streets of Cambridge because I knew that the great composer Bela Bartok was there at the invitation of the Harvard music department. I am hoping that, his path crossing mine, he would be tickled pink hearing someone singing in Hungarian, stop and befriend me. It never occurred to me that, considering it kitsch, he might smile at me and pass by.

But now, when I try to sing the song to myself, I remember it only imperfectly. Why perfectly then and only dimly now? Memory mysteriously gives and, as mysteriously, takes away.

The common view, seemingly based on scientific evidence, is that we lose our short- term memory but retain our long-term one. So, theoretically, I may not remember what soup I had yesterday, but warmly recall a pastry I ate as a kid in Belgrade. But does it really work that way for me?

Or can it be that, even long-term, we only remember pleasant things from the distant past and not the unpleasant ones? Then how come that, at a time when I already had a fair knowledge of English, I arrived for my private French lesson a bit early and came upon the preceding pupil, Sinka Nikic, the great beauty of Belgrade, who, unusually for that time, spoke good English, which may have helped her become, as rumor had it, the mistress of Yugoslav Crown Prince Peter. To impress her, I quoted something from, as I put it, an “English poetist,” which had both Sinka and the French teacher burst out laughing. I never was as ashamed as at that moment, which I still recall with a shudder, not even when, years later, people told me that Sinka remembered me as the boy who waved two toy guns about. True, I had an MG, an expensive faithful German toy replica of a shiny a momenthandgun, which I may have fired in public. But I don’t remember a pair.

I also remember ashamedly a moment from my early childhood, when I was learning to swim on Hungary’s lovely Lake Balaton. The swimming instructor was just finishing up with another child, whose frightened howl when tossed into the water (the instructor’s rough method) earned it the scornful nickname “musician.” Seeing me next in line, he turned to someone and jeered, “Another musician.” O the shame of it! 

So those are black marks that stick to the memory. But happy events are not necessarily more precisely remembered. I know that, as an adult, I sought out the distinguished Serbian poet Vasko Popa, but I can’t remember anything about the interview. No less painful is not recalling a single detail about a very enjoyable lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, during which, I know, he said many fascinating things.

There is a well-known memory test: showing someone a drawing with numerous details for a very short time, then asking what he remembers. If I were ever given it, I doubt whether I could acquit myself with distinction. I think it comes from Kipling’s “Kim,” one of several prize books I earned at the end of my one year at the Leys School, Cambridge, England. Correct me if I misremember.

Not for nothing did the ancient Greeks call one of the Muses Mnemosyne. As Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary remarks, “The word Mnemosyne signifies memory, and therefore the poets have rightly called memory the mother of the Muses,  because it is to that mental endowment that mankind are indebted for their progress in science.” But surely not only in science.
                                                                                                                                                                After all, volumes of memoirs are so named because they record their authors’ memories—indeed the French word  for memory is memoire. One of Vladimir Nabokov’s best books, a marvelous account of his young years, is entitled “Speak, Memory,” which is what memory does. If you look in any dictionary ofquotations, by the way, you will find no dearth of entries under “Memory.”

Yes, memory speaks to, for, and about us; without it, we might as well be dayflies, here today and forgotten tomorrow. Without memory there would be no computers and, worse yet, no learning. 

“I remember, I remember” begins Thomas Hood’s justly famous poem, and I cannot refrain from quoting one of my favorite English quatrains, 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.” But enough—I could go on like this for pages.

A tricky thing memory. Suddenly there is in your mind the name of a person, a character or title in fiction, a thing, a word, out of nowhere, with no rational cause. And yet somehow it is there. Only the other day the name of a medicine popped up, one that neither I nor anyone I know had ever taken, taking me aback in total surprise. I wondered at my even knowing it. But don’t ask me what it is: I have already forgotten.      


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," said the White Queen to Alice.

  4. “What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
    -—William Maxwell, from his short novel 'So Long, See You Tomorrow'

  5. Katalin Karády. Keystroke Alt+0225 should do it on a Windows PC: ááá. Have a word with your webmistress if you can't get it to work.

  6. “O luce di quest’ anima" is one of the most infectious melodies ever written -- it's no wonder it would suddenly pop up unannounced.

    Mr. Simon has mentioned in several posts the embarrassment he felt after making his “English poetist” remark, and he will doubtless never get over it. I've come to accept that memories of my horribly embarrassing eff-ups will assert themselves unannounced, but I don't mind so long as they don't make me visibly flinch, or emit an audible gasp or a string of obscenities. My goal is to remain stone-faced and visibly unperturbed as 50+ years of remembered eff-ups leap out at me from around the dark corners of my memory....

  7. Please change the font for this blog: small white characters on a dark blue background strain the eyes.

  8. Please change the font for this blog: small white characters on a dark blue background strain the eyes.

  9. My memory is strange. I don't remember things as pictures as much as I remember them as "feelings." Some pictures. Ultra-short films with a little color, but mostly black and white.
    I remember being picked on by a bigger kid, and my dad told me to whack him in the stomach as hard as I could. The next day he was there and I punched him. He was wearing a very heavy coat so I doubt that he even felt my blow. Nonetheless, he never picked on me again. I was five.
    When I was three I heard something at my window in the middle of the night. It was summer time, so we had all the windows open; only a thin screen. I pulled back the curtain, and there was a man standing on the outside. His chest and head were high enough, and he stood very close to the screen. He wasn't looking at anything, just staring straight ahead. He was clean shaven, thin face, with grey hair at the temples. I let the curtain fall down and buried my head in the pillow. A few minutes later I peeked out and he was gone. I wasn't asleep. I was fully awake.
    When I was in my teens I jerked off constantly, and if you do that, you're going to get caught every once in a while. My Grandmother caught me. It was late at night, and I was the only one up (I thought). I was going to make myself a sandwich, but instead, decided to whack it into the kitchen sink. Using the sink was great. Afterwards you just used the sprayer thing and washed everything down the drain. Usually, I turned on the garbage disposal too just to make sure. I thought of it as "abortion." Right at the moment of truth, I heard something behind me, turned, and saw my Grammy hurrying up the stairs trying not to be seen. I won't ever forget that one.

    1. Thanks for the vivid illustration of the William Maxwell passage above ("Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end"). An "abortion," that's hilarious -- reminds me of the quote, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Lol! I was caught other times too. I wasn't very good at locking doors or something. Maybe it was, that, I decided SO quickly to do what I was going to do, I simple forgot where I was in time and space. My mind would become blank and I would just pull it out and start pounding. I could have been arrested several times (and I mean SEVERAL) for doing it in the situation I was in, but luckily was never caught.

    4. Yes, there is something about the threat of being caught that adds excitement. Here in Anne Arundel County in Maryland, the County Executive had to resign a few years back for engaging in sexual activity in his official vehicle in the parking lot of a crowded mall at around 5 PM on a Friday afternoon. Why not get a hotel room? Meh, been there done that too many times. Myself, I thought the County Exec should be commended for still being on the job after noon on a Friday....

    5. Getting caught having sex with someone in a public place is "exciting". Getting caught masturbating in a public place is a prison sentence.