“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!--so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.” — WG Sebald
How could it be? Life is flux and that includes place. (Over the past 25 years, I've watched San Francisco morph into a beast slouching towards Bethlehem.) And yet it wasn't as though I was visiting some place for the first time, all awe and confusion and curiosity. As I made my way about town, I was struck by the fact that I was not really there at all. I wasn't revisiting my past as that was long gone. But nor was I seeing the city for the first time. There was a filter over my eyes, over my experience, that refused to let me see what was happening right in front of me. I didn't have the openness of a tourist or the memories of a city I knew and loved. I had neither; I had nothing. Between my experience of New York and me was an impenetrable wall, or perhaps an abyss, a nothing, a no place. As I walked around, I was not just blind or even dead. I was zombie, neither alive nor dead, neither here nor there, the horror of purgatory.
This was, needless to say, disorienting. And so I headed 15 miles north, to the town and house in which I spent most of my childhood. It's a small town — a Hudson river town — green and lush and a mere 1.5 miles across with around 8,500 people. Here was where I came of age; here was where my great family dramas and violences and pleasures played out; here was where I discovered sex and drugs and love and rock and roll and radical politics.
But as the train huffed up the river, I felt myself disintegrating. I wasn't going home, finding myself, grounding myself. On the contrary, I was entering a world where this me now couldn't find footing at all. The ghosts kept accumulating, gathering, my visit a séance. But I was no medium, conjuring the dead with my gift. I was evacuated by them (pace Gus in "The Wire").
This was not just nostalgia. This was not just a longing for the past. This was the present of the past, the air itself thick with ghosts, with images and sounds of events gone by all swirling through each other. There were few particular memories. It was a flood, a flooding, a drowning.
But how can the past be present? On the other hand, how can the past not be present? Derrida might say, with Hamlet, that time is out of joint, unhinged. But that's to assume that time was hinged in the first place, that we proceed linearly through life. The past is always present, necessarily, to greater and lesser degrees of intensity. This intensity may be visual, affective, sonic, or some combination of all three.
After all, what are the limits of an event? How discrete could it possibly be? When I experience something, that something happens to me, with me, and as me. Which means the event continues to me, with me, and as me. I carry my experiences in my comportment, continuously. “It seems to me," writes WG Sebald, "then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space....”
This is explicit when it comes to, say, scars. An event decades ago leaves an impression in my skin until I die. We also know the present of the past through taste and behavior — how we know how to tie our shoes, that we like chicken salad but never with raisins, that we know the train station is this way not that, that sunlight has a certain duration, that Kierkegaard wrote Repetition. The very possibility of knowledge is the presence of the past.
But things get murkier when we talk about other aspects of events other than knowledge. All those feelings, all those images, all those sounds: they ricochet and reverberate through out until we die, scars of greater or lesser depth. How could it be otherwise? Where else would these experiences, these images, these sounds reside other than in us and around us?
As I strolled about my hometown with an old friend, I was wading through the density of the past. Here, I wasn't blind but I certainly could not see. If in Manhattan I was no place, here I was someplace but that place was at once spectral and viscous. With each step, I was animated by forces and images and an intensity from long ago. The sensation was not joyous per se; I was not giddy. I wept nearly without stopping.
But why? Well, there was no doubt the sadness of my sister's death, the memories of our childhood, seeing and hearing her as a young girl galavanting around, so vital and beautiful, coupled with images of her decaying in her deathbed, that sickening sweet smell of cancer thick in the air.
Yet it was more than that. It was the pain of the past being gone — which is strange, as here I am saying the past was present. That pain is the fold, tearing my tissues, fracturing my bones. That pain is a certain weakness, an inability to stand strong, to be present to the folding of the here and now. But that pain is beautiful, too, letting it tear me asunder, flooding me, feeling too much: the sublimity of time, of life (which is to say the same thing).
This density I experienced owes something to the terrain. Those old trees, that lush vegetation, holds time more closely. This is why I loved The Blair Witch Project: it captured, and performed, the way old forest groves keep ghosts alive, memories caught on branches, the brown leaves so much deathly affect.
And yet it was the terrain that offered me a glimpse of a now. The sky and that Hudson river, both flowing, clear the cobwebs. They offer a now that is forever now — a strange and exhilarating affect. They erase the banality of the ego and its memories, its pains and weakness. They offer respite from the fray and fold of time.
But I don't want to be free of my past. I don't want the cleanliness of the now. I want that sky, yes; I want that river, for sure; but I want my sister alive, too; I want the Jewfro of my youth, my relentless hard ons, my drug induced euphorias, my epiphanies, my fucked up household. I want all that, too. That is so much of what makes us, what makes us interesting, what makes this whole thing difficult and beautiful.
And as Kierkegaard notes, this is impossible — and yet actual (to paraphrase Catherine MacKinnon, of all people). It is the call of life: to take all this and move it forward, into the new, as the new. I have yet to summon the strength to repeat in, with, as my hometown; to repeat my past with all its pleasures and pains. The backwards still dominates me. Or else I deflect and parry, wax nostalgic, make the past an object to be looked at, not something lived through. As Tony Soprano says, "'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation." To make the past an object is to avoid it by trying to master it.
Repetition is something else entirely; it lives the past anew. For Kierkegaard, this is the promise of the modern, its miracle: to live again anew. Alas, repetition doesn't come easily.