UserpicThe Chautauqua Lecture 7

Glance and Gesture, Nameless

A couple of years after Nina had joined us, Brenin unilaterally decided to augment the pack on his own. Tess joined us 63 days plus around five weeks later. When this photograph was taken, when this memory was frozen, Tess did not yet exist. And yet here she is. There is an absence – a raggedy absence – that you’ll see if you turn your attention to the top right hand corner. When you’re there, if you track left, you’ll also see some scratches and indentations. And if you track all the way to the left of the picture you will see some more. I rescued this photograph from the jaws of Tess – one of many items that I rescued, or failed to rescue from the jaws of Tess. This raggedy absence is Tess, present as absent. It is Tess, Brenin’s daughter, impinging on a time before she was born. It is Tess saying, “I am here too”, even though she was not yet a glint in her wolf-father’s eye.

When she chewed away at this photograph, Tess didn’t ruin it: she augmented it, added immeasurably to it. If this photograph were a memory, frozen in time, when Tess gnawed away at it, and thus encroached onto a time before she was born, she did not do so by altering the content of the memory but by altering its form. The content of the memory is what the memory is about, what it depicts. And this is till the same: it is still a depiction of two friends, charging around a beach on a rare sunny Irish day. If this photograph was a memory, Tess would have altered its form – transformed it into a raggedy memory. Every memory has not just content but a form. Every memory has a shape. The memory theory – which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk – claims that our memories make us who we are: distinct, unique people who persist through time. Perhaps the theory is right – although I suspect not – but it is certainly ambiguous. If my memories make me who I am, is this “I” to be found in the content of my memories or in their form?


The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke once said something that I think is both profoundly beautiful and profoundly true about memories:

But it is still not enough to have mem­o­ries. One must be able to for­get them, if they are many, and have the great patience to wait for them to come again. For it is not the mem­o­ries them­selves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen in a very rare hour, the first word of a line arises out of their midst and strides out of them.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

 Rilke is talking here of the importance of memory for a poet, the role that memory plays in artistic creation. But I think his insight is true more generally. The most important memories are the ones that come again, and for this they must first be forgotten. When they come again, when they return to us, it is not in their original way. The memories that come again are the ones that have become part of our blood, “glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves.” Their content has gone, but their form remains. This form shapes us. 


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