The central motif of this piece is solitude and memory. What follows is not an essay per se, but an attempt to explore the motif in a different way: sometimes through a poem or song lyric; sometimes through an excerpt from a novel; sometimes a prose piece on scientific research; or even, in one case, through a moment in a film. My hope was that each piece would act like a stanza in some extended poem, pushing the theme forward, sometimes in indirect ways, by picking up a theme or word from a few stanzas back, or by its unspoken connection with an adjacent piece.
* * *
Do you remember how you walked with me
down the street into the square?
How the women selling rosemary
pressed the branches to your chest,
promised luck and all the rest,
and put their fingers in your hair?
Rosemary. Suzanne Vega.
* * *
Suzanne Vega’s compositions, such as “Rosemary,” have always commanded a special and unique place in my intellectual and emotional life. In part, this is due to the theme of memory and solitude, the life-of-the-mind — literally living within your self — that seems so central to her work, or at least, this is my relationship to the songs.
It is somehow fitting and appropriate that Suzanne Vega is often referred to as a “literate” songwriter and performer, appropriate, because I believe that few other songwriters so closely approximates the state of inward reflection usually achieved only when one is reading or perhaps day dreaming. Her songs are not so much an invitation to communal expression, as they are to a solitary, interior world of memory. This is the power of these songs. Not in any particular message, but in how the listener can attach to them their own memories and associations. To hear these songs is not just to hear her words, but to awaken our own memories.
Remembering is a solitary act. To listen to Vega’s music is to remember and to journey to a perfect solitude. Each of us has moments when our minds detach themselves from the matter-at-hand and sail over an inner landscape of memory, flying over the terrain like the eye of a god. It might happen when standing for a moment at a street corner, waiting for the traffic to pass. Or waiting for the bus or train to arrive. Who knows where we might go or what we might see? The face of a childhood friend, or perhaps a moment, flickering like some old film? It might be triggered by a poster on a wall or maybe by a walk through some shaded garden. The best art does this–a painting, a song–it leads us into the promised land of memory.
* * *
An Unknown Country
It does not seem preposterous to claim that Identity, and the concept of Existence, is inextricably bound with memory, and more specifically, the act of remembering. Imagine the nature of your existence if you had no recollection of what happened before you awoke this morning, as if everything had begun a-new? How would you love? What kind of sense could you make of your life? But imagine also an existence of nothing but Memories. This, it seems, is a state to which so many of our elders have traversed. They have no sentiment for our World. They have whispered to some Unknown Country. They have memories enough, and have no want of new ones.
* * *
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
Burnt Norton. T.S. Eliot.
* * *
Do you remember how you walked with me
down the street into the square?
* * *
Once, many years ago, there was a child of nine who loved Walter Milligan. One Saturday morning she was walking in the neighborhood of her school. She walked and thought, “The plain fact is–as I have heard so many times–that in several years’ time I will not love Walter Milligan. I will very probably marry someone else. I will be untrue; I will forget Walter Milligan.”
Deeply, unforgettably, she thought that if what they said about Walter Milligan was true, then the rest went with it: that she would one day like her sister, and that she would be glad she had taken piano lessons. She was standing at the curb, waiting for the light to change. It was all she could do to remember not to get run over, so she would live to betray herself. For a series of connected notions presented themselves: if all these passions of mine be overturned, then what will become of me? Then what am I now?
She seemed real enough to herself, willful and conscious, but she had to consider the possibility–the likelihood, even–that she was a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud–and that she was being borne helplessly and against all her wishes to suicide, to the certain loss of self and all she held dear. Herself and all that she held dear–this particular combination of love for Walter Milligan, hatred of sister and piano lessons etc.–would vanish, destroyed against her wishes by her own hand.
When she changed, where will that other person have gone? Could anyone keep her alive, this person here on the street, and her passions? Will the unthinkable adult that she would become remember her? Will she think she is stupid? Will she laugh at her?
She was a willful one, and she made a vow. The light changed; she crossed the street and set off up the sloping sidewalk by the school. I must be loyal, for no one else is. If this is the system, then I will buck it. I will until I die ride my bike and walk along these very streets, where I belong. I will until I die love Walter Milligan and hate my sister and read and walk in the woods. And I will never, not I, sit and drink and smoke and do nothing but talk.
Foremost in her vow was this, that she would remember the vow itself. She woke to her surroundings; it was cold. Even walking so fiercely uphill, she was cold, and illuminated by a powerful energy. To her left was the stone elementary school, deserted on Saturday. Across the street was a dark row of houses, stone and brick, with their pillared porches. The porch floors were painted red or gray or green. This was not her own neighborhood, but it was her turf. She pushed uphill to the next corner. She committed to memory the look of that block, that neighborhood: the familiar cracked sidewalk, how pale it was, how sand collected in its cracks; the sycamores; the muffled sky.
“Aces and Eights,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk. Annie Dillard.
* * *
Spreading a memory all through the sky…
In Liverpool. Suzanne Vega.
* * *
When Jose Arcadio Buendia realized that the plague had invaded the town, he gathered together the heads of families to explain to them what he knew about the sickness of insomnia, and they agreed on methods to prevent the scourge from spreading to other towns in the swamp. That was why they took the bells off the goats, bells that the Arabs had swapped them for macaws, and put them at the entrance of the town at the disposal of those who would not listen to the advice and entreaties of the sentinels and insisted on visiting the town. All strangers who passed through the streets of Macondo at that time had to ring their bells so that the sick people would know that they were healthy. They were not allowed to eat or drink anything during their stay, for there was no doubt but that the illness was transmitted by mouth, and all food and drink had been contaminated by insomnia. In that way they kept the plague restricted to the perimeter of the town. So effective was the quarantine that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing and life was organized in such a way that work picked up its rhythm again and no one worried any more about the useless habit of sleeping.
It was Aureliano who conceived the formula that was to protect them against loss of memory for several months. He discovered it by chance. An expert insomniac, having been one of the first, he learned the art of silverwork to perfection. One day he was looking for the small anvil that he used for laminating metals and he could not remember its name. His father told him: ‘Stake.’ Aureliano wrote the name on a piece of paper that he pasted to the base of the small anvil: stake. In that way he was sure of not forgetting it in the future. It did not occur to him that this was the first manifestation of a loss of memory, because the object had a difficult name to remember. But a few days later he discovered that he had trouble remembering almost every object in the laboratory. Then he marked them with their respective names so that all he had to do was read the inscription in order to identify them. When his father told him about his alarm at having forgotten even the most impressive happenings of his childhood, Aureliano explained his method to him, and Jose Arcadio Buendia put in into practice all through the house and later on imposed it on the whole village. With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana. Little by little, studying the infinite possibilities of a loss of memory, he realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use. Then he was more explicit. The sign that he hung on the neck of the cow was an exemplary proof of the way in which the inhabitants of Macondo were prepared to fight against loss of memory: This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk. Thus they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters.
At the beginning of the road into the swamp they put up a sign that said MACONDO and another larger one on the main street that said GOD EXISTS. In all the houses keys to memorizing objects and feelings had been written. But the system demanded so much vigilance and moral strength that many succumbed to the spell of an imaginary reality, one invented by themselves, which was less practical for them but more comforting. Pilar Ternera was the one who contributed most to popularize that mystification when she conceived the trick of reading the past in cards as she had read the future before. By means of that recourse the insomniacs began to live in a world built on the uncertain alternatives of the cards, where a father was remembered faintly as the dark man who had arrived at the beginning of April and a mother was remembered only as the dark woman who wore a gold ring on her left hand, and where a lark sang in the laurel tree. Defeated by those practices of consolation, Jose Arcadio Buendia then decided to build the memory machine that he had desired once in order to remember the marvellous inventions of the gypsies. The artifact was based on the possibility of reviewing every morning, from beginning to end, the totality of knowledge acquired during one’s life. He conceived of it as a spinning dictionary that a person placed on the axis could operate by means of a lever, so that in very few hours there would pass before his eyes the notions most necessary for life. He had succeeded in writing almost fourteen thousand entries when along the road from the swamp a strange-looking old man with the sad sleepers’ bell appeared, carrying a bulging suitcase tied with a rope and pulling a cart covered with black cloth. He went straight to the house of Jose Arcadio Buendia…
One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel Garcia Marquez.