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.