“There is no teaching, but only recollection” – Socrates
Last year I saw a stand-up comedian who, after riffing for 10 minutes on his recent travels across the United States, concluded his set (which was admittedly quite low on laughs) by idiomatically declaring to the half-cut Friday night audience that “when you experience different cultures, it enriches the soul.” How odd a thing it is that you can have the most horizon broadening of experiences while travelling, but sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s actually the most trivial and kinda goofy details that linger in your memory long after you return home. Perhaps I should explain.
I’m not that long home from a trip to Brussel, a city founded on the River Senne by the descendants of Charlemagne, during the 1st Christian Millennium, a time many medievalists refer to as the darkest of the Dark Ages in pre-renaissance Europe. Brussels is the host city to the headquarters of NATO and the de facto capital of the European Union, embodying the spirit of both international cooperation and European solidarity. This is kind of a weird idea to get your head around because Brussels was once the centre of Belgium’s far reaching and ruthless colonial empire. Marlow, the protagonist in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, refers to 19th century Brussels as a “whited sepulchre.” This easy-to-overlook remark originally appears in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (23:29) and characterizes anything that appears outwardly beautiful, but is “full of dead men’s bones” within. The expression was used by Conrad to give a literary two finger salute to the vastly misleading rhetoric used by Belgium when onanistically congratulating their so-called civilizing missions in Africa. The campaign of Belgian imperialism, as it turns out, was not so much concerned with bringing enlightenment to the African locals but aimed at seizing power and wealth from them in as brutal a fashion as possible. Like with pretty much every European capital I’ve ever visited, the history of Brussels is a dark and violent affair, defined by war, murder, revolution and colonial atrocity. All that was a long time ago, and the country is different now, but it’s just that kind of haunted and conflict driven history that keeps those of us who are easily seduced by the sinister romance of all that kind of jazz, and who never tire of hearing more about it, absolutely enthralled. I went on the guided tours, I asked questions, I learned a lot. And yet, the most prominent of all my memories from the trip, the first thing that always comes to mind when I think about Brussels, and indeed anything even remotely related to Belgium, has nothing to do with any of that cool historical and cultural stuff. My most immediate recollection is the strength of the water pressure in the hotel shower. That’s the first thought that appears in my head when I think about this entire geographic region; the force of the water sprayed out from a nozzle fixed to the hotel bathroom wall.
Similarly, I travelled to New York a few years ago and was privileged to spend time in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. New York is an intoxicating place and I am complete agreement with Christopher Hitchens when he wrote that “time spent asleep in New York was somehow wasted.” I saw live jazz at the Lincoln center, indulged my greatest flaneuristic predilections with an elongated stroll from the Upper East Side via Central Park to the Lower West Side of Manhattan, hung out with some Williamsburg hipsters (on account of whose generosity, and most gratefully, I experienced my first taste of authentic American cornbread and collard greens), ate in the famous Spotted Pig restaurant and drank a beer in the oldest Irish tavern in NYC (McSorley’s Old Ale House – a bar with former patrons including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt).
Despite all these really interesting experiences, the first thing I remember when I think of New York is seeing an Arab hat salesman vomiting into a public bin on Bleecker Street (the man was Arab, not the hats). I’m not entirely sure why, but every time I think about that guy throwing up, it makes me laugh, but I’m just surprised that such an odd and unforeseen little incident would go on to become the cognitive thumbnail my brain uses as a shorthand representation of that trip.
As soon as you actually leave a city or a country, that place is no longer a concrete geographical location; it becomes more of an abstract and disjointed collection of ideas and impressions. And it’s not like these weird memories are something that can be managed or controlled, or even that they are happening on a conscious level. I have forgotten warehouses of knowledge that I used to hold dear, and yet, vast swathes of the trivial and inconsequential remain with me still.
In an interview filmed for BBC television in 1962, Vladimir Nabokov remarked that “the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes,” and though the eloquence of both Nabokov’s speech and his prose are not to be contested, I would argue that a memory by no means needs to be loved to become strange. All memories become warped and twisted by the shifting light of time. We forget and misremember, constantly. My own mother, as an example, no matter how many times I tell her that I loathe the stuff, will absolutely always make a lasagne for when I visit and defiantly argue that I had always said I loved the dish. She is, of course, quite wrong.
Memory, much like character, is by its very nature an incredibly flawed system, and we are probably all the better for it. The alternative puts me in mind of Ireneo Funes, the eponymous character in Jorge Borges’ fantasy short story Funes the Memorious. After he has the unfortunate luck of being thrown from a horse, Funes is blessed – or perhaps condemned – to spend the rest of his life remembering absolutely everything that he experiences to the minutest detail, including “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him.” However, as Borges – the story’s narrator – notes, Funes, despite his incredible powers of recollection, was “not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.” Memory is not everything, then, and the Borges makes it his business to point out that “in the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.” Borges is touching on an argument that has been quietly ticking over in philosophical thought for millennia. Socrates had plenty to say on the nature of memory, as did Descartes and Hegel. More recently, the notable French philosopher, Henri Bergson, for example, suggested that in some way everything that has happened to us is remembered, but as a rule only what is useful comes into consciousness. Failures in memory, Bergson contends, are not so much failures of the mental part of memory, but of the more physiological mechanisms used in bringing memory to action. Such philosophical waxing lyrical is all well and good, but does little to explain why I keep thinking about Belgian water pressure.
Memory doesn’t come in the same sequential linear form as first hand experience, it’s more like a collection of fragments, puzzle pieces with fuzzy edges that only sort of connect, and as I’m getting older trying to remember the particular narrative sequence of certain events is kind of like trying to construct a story after only reading every second page of a novel.
I’m yet to meet the person whose memory is without fault and would be highly distrustful of the individual who claimed such an endowment. It seems that we have no other immediate alternative than to make-do with the mess of a filing cabinet we keep in our heads. The battle, therefore, is not necessarily to try and remember everything that we experience but to endeavor to articulate what we can recall in an interesting way. In my own case, I believe that is a foundational requirement that an adult human be able to recite at least one full poem off by heart, one absolutely filthy limerick, one song, one joke and one entirely-humiliating story. It’s not much, but if all else I have to fall back on in a social situation is a story about a man vomiting into a trash-can then I could be doing a lot worse.