Playing God With Memory

Playing God With Memory

Audrey Green is an Undergraduate student going into her third year at the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University, where she is pursuing a Combined Honours in Contemporary Studies and Creative Writing and a Minor in Religious Studies.

I’m little — young, that is, not physically small — I couldn’t be older than seven, eight at most. I sit patiently in the backseat of my father’s dirty Volvo, hands folded neatly in my lap, more still than I’ve ever managed to sit in my adult life. My father grips the steering wheel at ten and two (I’ve since learned that ten and two is a thing of the past — today it’s all about nine and three). The gravel road we’re travelling on spits us out in front of a lake and my father stops the car. At this point, if things had been different, I would’ve asked where we were going, or how we planned to get there if our destination was, in fact, on the other side of the lake ahead. But I simply sat still. My father cupped the back of the passenger seat headrest, performing that little yogic dance parents do when twisting around to face their kids in the back seat. “Hang on tight” he said, and then drove into the lake.

My eyes, which had shut in fear, slowly opened to see us bobbing along the surface of the water, moving towards the other side of the lake. My father let go of his ten and two grip on the wheel and leaned back in his seat. And, like that, we floated.

My father remembers being born. His mother, my bubbie, was buying fish at the market when she felt him scrambling to exist and demanding she do something about it. She gave birth minutes later, unable to delay, under the fish monger’s table, spewing my father out onto a pile of fish guts that cushioned his fall. He slid down the slippery slide and out into the world. She cut the umbilical cord and left him there on his piscatory bed of guts.

One day, my father realized that his memory of his birth was actually the first chapter of Patrick Suskind’s horror novel, Perfume. In the book, the scentless protagonist — an olfactory genius who kills pubescent female virgins and distills them into perfume — was brought into the world when his mother “squatted down under the gutting table and there gave birth, as she had done four times before, and cut the newborn thing’s umbilical cord with her butcher knife.” He had mistaken this gothic story for his own reality — an apparently common phenomenon that Julia Shaw, a psychologist and memory specialist, calls “source confusion.”

Shaw, in her book about false memories, writes about metamemory, a function of the human brain that’s there to “analyse our memories to confirm their plausibility.” She says that “without metamemory helping us identify the strength of our memories, assessing our memory plausibility and generally checking in on our memory abilities, we would likely be floating somewhere between reality and imagination at all times.” But, without a fully functioning metamemory to help him decipher between reality and imagination, this is where my father floats; his reality is quite literally a work of fiction. It is also where I float — my memory of our trip across the lake being similarly false — between reality and imagination, art and history, and fact and fiction.

In a book called Fictions in Autobiography, Paul John Eakin criticizes autobiographers who obscure the line between “the freedoms of imaginative creation on the one hand and the constraints of biographical fact on the other.” He believes that the consequence of this obscurity is an epidemic of moments that are neither art nor history but somewhere in between. Memory, always a blurry space of in-betweens, is never completely true and yet never completely artificial. Our false memories live alongside our other memories — which are also, to varying degrees, false — in the space between art and history, reality and imagination. Our impossible memories are surreal scenes of artifice which we confuse for history — they are moments of wonder and absurdity that our strange and poetic imaginations translate into our sense of self, our “I”-ness, the way we feel about every little cell in our body. All memories, but especially false memories, turn our past, our reality, our imagination, into surreal works of art. They deny the very distinction between fact and fiction — in fact, they deny everything except the possibility of magic. Our false memories may not have happened in ways we can tangibly validate, but our believing them to have happened changes our personhood nonetheless. And even once we’ve identified these memories as false, we still exist in the muddled in-between — because we may have uncovered one false memory, but there’s countless more which are, for the time being, sheltered from the attack of our metamemory. We still believe in memories which can’t possibly be true.

The truth is, dear reader, false memories aren’t the only residents of the space between fact and fiction. Having enjoyed my time as a straggler, wandering around between reality and imagination, I’ve found ways to continue denying the existence of pure Art or History.

To infuse our memories with the structure of fiction, moulding them into artifice, we need only curate our lives with scent, exploiting nature’s link between scent and memory to demarcate eras and phases as we age. Jean-Baptise Grenouille may have been right about some things: scent has the power to rip us apart, in orgiastic passion, limb from limb.

By organizing our memory into wonderful metaphysical filing cabinets, labeled under the signature scent of each phase we endure, we can file each cabinet of our scent storage unit as we see fit. When we feel stuck, stagnant, or impatient, we need only change a smell — shampoo perhaps, or lip balm, fabric softener, body lotion, even — and, as if through magic, a new era begins. With a new smell we say to God, “This epoch is over! Let me begin again! Let me be limitless!” And, as soon as our prayer is over, it is already answered. When we wade through the thick slime of memory in years to come, flipping through a book of scent-memories, the new smell will have ushered in a new chapter, filed in a fresh, empty cabinet.

Sometimes our memories are already tied to smells, by some divine work brought to you by the karmic universe, or God, or the One. In these instances, we don’t even need to perform a fabric softener prayer or an olfactory invocation. When our memories come pre-attached to scent, the chapters of absurdity that make up our memory novel come pre-infused with artifice. These memories become anchored in time, never really forgettable. No one will know whether to file our memory book under fact or fiction, under art or history. The book store clerk will ask: “Dear author, where should I file the novel of your olfactory life, your memories of absurdity, curated by yourself in collaboration with God?” And we will provide no answer.

In this way, we are all Proustian novelists, held captive by an obsession with narrative, solidified through the permanence of our scent-memory. The accident of some particular memories being unforgettable because of their connection to scent is an accident we must overcome to reach their determinism, in the same way that loving someone transforms the accident of having met them into something that was always going to happen.

Finally, dear reader, if you truly choose to cheat the accident of memory, as I so earnestly do, I have one last thing for you to try. This method mirrors the making of our scent novel, but instead of scents, this book is made up of digital moments. By keeping a digital archive, we can surpass our memory limits and cheat the process of mourning.

As I understand it, when people say that they’re mourning, what they really mean is that they’re forgetting — that they’re allowing a whole sea of memories to fade away while holding onto the special few that live closest to their hearts. From these special moments, they form the image of their loved one as they choose to remember them, a memory mosaic to return to again and again. But it is possible to cheat this process, to hold on to more memories than the special few — though I can’t say I’d recommend it, as there is much to be said for forgetting — by revisiting our vast digital archives. These archives let us remember whatever moments became digital in some way or another — photos, texts, emails, voicemails, videos. It even threatens us with the possibility of pure History, though this possibility is immediately discounted by the astounding subjectivity of the archive, being curated entirely from the personal point of view, permanently tangled with the solid “I.” When we re-read texts, re-watch videos, and re-listen to voicemails, we can remember much more than what we keep within reach in our minds. We can mourn by remembering, rather than by forgetting. It is then our responsibility to let these digital moments exceed the accident of their archival, to retrospectively infuse them with an omniscient determinism, to play God with our mourning, just as we did with our scent-memories.

I have, and continue, to infuse my mourning with artifice. I still have the text I got when my friend Olga died. It was early in the morning. “Hey Audrey, Olga is gone … She is no longer suffering. I am sorry it happened. I know she was a huge part of your life. Hugs.” I have other texts too — important ones and not important ones. I have a whole archive of conversations, a library of moments that I would’ve forgotten: “Hugging you; I kiss; I is hospital now, maybe next week will be home; I love you; I can’t will come today, I will come tomorrow; Спасибо, моя хорошая и красивая девочка — Thank you, my good and beautiful girl.” One Christmas, I took portraits of her for photography class. For her sixty-fourth birthday, I made the portraits into a little book and sewed the spine with pink thread. When I emptied her apartment I found it sitting on the shelf, patiently waiting to be made meaningful again. Now, I keep these photos in a separate little folder on my camera roll, always at the end of my index finger, tattooed onto the fleshy part of my brain.

Joan Didion once wrote, when speaking of her dead husband, “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.” But this is exactly the effect of the digital world on the mourner: it gives us hope of a response. It resurrects the ones we’ve lost, in the same way our past is resurrected by familiar smells. Our digital memories don’t even feel like memories at all, they feel like the present. It’s no wonder we are tempted by the ability to text the dead; their contacts remain in our phones, their numbers intact, their Facebook pages sending out birthday reminders each year. If we were to write letters instead of texts to the dead, as I imagine it was done before the Digital Age, we’d really be writing to ourselves, working through our mourning, curating our memory mosaic. It would be no different than writing in a journal. But when we text the dead we’re not writing to ourselves, we are writing to the dead themselves, accessing a world between the living and the dead, between reality and imagination. We don’t just write a letter, we send it. And because of this we’ll always be a little disappointed every time we check our phones and find no response. And this, I must warn you, is the curse of the digital memory — an ever present, gnawing feeling in our chests when we are ignored, day after day, by the ghosts of people we love.

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