I’ve always had trouble trying to write straight autobiography because my life has often appeared to be nothing more than a meaningless series of events. One damned thing after another.
I suspect this is one of the things that moves some of us to travel to exotic places, take inner trips on various drugs, rob banks, engage in in extreme sports or join the marines. The theory is that if you have a romantic lifestyle in realms beyond the corporate towers, cookie cutter suburbs, or the prophylactic isolation of the electronic cocoon, you will become a larger, more cosmopolitan, more ‘cosmic’ individual.
I have tried some of those dodges, no bank robberies, but I have been seduced in my time by the myth of the poet as ‘one of the roughs, a kosmos’ ever since I was introduced to the phrase in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a century after he penned it. It was heady stuff for a teen in the basement of a bungalow on the edge of a small town in central Ontario in the fifties. A bit later I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker. Two bearded hipsters on a sidewalk, one addressing the other with an intense expression and the text below went: “Sometimes sheer existence is such a gas I can hardly stand it!”
It was around the same time that I glimpsed another realm of existence that deeply stressed my understanding of what human beings could be and do. That happened when I saw the first photographs from Auschwitz, thousands of twisted, naked bodies strewn in long pits that the Nazis had not had time to cover before the allied troops arrived. Battle-worn soldiers were incredulous at the scale of the death camp obscenities where living skeletons drifted numbly between the corpses. You may imagine how incredulous was this relatively innocent, small town boy.
What I faced at fifteen was the realization that humans were capable of much stranger, more beautiful and infinitely uglier modes of existence than anything I had encountered in my life. The adult men I knew were mostly contented to spend their evenings watching I love Lucy or Father Knows Best. In one scene of Dragnet, a cheesy crime series, his assistant asked the chief detective, “Hey Jack, what exactly is a beat?” To which the boss replied, “A beat, Friday, is a bum with intellectual pretensions.”
Ten years later I sat on the floor in a private loft in Yorkville, known as Woo’s. The decor was mainly black netting of the type used in commercial fishing. It cast a web of shadows on the faces of the guests who leaned against the walls, drinking coffee and communing with the spirit of whatever drug or dream while the coolest jazz available set them nodding and exchanging bits of dialog: “You see Babe, there’s hip and then there’s hipper hip.” I wished right away that I had invented that line. But what did it mean to be hip? And why am I going on about it now?
It’s because I have been thinking about memoir and I got into that because I had been thinking about memory. And I started thinking about memory because I was thinking about consciousness. After observing consciousness for a while I came to the obvious discovery that it’s like time, in that it has three primary divisions. The primary divisions of time are the past, present and future. The corresponding components of consciousness are memory, sensation and thought.
I have been thinking about consciousness itself ever since my fifteenth year. When I encountered the mind of Walt Whitman and the minds that conceived and implemented the obscenities of Auschwitz, Dachau and all the other events of the twentieth century for which words like obscenity and atrocity are but pale fingers pointing. Do you know what they are pointing at? I knew that they were pointing at my own dark, unknown heart.
Memory was important to the Greeks who personified it as Mnemosyne, a great goddess, mother of the nine muses (whose father was Zeus). According to my dictionary eight of the muses had to do with creative speech: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flute playing and lyric poetry), Terpsichore (choral dancing and song), Erato (lyre playing and lyric poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy and light verse), Polyhymnia (hymns, and later mime). The only exception was Urania, goddess of Astronomy.
There was a time when many of us thought that the past and memory were unimportant. ‘Be here now,’ was the slogan of the truly hip and the enduring popularity of a misconceived present has been more recently renovated by books like The Power of Now, whose simplistic author declared that he hardly ever thought about the past. Obviously a healthy dose of attention to ‘real time’ is a necessary antidote to those who are mired in the past or lost in endless obsessive planning for a safe and comfortable retirement. The present is the meat (or tofu) in the sandwich of reality.
But memory must be given its due share of attention for a few important reasons.
Everyone has heard Santayana’s axiom: ‘Those who forget the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.’ But memory is even more fundamental than that. Complete amnesia would obliterate perception. With no memory I would be like that junkie a comic once described, who, swaying on his unsteady feet, asked, “What’s happening man? I know something’s happening because everything’s moving.”
Living in the present means perpetually assessing the data of the senses, in the light of memory, to create a flowing, resilient and balanced perception of what is happening now, what is likely to happen next and what an appropriate response to that might be. Losing our individual or collective memory is not a recipe for enlightenment.
Attention is like a light that we shine into the vast complexity of experience. Surrounding the zone of attention is the darkness of everything that we ignore because, as a wise friend once observed, ignorance is the flip side of attention. Having spent much of my life attempting to become fully human, I recently realized that no matter how large and beautiful my heart/mind may be, the spotlight of attention will only illuminate a small portion of it at any given moment of consciousness. The only way to fully appreciate anything, including ones own body and mind, is to let attention flow from one small part to another so that gradually a picture of the whole submerged mountain of oneself or another person is constructed. And the place where that picture is constructed is called memory.
Mired in, enthralled or bored by the present contents of consciousness we often forget about the much larger river that we are. Fascinated by our present darkness we forget about our light. Fascinated by our present brilliance we forget about our shadow. When we remember both our darkness and our light we come into a balanced assessment of our powers, gifts and flaws. Maybe the best reason for writing memoir is to help the writer and his tribe remember where we came from and what we have been, so that we may avoid the extremes of self-hatred and self-regard that separate us from our true natures, our neighbours and our world.