Only a Memory

Looking into You
Jackson Browne

Only a Memory

Memory, Bronze door at main entrance of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building
Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Adams)

In the song the singer returns to a place he once called home. It has changed as he has changed and the scene the song evokes suggests the true meaning of nostalgia, the pain of coming home. Returning to a place where memories live is often an unpleasant enterprise. The place is never as we remember it and even if the changes in the place are not great the changes in us often are. Our changed selves are out of place in our old worlds. The bronze relief on the main door of the Library of Congress is titled Memory but what is being remembered? The figure in the door could be Penelope remembering Odysseus and wondering when or if he will return. It might be of any woman waiting for a warrior to return (and the objects she holds suggests she is remembering a warrior). Of course this woman could be the wife or mother of a soldier that has died and will not return. Perhaps the door is of a specific event that would be clear if I knew the door’s history but not knowing its history leaves the image open to many interpretations, all of which suggest the more melancholy aspects of memory. Perhaps all memory, by virtue of what it is, is tinged with melancholy.

There is a line from the Wallace Stevens poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (one of the ways of looking at the blackbird) that goes, “I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” I think what the poet is considering, especially in the last phrase, “The blackbird whistling / Or just after” is whether the event (“the blackbird whistling”) or the memory of the event (“just after”) is the more pleasant. Our memories of an experience, especially a pleasant experience, are often more pleasant and more “memorable” than the experience itself. This raises the question to what degree are we shaped by our experiences and to what degree are we shaped by our memories of those experiences, which are not always the same thing. This is perhaps what is being gotten at in the first phrase in the Stevens poem about “The beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” Which is more beautiful the sounds that we hear or what those sounds suggest, hint at, or evoke? Are we shaped by inflections of memory or by their innuendoes?

The Last of England
Ford Maddox Brown

At the back of the song is also the suggestion of leaving home, he is visiting a house he lived in when he “first went out on (his) own.” The singer is not going to a new world in the same way the people depicted in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting above or Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph below are going to a new world, but in a sense when a young man or woman leaves home to make a home for him or herself in the world it is a new world that is opening up. It may not come with as much that is foreign and different as it was for the folks in the painting or the photograph but it still involves entering something of an unknown universe. When we leave home we know the landscape, the people around us look and dress largely as we do, they also speak our language. This helps, but the world is new nonetheless. It takes courage to go out on our own. Ours is a nation of immigrants, which means that for most us there is someone in our ancestry that made the trip the folks in the painting and the photograph are making.

The Steerage
Alfred Stieglitz

I think that of the two, the journey in the painting and the photograph, the one depicted in the photograph had to be the most difficult. The folks in steerage are very different from the folks looking at them from above. The world the folks in steerage are entering is a very different world from the one they left. Of course I am assuming that the folks in the painting are going to America, as the folks in Steerage appear to be doing. Of course this is a guess on both parts. It could be the folks in the painting are going to India or Egypt, both parts of the English Commonwealth at the time. It may be the folks in steerage are going to another country that is more like the one they left and that it is those watching from above that will be the ones to feel most out of place. Our lives, perhaps, are shaped as much by our preconceptions as they are by our memories and there are no guarantees that either is entirely reliable.

There was an article in the Guardian, “The private life of books,” about what is at times found in second hand books. I know I often buy books that people have written in because I want to know the thoughts of others, if others have understood the book as I understood it or were affected by it as I was affected. The world of the used book is a very different world from that of the new book. I have books that I bought in various places that are quite old. Some were printed before the technology that “burst” or separated the pages was invented. When these books were bought in order to read them the reader had to first cut the pages. There is a scene in The Great Gatsby where the narrator, Nick, is commenting on Gatsby’s library and the magnificence of the volumes that fill the shelves. Nick pulls down a book and soon discovers that none of the pages in any of the books he looks into have been cut. This tells us the books in Gatsby’s library served more of a decorative than literary purpose. When I open a book that is a few hundred years old in which none of the pages have been cut, I am having the experience of reading that book for the first time, not just the first time I am reading that book but the first time anyone has read that book. I have not had this experience often, but each time I have had it, it has filled me with a kind of awe. I am the first person, other than the printer who set the page perhaps, to read this book though it has had a home on someone’s bookshelf for many, many years.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
Giorgio de Chirico.

There was a review recently in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ by John Curran,” of a book on Agatha Christie’s notebooks, the notebooks she kept as she was writing her mystery stories. I have always been a great fan of detective fiction in general and of Christie’s stories in particular. I remember riding my bicycle through Scotland. I was by the banks of Loch Ness when a rainstorm started. I found a bed and breakfast where I could stay until the rain passed. One of the other guests there recommended the Christie novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There was a copy of the novel in one of the sitting rooms. I picked it up and it was the first full length novel I ever read in a single sitting. It kept me up all night long and I never got sleepy. This was not the first Agatha Christie novel I read, but it is among the most memorable. Of course there was more to the experience than the book, there was also the place, I was in Great Britain, in a place that was shrouded by its own aura mystery. The window in my room looked out over Loch Ness and I remember looking out each evening to see if there were any strange creatures swimming about. But of course there were not, and my memory refuses to “enliven” this recollection.

Alfred Hitchcock
Selznick International Pictures

The film is about a man trying to figure out who he is and the woman that is trying to help him. Something has happened to the man that has induced amnesia. All we know is that the event that brought on his forgetfulness seemed to involve something white and some lines. We only know this because of how he reacts to straight lines and the color white. The actor playing the old psychiatrist in the film is Michael Chekhov, Anton Chekhov’s nephew. He (Michael Chekhov) was a student of Constantin Stanislavski and went on to develop his own approach to the craft of acting. He is known for developing the concept of the “Psychological Gesture,” a behavior or action that reveals an inner psychological reality in the character being portrayed. I think knowing this makes his portrayal of the psychiatrist in the movie that much more delightful. I think that Gregory Peck in his portrayal of the amnesiac makes use of this theatrical device at various times in the film, including those moments with razor in the clip above. It is also what we do not know about this character’s past (and what we think we know) that creates the tension that permeates this scene.

This suggests the limitations of knowledge or at least the limits of what we think we know. Knowledge can be deceptive. We think we know a thing; we have studied it and found out a lot about that thing. But if there is any complexity to what we know the odds are our knowledge is limited and the conclusions drawn from it are not always reliable. This can create problems because we often have to act on what we know and we often cannot be sure we know enough to act. Chekhov’s character in the film believes he must act on what he knows, but as the film will show he does not know enough to justify the conclusion that he draws. He wants to go to the police because he believes Peck’s character is dangerous. But this view may be questionable. You will have to watch the film to find out if Chekhov calls the police or listens to Ingrid Bergman and suspends judgment.

Memories make our lives richer. They enable us to derive pleasure from an experience over and over again. When I read a book that evokes or alludes to another book that I have read that evocation or allusion brings back the original experience of reading that book (or part of the experience). Of course there is the other side of memory, a side like that experienced by the character in the film, where memories, or the ghosts of memories, haunt us and keep us from enjoying the present or of building a future. And memories often will not be controlled. They will visit us in their own time and often stay longer than they are welcome. Little things often bring them out of hiding. For me the smell of diesel fuel takes me back to London in the 1970’s and graham crackers bring me back to a room above a plumbing store on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, California. These are pleasant memories and I welcome them when they come. But there are always others that are less welcome that have their own triggers that I will not mention here for fear of provoking them.

Words in Their Finery

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Words in Their Finery

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

The image is from an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. We can see in this image that the beauty of words and of language lies not solely in what the words mean but in their appearance as well. Or at least that words can have a beauty that is independent of the meanings assigned to them by Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster. Morris realized that even if Chaucer had been an inferior poet the Elsmere Manuscript would still be a thing of beauty and worth preserving. The creating of typefaces is an art in itself and the quality of a typeface contributes to the pleasure derived from reading books. The song says, “momma may have, poppa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.” In a work of literature the author and the words used by the author may be the momma and the poppa of the story but the typeface has its own something to offer. The texture and quality of the paper and the design of the letters on the page contribute something important to the experience of reading a book.

When students write a paper they often want to use unusual, decorative fonts. This has to be discouraged, of course, because those students that go onto college will have professors who are not likely to appreciate papers that stray too far from the conventional in their use of fonts or typefaces. It is unfortunate that one of the stories we have to tell our children is to be careful of the clothes in which they dress the stories that they tell. Though the decorative fonts used by students in term papers are often garish and inappropriate to the stories that they tell, these fonts are none the less a part of the student’s expression and reveal a bit of her or his imagination at work. If the design of a thing is as important, some say it is more important, than the task the thing has been given to perform than fonts chosen by students reveal something of their imaginative life and they are certainly an important part of the design of the paper in the student’s mind.

“Trolls with an abducted princess, from the annual, and still published, fairy tale collection Bland Tomtar och Troll
John Bauer

There was a recent article in the Boston Globe, “How fairy tales pit adults against kids,” about fairy tales and the stories that they tell. The point of the article is that these stories are often seen by adults as dangerous and that in the stories themselves adults are often portrayed as the enemy or at best more of a hindrance than a help. Because the first audiences for these stories were adults one wonders how the adults that enjoyed them viewed children and childhood. There is a short story by H. G. Wells, “The Magic Shop,” that follows in the vein of some of these stories in that by the end of the story a child’s parents live in terror of their child. Wells’ story actually reverses the roles of adults and children in the traditional stories. In stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Hansel and Gretel” it is the children that live in fear of the adults. Wells’ story, though, ends less happily for the adults than the traditional stories do for the children in that in the traditional stories the children overcome the malevolent adult forces, in Wells’ story the malevolent child is still in control when the story ends.

Language is a magical tool. The same words can be employed by different people to convey very different messages. In fact, the same words in a single text can even be interpreted by different people to convey very different messages as well. I introduce my students to literary theory by showing them how The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be interpreted as a story about the importance of listening to your parents when read one way but also about the importance of disobeying your parents when read another way. This suggests perhaps that we take from the stories we read the messages we need to find in them in order to live more effectively. Does the author put meaning into a story or do readers place in them the meanings they need to find. This is perhaps the crux of the postmodern problem, does meaning exist, does meaning matter? And if meanings do exist and meanings do matter, who gets to decide what those meanings are and where and how those meanings are found?

Alice surrounded by the characters of Wonderland
Peter Newell

Perhaps no book has as much fun with the “meaning” of things than Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. Humpty Dumpty tells us words mean whatever we want them to mean. There is truth to this of course, because this is how new meanings to old words evolve and new words are invented. It is also how poets employ words. Anyone who has read a poem by Wallace Stevens or Bob Dylan has encountered this amorphous use of language. I often imagine that “Pale Ramon” struggles as much with meaning as he does with order in Wallace Stevens’ poem.

There were two article recently, one in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews the biography “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll,” by Jenny Woolf,” and one in the Guardian, “How the devastation caused by war came to inspire an artist’s dark images of Alice,” about the Alice stories and their creator. The Guardian article focuses on the illustrations that Mervyn Peake did for these books. He, a bit like Humpty Dumpty perhaps, in that he brought his experiences as a war correspondent during World War II to his interpretation of Carroll’s text through the illustrations he created. He makes the text mean what he wants it to mean, which in many ways is not unlike Carroll’s meaning. Carroll depicted a world at times in chaos due to the ways in which adults employed power, Peake was placed in a world where this chaos was brought to life.

Dirda’s review discusses a book about Carroll that focuses on Carroll’s conventional and unconventional qualities, part Mad Hatter and, perhaps, part Alice, who seems to me to be the most conventional character in the story; a conventional young lady to whom very unconventional things happen. The story often revolves around a deep desire to find meaning and order in a world in which none appears to exist. Though of course Carroll, a mathematician, has created a world with a chaotic zaniness on its surface that conforms, under the surface, to a fairly precise mathematical structure. Perhaps life, when looked at from within the experience of the person living it, appears random and bewildering, when it is in fact orderly and systematic when looked at from the outside, as from within our experience our planet and solar system is the center of the universe, but when looked at from a different vantage point our planet and solar system are found nearer to the edge of the universe. Our point of view and our understanding of reality are shaped more by our vantage point than by the context of that vantage point in the larger universe. If we do not know where we stand we will not be able to properly interpret what we see.

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures

This is the version of Alice in Wonderland that I grew up with, though how I viewed it as a child was very different from how I viewed it as a young adult. As a child in the 1950’s I saw it as a magical story with odd characters and vivid colors, but as a young adult in the 1960’s it took on shades of psychedelia. Vivid colors and the caterpillar’s hookah took on different connotations. The world of the 1960’s offered a very different vantage point from that of the 1950’s, though the different lenses through which I viewed the film may have had as much to do with my age than with the age in which I lived. I wonder how the counter-culture of the 1950’s viewed the film.

W. H. Auden once said, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I believe this is true, but I also believe that adults read children’s books with adult experiences that often shape the way these stories are perceived and they are changed by the adult mind into something different from what they where for the child that first read them. “The Little Engine That Could” and “Stone Soup” have different meanings for me now than they did when I was a child. I enjoyed how the soldiers tricked the townspeople in “Stone Soup” but I did not fully comprehend the point it made about generosity. In fact my views of generosity may have been shaped in part by this story without my being fully aware of how my views were being formed.

There is a Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd” that talks about the outlaw leaving money under the supper dish after he has been given a free meal. I think stories often work this way, there is a gift left under the surface of our consciousness that we are often unaware of until long after we have enjoyed the story’s telling and the magic of the narrative has faded a bit. Sometimes we come back to the stories we read as children and find the messages that have shaped us and we are not always pleased with the way in which our views have been manipulated. This is the rhetorical nature of story telling. We are taken to a world that operates according to certain rules and we learn these rules as we journey through this world, but we bring them back with us to the world of our day to day lives.

Illustration of Alice with the White Rabbit
Arthur Rackham

The White Rabbit tries to live in Wonderland according to the rules of Victorian English society and he is somewhat out of place there. The rules of Victorian England did not apply in Wonderland, or perhaps they did but without their veneer of respectability. What happens to Victorian society, or any “respectable” society, if the rules encountered in Wonderland are brought home to the world on the other side of the looking glass? Which looks quirkier the rules seen in their true light or the individual just back from Wonderland confronting those rules? Sometimes stories do this, they open our eyes to the way things truly are, but in opening our eyes put us at odds with our neighbors whose eyes remain closed and who do not wish to have them opened.