This Tiny Life Which Deems Itself Eternal

Some things go unnoticed. The motivations behind our small acts and choices. Often, they slip by us, no matter how glaring to others. Little unexplained tendencies. We all have them. How, for example, did I fail to notice the phonetic resemblance between the two old-fashioned names, Agnes and Gladys, plainly symptomatic of something? Minimally, this may cause confusion to the reader. Bear with me. It will pass as Agnes passes from the story, fading from dog to ghost.

__________________________

Agnes dies on December 12, 2019. For almost a year, I am without a dog. It’s hard to let go of the old Labrador girl, our habits and affections so ingrained. Gladys, a spaniel, is born on September 19, 2020. She leaves her litter and comes to me in November.

The arrival of a puppy would be detrimental to writing. With Agnes, I could be at my desk all morning, break for a leisurely stroll, then back to my desk. With Gladys? Nary a line since her arrival.

Until now, I haven’t minded the loss of writing time, the changes to my hours and daily routine. In truth, I sought such a break. I longed for her soft brown coat and oversized paws promising growth. Her general physicality. The interruption of Agnes thoughts. The care of another life entrusted to me. To be forced to rise early, spend more time outdoors, and feel tired at the end of each day. These are a gift to a person in lockdown.

But lately, I sense my rusted brain creaking. It’s a door ajar, catching the wind and its messages from an open window, idling back and forth, tapping the doorframe. I notice leaves scuttling along the pavement. Gladys chases them, darting in all directions. I am readying for precious minutes to chase my own leaves, those old habits of study.

I miss the burly Labrador whose thick coat seemed to absorb the clamour of ideas in my head and the tapping of my keyboard. Now the reverse has happened. The new dog is fine-coated, rather clamouring in herself and constantly on the move. My ideas bounce off her. I struggle to organize them. I must fit my paragraphs into puppy naps. My living space has altered too. There is a faint memory of the large-boned calm of my old girl as this fresh thing called a spaniel nibbles my trouser legs, chair legs, then races past in a blur to the next chewable location. Let’s just say the room is no longer conducive to study.

I can’t love her yet as I loved Agnes. This is not to say there is no love. But it is new. She’s a puppy – a teething, manic, pre-hormonal, pooping little mass, as yet unsettled in herself. At times, surprised and confused by her own body. I’m not sure who she is, who we will be together. All that took time to reconcile with Agnes. As it will with Gladys.

Yet already, new love brings a fierce protectiveness. The few times I have thought she was unwell, my stomach knotted with fear and a sense of obligation. Donna Haraway has said, “I have a dog. A dog has me.” (“Making Kin: An Interview with Donna Haraway” Los Angeles Review of Books [LARB] 2019).

Gladys has me, but I can only be inadequate. We must learn a dog, and ourselves with a dog, as we do for another human. We accept that there will be error, misunderstanding, power imbalances, and most of all, mystery, the enchanting unknowability of another:

“If you take anybody seriously, one of the things you learn is not knowing. That’s one thing I learned from Cayenne and my other dogs… And the appreciation of not knowing and letting that be is something you learn in a serious relationship. It’s a kind of letting go. Not knowing and being with each other not knowing… It’s very hard. But that kind of relationship is also deeply joyful. It takes a lot of restraint, and it takes forgiving each other. It takes forgiving yourself for imposing yourself on the other, for thinking you knew when you didn’t, for not paying enough attention to know when you could have.” (Haraway, LARB, 2019.)

With Gladys, all this is compounded by the relative fragility of a puppy. Young life. I am anxious for her tender bones, her reckless spaniel acrobatics. Her untried organs. Everything still developing. I am her keeper, yet I am woefully inept. Words, so useful to me normally, will fail as they often did with Agnes. Outside the prison house of language, dogs do not speak to us in words.

Historically, we humans have held this against animals. We measure their ‘powers’ against our own, thereby diminishing animals and our relations with them: “Lacking speech, the faculty of reason, and what recent ethicists term ‘the capacity’ to suffer, the animal has also been said to be incapable of death – in the ‘proper’ sense of that word.” (See Dawne McCance, “Death” in The Edinburgh Companion to Animal Studies [ECAS] Lynn Turner, Undine Sellbach and Ron Broglio, eds. 2017)

Engaging this western philosophical view of animals in The Beast and the Sovereign, Jacques Derrida notes that:

“in the dominant tradition of how the animal is treated by philosophy and culture in general, the difference between animal and human has always been defined according to the criterion of ‘power’ or ‘faculty’, i.e. the ‘being able to do [pouvoir faire]’ or the inability to do this or that (man can speak, he has that power, the animal does not have the power of speech, man can laugh and die, the animal can neither laugh nor die, it is not capable of its death, as Heidegger literally says; it does not have the power (können) of its death and to become mortal, etc.), and, as I said here quite insistently not long ago, Bentham always seemed to me to be on the right track in saying – in opposition to this powerful tradition that restricts itself to power and non-power – that the question is not, ‘can the animal do this or that, speak, reason, die, etc.?’ but ‘can the animal suffer?’ is it vulnerable?” (Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 2)

Further to this, and drawing on Derrida’s argument, McCance notes “Derrida’s contention that vulnerability is a ‘non-power’ humans share with animals and that it is from ‘compassion in impotence’ that we might begin to rethink human-animal relations…” (McCance, ECAS.)

It is this notion of shared vulnerability which first suggested itself to me during my last years with Agnes. The two of us had experienced some difficult losses and changes together. I resisted them in ways that my dog seemed not to. And it would be Agnes, in her silent constancy, who showed me how to ‘weather’ these changes without denying them. Slowly, my daily rhythms began to meld with hers; we were as the two images in a rangefinder camera, coming into alignment. The pleasure of that alignment, the labour of it, ever at risk, always sought. Likewise, our immediate concerns grew more compatible. Were we warm? Did we have a place to be? Food? Some company? I saw the humbling significance of our having satisfied these basic needs. I worried less, grew quieter, began to see her, wait for her. I realized that her vulnerabilities were not so far removed from mine. At a certain moment, we seemed to ‘age’ together, in our bones and muscles. Our femaleness achieved some mutuality. In time, I was at greater peace in myself, and with Agnes.

I knew we were moving towards the end. She was old. I could imagine the possible ways she might die although ultimately, she found one I had not foreseen.

We had recently moved back to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. On the valley floor, there were rows of little houses once inhabited by mill workers. Further up the lanes, there were weavers’ cottages, and the moors above us on all sides. Agnes, I reasoned, had at least a year or two left in her. I could take her up to the tops where the wind might raise her thick Labrador coat and make her frisky, and we could drop down to the canal towpath when her limbs were too tired for hill walking.

The pandemic was yet unseen. We began each day in an innocence of the near future which, in retrospect, looks more like misplaced optimism. Curled at the foot of my bed, Agnes always raised her head to greet me, her tail lazily tapping. She waited while I went down to make coffee with warmed milk, fetching a small dish of kibble for her to enjoy while I sipped my brew. We sat together, old friends. Those elements – coffee and kibble, Agnes, her gaze – gave us the pretense of longevity. Like all life, we were an endangered coastline, a house at risk of sliding into the waves. But we were tenacious. Still on the trail. Purposeful. We believed in the promise of each day. We were on dry land.

Then, on the morning of December 12, there was no coffee hour. Agnes didn’t raise her head or look to me. She never moved. She was already cold and stiff when I opened my eyes. She must have been dead some hours.

She had been poorly for two days, having got hold of moldy bread thrown on the canal towpath and I believed this was the cause of her sickness. I was used to the scavenging of a Labrador. She had found rotting food before and made herself sick. Recovered in a few days. Agnes had a stomach of steel, I often said. As on other occasions, she threw up soon after ingesting the bread. I could see lumps of it in the large mass of vomit I cleared from the floor. I hoped this would be the worst of it, but she seemed so weak afterwards that I took her to the vet anyway. The vet checked her over and agreed she had upset her system rather badly. She was given medicine to coat her stomach and help with nausea. We put her on a diet of boiled chicken and rice. But her appetite never returned. She stood before her bowl, stared at it like a disappearing pleasure, tried to eat, but couldn’t manage it. I put small amounts in my hand to tempt her. But she backed away and dropped to the floor, confusion in her eyes.

By the end of the second day, I sensed danger and made another call to the vet. We agreed that if she did not improve by morning, I should bring her in. She didn’t make it through the night.

I had always expected there to be a ‘moment of decision’ on my part, ending in a final trip to the vet. But this was not to be. In retrospect, I believe Agnes retained a degree of power over herself by dying at home without assistance from a vet. But at the time, her departure from such intervention, this final solitary agency of hers in the dark of night, felt shocking and painful, and yes, fraught with unknowingness.

The fact of her age, that death was coming, that life had been lived – in the end these would make mourning possible. Our long history together, not always easy, marked by loss and grief for us both, this too made mourning possible. We fear and dread death, often forgetting that death is also a setting free. I don’t think I will ever forgive myself for being asleep when Agnes died. Nor have I ceased to mourn her. But as time passes, it has become, mostly, a beneficial mourning.

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But Gladys. This little reminder that youth can be more terrifying than old age. I cannot tell Gladys what I rarely needed to tell Agnes. That it is too hard on puppy legs to launch herself off six feet high banks down to a hard path – as she longs to do. I cannot tell her that it is unsafe to walk on broken glass, or worse still, consume it. I cannot explain that eating discarded face masks found on the pavement in town is not a good idea. I must watch for her, pre-empt things, distract and guide her away from danger without treading on her agency. I must keep her secure without interrupting her joyous forever-present of seeming indestructability. I must, as Marie Bonaparte did for her Topsy, “love this tiny life which deems itself eternal, since its running paws so cheerfully deny their inevitable stop, one day.” (Marie Bonaparte, Topsy: The Story of a Golden-Haired Chow, 1937)

Should anything happen to Gladys, this innocent dog with life still ahead of her, I fear healthy mourning would not be possible. No, to borrow from Freud again, it would be full-barreled melancholia for me. Between the two dogs, Agnes and Gladys, there might be a pitiful enactment of the great essay:

It was her fear of Topsy’s death, not to say its anticipation coupled with a pre-emptive mourning that led Bonaparte (friend to Freud and psychoanalyst herself) to write her dog memoir. In 1935, a cancerous lump was discovered on the Chow’s upper lip. Topsy would be cured following treatment at the Curie Institute, but much of the book concerns Bonaparte’s meditations on death, Topsy’s and her own, mainly, although the wider context of 1930s Europe and the rise of Nazism clearly added to the morbid anxieties evident in numerous passages.

Of the import of losing Topsy as dog: “People may say it is too much to cry for a poor dog… [but] When two creatures on this earth… have found each other, have loved each other, even though they be of different species, why must other affections, other duties, and work that a poor dog cannot understand, be strong enough to separate them?”

At times troubled by what she calls the painful tension (tension douloureuse) between human and dog, Bonaparte burdens Topsy with a series of competing ideas. Writing across difference, she declares her “sisterly feeling” for Topsy. She states that her love surpasses the love she has felt for most humans while, at the same time, noting the mystery that is Topsy, the ultimate impossibility of knowing a dog: “What will Topsy have loved when death comes to take her away?” And: “Topsy, the greatest philosopher, strive as he may, will never know the visions which pass through your little golden head.”

Bonaparte is wonderfully unafraid of contradiction. At times Topsy is her protector, a “talisman of life…She guards me and by her presence alone must bar the entrance of my room to a worse ill, and even to Death.”  Yet in another passage, it is Topsy who threatens to bring death closer: “As a dog’s life is so short, to have one, to love one, is… gratuitously to invite death into one’s house.”

Poor Topsy! The reader can only feel some relief that her dog cannot know Bonaparte’s labile thoughts and scribblings. We are relieved too when Bonaparte remarks, finally, “I bless her… for not knowing that which I, alas, do know.”

Moreover, Topsy’s cancer takes her memoirist back and forward in time. Topsy becomes “the tragic messenger of the death my father suffered” (also from cancer, some twelve years earlier), and similarly, a portent of the cancer that would kill Freud. Indeed, both Freud and Topsy suffered from tumors of the right oral cavity. Bonaparte does not refer to Freud’s cancer in the memoir, but more than one commentator has suggested that the two sufferers – dog and founder of psychoanalysis – may have been linked in her mind. In any case, Freud responded positively to the project: “Just received your manuscript of the Topsy book,” he wrote to Bonaparte. “I love it; it is so movingly genuine and true. It is not an analytic work, of course, but the analyst’s thirst for truth and knowledge can be perceived behind this production, too.”

“Does Topsy realize she is being translated?” What a tender gift Freud gives us with this lighthearted question.

Does he mean his own translation of Topsy into the German? Most likely. But if anyone might read Topsy as Bonaparte’s own impossible desire to ‘translate’ her dog (and herself with dog), it would be Freud.

Moreover, we know that Freud loved dogs. There are dog references in his letters, photos and theoretical works. Jofi, Freud’s Chow, attended his sessions with patients.

In his Introduction to Topsy, Gary Genosko writes that “Freud’s consulting room, like his manner, was his alone. His devotion to Jofi was so strong that he did not entertain the idea of sparing an analysand a confrontation with his dog.” Peter Gay describes how “the dog would sit quietly at the foot of the couch during the analytic hour.” (Freud: A Life for Our Time, 1988). In Martin Freud’s memory of his father, Jofi would yawn and rise at the end of the hour – with such accuracy that Freud had no need to check his watch. (See H. Ruitenbeck, Freud as We Knew Him, 1973). Hilda Doolittle (the poet H.D.) not only wondered at Freud’s preference for dogs over cats, but took exception to the Chow’s regular attendance at her own analysis: “I was annoyed at the end of my session as Jofi would wander about and I felt the Professor was more interested in Jofi than he was in my story.” (Hilda Doolittle, Tribute to Freud, 1956)

Freud’s remark that dogs display no ambivalence in their object relations has been much cited: “Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.” (Freud, letter to Marie Bonaparte) Perhaps less commonly known is Freud’s own lack of ambivalence towards his dogs.

When Wolf, Anna’s Alsatian, bit Ernest Jones, Freud remarked that Jones “deserved it.” Indeed, Anna recorded – with a hint of jealousy – her father’s fascination and affection for Wolf, the first of the family dogs: “I did not give Papa a present for his birthday because there is no present suitable for the occasion. I brought only a picture of Wolf… because I always assert that he transferred his whole interest in me on to Wolf. He was very pleased with it.”

But it is Jofi the Chow, Freud’s own dog, who features most prominently in the Freud story. And following a series of painful operations for his mouth cancer, Freud found comfort in Jofi’s presence. In a letter to Bonaparte, he stated, “I wish you could have seen with me what sympathy Jofi shows me during these hellish days, as if she understood everything.”

When Jofi died in 1937, Freud – the thinker who gave us the great essay on mourning – shared his sense of loss in a letter to the German novelist Arnold Zweig: “Apart from any mourning, it is very unreal, and one wonders when one will get used to it. But, of course, one cannot easily get over seven years of intimacy.”

Jofi died in the same year Topsy was published. Freud undertook, together with Anna, its translation into German, completing the work in April, 1938. Genosko (drawing on Anna’s own account) provides a poignant description of the circumstances (both personal and public) in which Freud completed the translation:

“…with the Nazi invasion of Austria (March, 1938), the climate of apprehension had turned to fear, and Freud found himself without any analysands, house-bound (ultimately put under house arrest), lonely, ill, and uncertain about his family’s future. It was in this state that he [in Anna’s words] took up ‘an old occupation, the work of translation,’ in order to ‘do a favor in gratitude for her [Bonaparte’s] unflagging helpfulness… it was not only the person of the author but, above all, the topic of the book which influenced Freud’s choice.’ This favor also in a manner of speaking ‘repaid’ Freud’s own dogs, Anna wrote, for their years of companionship. Her father, Anna explained, turned away from the violent and destructive world of his fellow men to that of animals… Ultimately, with the assistance of Bonaparte, the Freuds left Vienna on June 4, 1938, en route to London via Paris.”  (Genosko, Introduction to Topsy)

A longer thread may be pulled from this account. It winds back to Freud’s question: “Does Topsy realize she is being translated?” And here we may join this question to Freud and Topsy’s shared vulnerability: their cancer. Moreover, it is clear that Freud, a Jew in Vienna, came to the translation during a moment of personal danger that reached beyond his illness, and beyond the loss of his own dog. And Anna’s suggestion that Freud turned away from the world of humans to that of animals finds a counterpart in the text itself:

“Far away, nations might clamour threateningly, money markets collapse, but you [Topsy] knew nothing of it all… Dogs are ignorant of the extent and bitterness of human quarrels, their quarrels being limited and short-lived… Topsy knew nothing of the complications of human quarrels, and only knew how to love me.” (Bonaparte, Topsy)

Aside from the overworked point, again, concerning the perceived lack of ambivalence shown by dogs in their relations, it is clear that both author and translator understood the perilous world in which the two cancers (Topsy’s and Freud’s) had occurred. Yet what Freud translated, in the main, was that tension douloureuse described by Bonaparte in her efforts to love and care for Topsy across the dog-woman divide. We are touching, again, on the question of shared vulnerability, but here through the project(s) of translation. In her essay on ethics/translation/empathy, Kari Weil states:

“Animals are often better readers than we are. Dogs owe their integration into our homes and our lives in part to their ability to respond, not only to commands, but also to moods and the silent expressions of our bodies… Such felt readings, moreover, are also translations, whether from one sense to another, or from words to touch or smell and back again.” (Kari Weil, “Empathy” in ECAS)

And drawing more specifically on Derrida:

“To be sure, some of the most difficult translations are those demanded by human-animal relations. They give us reason to marvel at the uniqueness of human forms of expression, even as they must be checked by all that we don’t know about non-human languages – whether of dogs or rats or ants.

“For Derrida, translation, like empathy, is both necessary and impossible: necessary because we are always bound to an other – giant, man, beast, dog – who precedes us and awakens us to our senses. It is impossible because of what, in the other and ourselves, remains opaque to translation… It is through attention to the necessity and impossibility of translation that empathy can become an ethical force.” (Weil, “Empathy” in ECAS)

The complex set of translations that is Topsy (dog, dog with Bonaparte, dog with cancer, dog in a sick Europe, and finally, dog in book), that both author and translator were psychoanalysts, Jofi’s death, that sickness and death hovered truly over these projects, the larger historical context – all these make a memoir that is, at first glance, a deceptively simple read. At second glance, it challenges our conception of relations with others – human and animal.

Topsy and Jofi, like Agnes, are with the ghosts. But these are welcome hauntings in a plague year. The animals that, to borrow from Haraway once more, ‘have humans’ – are seeing more of those humans than before the lockdown. We can’t know how our relations with animals may be altered by the plague times, but certainly Derrida’s invocation of Bentham’s question remains powerful:

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789).

Bentham’s question has featured in the history of animal rights activism, but of course it lends itself to wider issues: the meanings of compassion and freedom, survival of the planet and of those species currently threatened with extinction, questions of political justice and agency, the personal and the political, and finally, the ways in which our neglect of animals diminishes us as human-animals, and therefore our politics too. The point about my life with Agnes, for example, is not that I ever understood her dogness, but that her dogness challenged me to be a better human.

“Empathy across difference requires imagination,” remarks Kari Weil. Our relations with animals afford us an opportunity to “confront the prejudices that have kept empathy out of politics.” And she rightly cites Derrida’s plea for a “new experience of this compassion” that can “awaken us to our responsibilities and obligations vis-à-vis the living in general.”  (Weil, in ECAS)

__________________________

Agnes is gone. But Gladys stirs. What I must do, now, is stop writing.

Bonaparte checks her writerly ambition by noting that Topsy prefers to inhale the “scented June air, whilst I strive laboriously to trace signs on this paper. Should I leave my cupboards full of immortal writings… they would only be what they already are… even for Topsy today: a worthless heap of the cellulose which men call paper.”

Gladys stirs.

With Gladys on Dartmoor

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Here this was


“Since an analogue photograph is the luminous trace of what was in front of the camera at the moment the photograph was made, we argue, it attests to its referent’s reality, just as a footprint attests to the reality of the foot that formed it.”

Photography is “the world’s primary way of revealing itself to us – of demonstrating that it exists, and that it will forever exceed us. Photography is also an ontological calling card: it helps us to see that each of us is a node in a vast constellation of analogies.” (Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 2015)

Standing in line at the World Trade Centre, opposite the wall of mirrors, 1977

My box of old prints. Here this was. Made by cutting up several prints from a single negative. It’s worn now and its original greys have turned to browns in places, though I was never one to print in sepia.

New York City: time, place, presence, mirrors (the absenting begins)

Camera: the absenting continues

Facing my reflection in the mirror, I hold the camera to my eye

Leave NYC, return to Massachusetts. Life before the digital era, the days of darkrooms where you live.

House on Graves Avenue, Northampton, Mass. 1979 (darkroom was in second bedroom)

There’s a whiffle ball game outside my darkroom. I stop to photograph the game. Our friend Bob sits on the porch. Bob’s friend Em is the catcher. I don’t now recall the name of the batter. Em died in 1993 at the age of forty.

In the darkroom…

Photography’s “memorial value” – its “melancholy pastness”… (Kaja Silverman)

Scissors, board, paste…

I look at it for awhile, leave it out for a few months, then put it away to make room for something else.

I don’t look at it for a long time.

Decades later, after Isaac is born (1988), after many times are gone by, and after the towers come down (2001), I take a ballpoint pen to the print, so that Isaac might see Ricardo and me, so that he might see that ‘we were there’ and ‘there we were’, should he find this old thing after us.

I put it away again.

The digital era proceeds apace. The print remains in its box with a pile of other old photographs from the analogue time. I move around a great deal, dragging the box with me. But in 2020, here in this place, pandemic raging, I see that I have settled as much as a restless person can settle. There is a stillness. I open the box.

Benjamin told us, “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one… our coming was expected… “(Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940)

The old photographs wait for me. They might be posted/post the analogue. Move back and forward, absence and presence, looking for themselves, looking for me, looking for some who are gone, some here, some yet to come. They wait for Isaac, for others, for later, for never.

“A negative analogizes its referent, the positive prints that are generated from it, and all of its digital offspring, and it moves through time, in search of other ‘kin.'” (Kaja Silverman)


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Trees (two): everything conspires to keep quiet about us

Look: the trees exist; the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly.
Only we
pass by it all, like a rush of air.
And everything conspires to keep quiet
about us,
half out of shame perhaps, half out of
some secret hope.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies


All photos made in Devon, summer 2020

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The second time I see him

I first saw him one late afternoon. He was in a field, perhaps twenty yards from me. He tucked into the tall grass and watched as I walked along the path below him.

This is the second time. Beside the same path, he sits on a fence post at nightfall. He is between the path and the woods. I am making my way home before dark:

I expect him to leap and disappear into the undergrowth as I proceed towards him. But he remains still. It is as though he expects me. He watches my approach, watches as I cautiously raise my phone because I am seized by a desire to photograph him. He turns his gaze away from me at the moment the photo occurs.

If you look closely at the photo and into his night, you can see his eyes no longer looking at me. I cannot ‘take’ him with my camera. He acquiesces; gifts and withholds. I receive. What might he receive of me?

In an early essay on photography, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” (1859), Oliver Wendell Holmes “encourages us to look at the images we ‘shed’ as well as those we receive from others – to view ourselves from the outside, as others see us, as well as from the inside, where we see them: ‘these evanescent films may be seen in… any clear, calm sheet of water, in a mirror, in the eye of an animal…’” (Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 2015)

I take a quiet step. He turns to look at me again. We remain there a moment, eye to eye, opposite one another in darkening space/time, shared and unshared. He tells me he is not leaving. I am grateful.

It crosses my mind that this could be Vico: a ghost, a revenant. The toughest animal I ever knew, Vico came before the other animals in our young family and outlasted them all. He weathered the arrival of a dog, that dog’s lumbering affection, fights with other cats, going missing after house moves, and becoming trapped under the floor boards of one house in a last-ditch attempt to avoid moving altogether. Vico went missing so long and so often, only to return emaciated and injured, that he wore out our desire to have a cat. It was too painful. How he found his way home each time, how he managed to purr at the sight of us, even while bleeding, limping, and starving after some misadventure, we could not know.

I carry guilt about Vico that never leaves me. The source of this guilt is my attachment to our dog, Maisie. From the moment she arrived, even in her exasperating puppy days, my affections shifted from cat to dog. For years, I mostly ignored him, yet Vico never gave up on me. I was his person. He favoured me, rubbed his arched body against my legs, climbed onto my lap, and purred heavily. It’s hard to explain to an animal, but we humans go through life feeling shame about particular episodes. There are things we try not to think about that, nonetheless, remain in our hearts until we die. That neglect of Vico is one of mine.

It was not until the last year of his life that I returned to Vico. As a grizzled old black cat, he developed two health problems. The first was chronic conjunctivitis which meant that he required daily eye drops until he died. The second was a brain tumour which mainly affected his movement. He walked with a tilt to one side, often twisting his head and pressing it against the wall or sides of furniture. He drank water in large quantities but did not eat much, losing weight until he reminded me of an old man. I was his nurse. We sat together in the sun on warm afternoons. Twice a day, I cleansed his eyes, and administered drops, prednisone, and painkillers. He put up no resistance to my ministrations. Vico had always liked the sound of my voice, purring loudly when I talked to him. So I talked to him again. Told him what I was doing. What I was thinking. He purred. At the end, when the vet gave him the injection, I spoke to him and damn if he didn’t surprise us all by getting to his feet one last time. He stood facing me and purring. Then he dropped back down and died.

Vico, who fought death so long and so hard. Who for one last summer, cruised down the waters from Amsterdam to Paris, carrying his brain tumour, taking medication from me, calling me back, resting in the sun on a canal boat. More than ten years later, the memory of Vico still haunts.

So now, to this black cat on a fence post, I think of saying aloud, “Vico? Is it you?”

But I decide against it. Vico does not have to be you, I think. You don’t have to be Vico. I find I can thank you for bringing him to mind. I find I can love you both.

I see him/Vico/him in our private nightfall, then move past him to make my way home. Before I exit the path, I look back and he’s still there.

A vast similitude interlocks all…
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes…
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future…

Walt Whitman, On the Beach at Night Alone, 1871 (extract)

For Vico

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Childhood amnesia, storytelling, and the lifelong game of memory

It’s too easy, facile you might say, to open any piece with Joan Didion’s line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And much as I might like the line, the ring of it, the emotive force of it, I realize it cannot serve my purposes here. So, I wish to vary it a little to the following:

We tell ourselves stories in order to remember. We tell ourselves stories because we forget. We tell stories to fight the failures of memory. And when we fail to overcome failure, we tell more stories so that we might at least believe we remember.

I spent last week with a dear friend who is living with a severe memory disorder. As we walked around my small Devon town, she regularly told me she remembered this place or that, often adding a small account of some gathering or event at that location. It is unlikely, though not impossible, that she visited these locations years ago. I believe the events she remembered took place in some form and some (other) place. But the important point is that it made her feel better to tell me them, to insert herself into time and place, and to be seen as my equal in the game of memory we all play with variable accuracy and competence.

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We are all vulnerable in that lifelong game of memory, and few rounds are more telling of that fact than the ‘earliest memory’ round. “What is my earliest memory?” we like to ask ourselves. It’s fascinating to see how each of us responds to that question and a source of repeated frustration to bump against an ‘amnesia’ that is written into the human condition from the start.

This is a photo of me as a baby, together with my elder sister and brother. I don’t remember the time of the photograph or any particular event relating to it, but I remember the sofa. More than that, I fix on the sofa – its pattern and texture – as an “earliest memory.” It is as though these left an imprint on my infant mind, settled somewhere behind my eyes and deposited traces on my fingertips so that I might always recall the sight and ‘feel’ of that old 1950s sofa.

There are two things of note here. First, this appears to be a sense memory, one invoking the two specific senses of touch and sight. As such, it has no grammar, no words or narrative other than what I might impose upon it retrospectively. In this, it resembles a dream. Freud remarked that “words are often treated in dreams as things.” Dreams turn our latent thoughts/wishes into images or scenes (the dream’s manifest content) which we, upon waking, try to put back into words. We seek to recover a meaning that the dream has disguised.

Yet in relation to this particular memory, this waking dream, I struggle to find my way back to words or meaning. All I have is a remote, untethered flash of recognition accompanied by affect – a pang of bittersweet longing (nostalgia) brought on by the texture and design of the sofa. Again, we find a parallel in Freud’s conception of dreams. He cites Austrian pathologist Salomon Stricker’s remark that “If I am afraid of robbers in my dreams, the robbers, to be sure, are imaginary, but the fear of them is real.”

To which Freud adds: “the same thing is true if I rejoice in my dream. According to the testimony of our feelings, an affect experienced in a dream is in no way inferior to one of like intensity experienced in waking life, and the dream presses its claim to be accepted as part of our real psychic experiences, by virtue of its affective rather than its ideational content.”

So far, so good. I can perhaps stake some claim to the sofa as my earliest memory, even if I can derive no description of a past self or event from it. Even if I cannot find anything more than the immediate affect it rouses, even if I experience no Proustian passage from involuntary to autobiographical memory, for, and here I borrow far too cheekily from Mr. Freud, “the affect is always in the right.”

But – and here is the second thing of note about this memory – my so-far-so-good was as fleeting as memory itself. Because as tightly as I might cling to my memory of the sofa, my more cautious self must admit that it did not occur to me as a ‘first memory’ until I found the photograph. My finding of the photograph happened in 2003, after my mother died, in the course of going through her belongings.

Did the finding of the photo trigger a ‘real’ first memory or did it simply allow me to create a metanarrative along the lines of: I have a first memory and here it is? I have found my first memory. Life was so empty without it! In other words, the finding of the photograph allowed me to tell myself a story of remembering. In fact, a story more about memory itself than about the sofa. We tell ourselves stories to remember. To find the “affect that is always in the right.”

Here, Freud would surely draw my attention away from my ‘dreamlike’ descent into nostalgia to remind me of what he called “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory for the first years of our lives,” that “turns everyone’s childhood into something like a prehistoric epoch.”

Freud would relate this failure to repression occurring during the child’s psychosexual development. Of course, the concept has been much researched and re-worked since Freud so that now, under the term “childhood amnesia,” it is viewed as a cognitive phenomenon best understood as having to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories. What we now know is that childhood amnesia emerges around the age of seven. Up to then, children are remarkably good at remembering earlier events:

“Although adults exhibit limited abilities to retrieve memories from their early childhood, young children, including toddlers, are capable of recalling information about their past experiences following delays of days, months, and even years. Yet many of the early memories become inaccessible or “forgotten” as children grow older such that by late adolescence, children exhibit childhood amnesia to a similar extent or magnitude as adults do. (Qi Wang & Sami Gulgoz, “New Perspectives on Childhood Memory,” Memory (Journal), 2019)

There is now widespread agreement that the emergence of childhood amnesia can be explained by early brain development. Although two-year olds are able to answer basic questions about recent events, they tend to need prompting or cue words to do so. For the next few years, they grow more proficient at recalling and describing life events. But as this skill progresses – i.e. as they learn to narrate their past, to develop a sense of autobiographical memory – that progress coincides (from about the age of seven) with a forgetting of those early events that occurred before the brain had achieved that narrative capability. This is why most researchers agree that our earliest memories usually date from age three or four.

Here we have one of life’s bittersweet ironies, almost another reworking of Didion’s statement insofar as our growing ability to tell ourselves stories coincides with the ‘loss’ of three or four years of memory. Indeed, psychologist Romeo Vitelli notes that, “Since narrative retelling allows us to “rehearse” important memories and retain them longer, memories that are not rehearsed become inaccessible over time and can be quickly forgotten as a result.” (Vitelli, “Exploring Childhood Amnesia” Psychology Today, 2014)

Vitelli cites further research showing that the rate of forgetting is most accelerated during the period in which childhood amnesia emerges, i.e. around the age of seven, when “children rapidly forgot memories of early childhood, but that forgetting slows as children grow older. This suggests that the number of available memories relating to early childhood shrinks rapidly in children. For adults, however, memory is less vulnerable to forgetting due to better memory consolidation.” 

Memory consolidation refers to the gradual development and rehearsal of autobiographical memory, the ability to narrate our past and repeat those narrations over the years. And here, it’s important to recall that we constantly revise our memories. No one made this point more eloquently than Freud in his essay on screen memories:

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” (Freud, Screen Memories, 1899)

The reader will forgive me for returning to this passage often in my posts about memory, but it is our best reminder that memory is a form of representation as much as it is a cognitive process. This passage, we might say, is where Didion and all auto-biographers/memoirists/artists before and after her come to meet the psychologists and neuroscientists. As beings who remember and forget and remember and forget with varying degrees of accuracy (cognition), we all must have recourse to the narrative devices of storytelling (representation).

Moreover, all storytellers benefit from cues, props, stories told by others. And so, what happens to our seven-plus aged selves as we begin to develop autobiographical memory? We begin to gather our personal archive. We gain photographs, mementoes, household objects, family heirlooms, personal possessions. My father clung to his high school basketball trophy, won only a year before he went to war, for his entire life and I now keep it in my possession; I held onto my first pair of ice skates until a transatlantic move pressed me to give it up.

And of course, we gain the narratives of others, initially our parents (or what some researchers like to call the “maternal narrative style” …hmmm), then as our world widens, of extended family, friends and colleagues. Here, it is worth noting that those early (and even later) childhood memories we believe we remember often derive from memories handed to us from our parents or other close family members. For example, I have a deep fear of swimming too far out (losing my footing) in any lake, ocean, or pool. I am certain this fear comes from a memory of a near-drowning incident that occurred when I was four or five. But rather like the nostalgia I experience upon seeing the old sofa, the only real memory (or perhaps more accurately, a triggered return) is of an affect: fear.

I have no memory of the incident itself, but I regularly catch myself believing that I do. This is because the near-drowning incident entered the family annals, became a family story, an explanation even, of a child who exhibited terror at the thought of swimming in a lake. Soon, this ‘memory’ was little more than what various people said happened. And it was constantly revised as it passed from one person to another, one year to another. Sometimes, I was told it happened when I was four. Sometimes, I was five. Sometimes they said, “now what year was that?” As if the event, unlike my fear, was receding in importance. As if they were trying to trick me into forgetting it. Into forgetting what I could not remember. But to borrow from Freud again, the affect had the ‘last word’. The affect that is “always in the right,” however degraded the memory itself.

I have written this following a week during which I witnessed the courage of my friend as she grapples, from minute to minute now, with the decay of memory. And there is something in this universal story of childhood amnesia that levels us. Brings us closer, provides a glimpse of shared experience. I know that soon she will forget our week together, if she has not done so already. I, with all the failings and fictions of human memory all too evident to me, must remember for both of us.

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Trees (one): it is not so much to know the self

Gravelly Run

by A.R. Ammons

I don’t know somehow it seems sufficient
to see and hear whatever coming and going is,
losing the self to the victory
   of stones and trees,
of bending sandpit lakes, crescent
round groves of dwarf pine:

for it is not so much to know the self   
as to know it as it is known
   by galaxy and cedar cone,
as if birth had never found it
and death could never end it:

the swamp’s slow water comes   
down Gravelly Run fanning the long   
   stone-held algal
hair and narrowing roils between   
the shoulders of the highway bridge:

holly grows on the banks in the woods there,   
and the cedars’ gothic-clustered
   spires could make
green religion in winter bones:

so I look and reflect, but the air’s glass   
jail seals each thing in its entity:

no use to make any philosophies here:
   I see no
god in the holly, hear no song from
the snowbroken weeds: Hegel is not the winter   
yellow in the pines: the sunlight has never   
heard of trees: surrendered self among
   unwelcoming forms: stranger,
hoist your burdens, get on down the road.

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“A Poem Is a Walk” (A.R. Ammons)

This is an excerpt from “A Poem Is a Walk”, a 1967 essay by A.R. Ammons. Those friends who write and/or read poetry will know how often I say that I cannot do either with ease. I am a prose person who loves poetry, a clumsy and misguided lover at best. But I do write, read, and walk. And each piece, each essay or story, requires a walk. More often, many walks.

Bu this post is for the poets. I am grateful to those friends who write poetry, read poetry, and turn me towards it. With special thanks to Ron Stringer, who spoke to me of A.R. Ammons.

The complete essay can be found here.

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Calderdale Way, West Yorkshire

“What justification is there for comparing a poem with a walk rather than with something else? I take the walk to be the externalization of an interior seeking so that the analogy is first of all between the external and the internal. Poets not only do a lot of walking but talk about it in their poems: “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” “Now I out walking,” and “Out walking in the frozen swamp one grey day.” There are countless examples, and many of them suggest that both the real and the fictive walk are externalizations of an inward seeking. The walk magnified is the journey, and probably no figure has been used more often than the journey for both the structure and concern of an interior seeking.

“How does a poem resemble a walk? First, each makes use of the whole body, involvement is total, both mind and body. You can’t take a walk without feet and legs, without a circulatory system, a guidance and coordinating system, without eyes, ears, desire, will, need: the total person. This observation is important not only for what it includes but for what it rules out: as with a walk, a poem is not simply a mental activity: it has body, rhythm, feeling, sound, and mind, conscious and subconscious. The pace at which a poet walks (and thinks), his natural breath-length, the line he pursues, whether forthright and straight or weaving and meditative, his whole “air,” whether of aimlessness or purpose – all these things and many more figure into the “physiology” of the poem he writes.

A second resemblance is that every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem. Even if you walk exactly the same route each time – as with a sonnet – the events along the route cannot be imagined to be the same from day to day, as the poet’s health, sight, his anticipations, moods, fears, thoughts cannot be the same. There are no two identical sonnets or villanelles. If there were, we would not know how to keep the extra one: it would have no separate existence. If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster. The poet exposes himself to the risk. All that has been said about poetry, all that he has learned about poetry, is only a partial assurance.

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West Yorkshire

The third resemblance between a poem and a walk is that each turns, one or more times, and eventually returns. It’s conceivable that a poem could rake out and go through incident after incident without ever returning, merely ending in the poet’s return to dust. But most poems and most walks return. I have already quoted the first line from Frost’s “The Wood-Pile.” Now, here are the first three lines:

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther – and we shall see.

The poet is moving outward seeking the point from which he will turn back.

In “The Wood-Pile” there is no return: return is implied. The poet goes farther and farther into the swamp until he finds by accident the point of illumination with which he closes the poem.

But the turns and returns or implied returns give shape to the walk and to the poem. With the first step, the number of shapes the walk might take is infinite, but then the walk begins to “define” itself as it goes along, though freedom remains total with each step: any tempting side road can be turned into on impulse, or any wild patch of woods can be explored. The pattern of the walk is to come true, is to be recognized, discovered. The pattern, when discovered, may be found to apply to the whole walk, or only a segment of the walk may prove to have contour and therefore suggestion and shape. From previous knowledge of the terrain, inner and outer, the poet may have before the walk an inkling of a possible contour. Taking the walk would then be searching out or confirming, giving actuality to, a previous intuition.

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Agnes, West Yorkshire

The fourth resemblance has to do with the motion common to poems and walks. The motion may be lumbering, clipped, wavering, tripping, mechanical, dance-like, awkward, staggering, slow, etc. But the motion occurs only in the body of the walker or in the body of the words. It can’t be extracted and contemplated. It is nonreproducible and nonlogical. It can’t be translated into another body. There is only one way to know it and that is to enter into it.”

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Dartmoor, Devon

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Dandelions

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Spring has come and I see dandelions on every walk. A bright yellow trigger for two cherished texts: Freud’s classic essay on ‘screen memories’ (1899) and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957).

In Screen Memories, Freud analyses a vivid, recurring and unexplained memory set in a field of dandelions. The essay is a good place to enter a lineage that includes Proust’s madeleine, notions of involuntary memory, autobiographical memory and the constitution of the self. The latter topics continue to exercise memory research, while Freud and Proust act as (psychoanalytic and poetic, respectively) precursors to today’s neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists.

The trigger to Ray Bradbury’s novel, coming more like a flash, has the feel of involuntary memory itself. I cross a field of dandelions. In a flicker of vision that is rich in detail, I see the book’s worn cover.

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This sets off a chain of slower, deliberate memory work in which I recall my first reading of the novel and how it came to rescue me during a difficult year in adolescence. My childish letter to Bradbury. His kind reply. By the time I have crossed the field of dandelions, I have also crossed from involuntary to voluntary memory.

As a university student, my first encounter with Freud forever changed the simple faith – to which we all cling – in the veracity of our memories. But in truth, Bradbury’s book had already made the veracity of memory somewhat less important than my attachment to it as emotive experience. If I was not destined to be a nostalgic sort of person before, prone to unconscious tampering with past scenes to give childhood memory its due glow, then Dandelion Wine settled that question. That my natural suspicion of that same glow would later turn me into a historian, well, that comes as no surprise either.

All this brings to mind a comment made by a close friend years ago, as she entered into therapy. She said, very stubbornly, “I am not going to be told I had a bad childhood!” Indeed, Martin Conway has noted “Freud’s realisation that some childhood ‘memories’ were more fantasy than memory, more like the vainglorious stories of the foundation of Rome rather than accurate memories of difficult and powerless times…” (“Memory and Desire – Reading Freud,” The Psychologist, 2006). In any event, I could not have known when I first encountered these disparate texts that one day the authors would come to converse in my mind.

Finally, Dandelion Wine altered the way I remember (and now think about) the seasons, the emotional impact of seasons upon me. Summer, most assuredly, as that is the setting of the novel: one summer in small-town America. After reading the book, summer burned brightly, and yet a darkness around it had been uncovered. Dandelion Wine altered the other seasons too, as though the force of Bradbury’s summer summoned countervailing forces of fall and winter. I remain to this day powerfully moved by all three seasons, each with its own devices that work on me. But not so, by spring. I never ‘warmed’ to spring.

Yet, it is the dandelions of spring that send me to these memories and ruminations.

Screen Memories

 “The scene appears to me fairly indifferent and I cannot understand why it should have become fixed in my memory. Let me describe it to you. I see a rectangular, rather steeply sloping piece of meadow-land, green and thickly grown; in the green there are a great number of yellow flowers – evidently common dandelions… Three children are playing in the grass. One of them is myself (between the age of two and three); the two others are my boy cousin… and his sister.” (Freud, Screen Memories [S], 1899)

The essay is set out as a concise but probing discussion between analyst and analysand. However, this is Freud the storyteller, brilliant writer, and conversationalist – in this instance, with himself. Freud scholars largely agree that although some of the details may be disputed, the essay was nonetheless written in what we might term ‘thinly disguised’ mode. In other words, the ‘dandelion scene’ described in the memory is autobiographical; it is Freud’s own childhood memory.

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Here is how Freud (doctor) introduces Freud (patient): “The subject of this observation is a man of university education, aged thirty-eight. Though his own profession lies in a very different field, he has taken an interest in psychological questions ever since I was able to relieve him of a slight phobia by means of psychoanalysis. Last year he drew my attention to his childhood memories, which had already played some part in his analysis.” [S]

The dialogue Freud has with his constructed patient is creative and searching, even if frustrating in one or two places – in the way that Freud has to be after feminism. Yet the ingenious device allows for a sophisticated discussion in which the psychoanalytic detective partnership (of Freud & Freud) ‘uncovers’ and delineates the meaning of the dandelion memory, the reasons for its persistence and heightened colour/detail, and most importantly, a preliminary definition of ‘screen memory’.

“Recollection of this kind, whose value lies in the fact that it represents in the memory impressions and thoughts of a later date whose content is connected with its own by symbolic or similar links, may appropriately be called a screen memory.” It “owes its value as a memory not to its own content but to the relation existing between that content and some other, that has been suppressed.” [S]

More simply put, a screen memory is a vivid and persistent recollection, yet seemingly insignificant in its content, that ‘screens’ or ‘conceals’ more significant memories. The memories concealed may have to do with experiences that are disturbing in nature. Or they may have to do with repressed phantasies, lost desires. The screen memory acts as a cover; it overlays other memories or life events, thereby shielding us from more challenging psychic material. Therefore, and just as Freud (analysand) presents his dandelion scene, a screen memory is often apparently unimportant, which makes its persistence something of a mystery to the rememberer. S/he may wonder why such an outwardly insignificant memory is so vivid and enduring/recurring.

But as Freud would later write (underscoring his interest in screen memories): “Not only some but all of what is essential in childhood has been retained in these [screen] memories… They represent the forgotten years of childhood as adequately as the manifest content of a dream represents the dream-thoughts.” (Freud, Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through [RRW] 1914.)

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Of course, at the same time they represent a “failure of remembering; what should be correctly reproduced by the memory fails to appear, and instead something else comes as a substitute.” (Freud, “Childhood and Concealing Memories” [CCM] in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, 1901).

In the dandelion memory, the details concerning the wild flowers, the colour yellow, and the act of throwing away the flowers for a piece of bread are key components of the remembered scene. But, and as Freud (analyst) points out, it was equally important to ascertain whether the memory had occurred throughout childhood or at some later time. In answer to this question, his patient replies that he is certain the memory never occurred to him in his earlier years. He proceeds to identify two intertwined ‘moments’, the first when he was seventeen, the second three years later. The moments relate to late adolescent sexual phantasies concerning a girl in a yellow dress in the first case, and in the second, to a period during which he felt pressure from his father to abandon his impoverished student life for marriage and a reliable career that would ‘put bread on the table.’

Importantly, Freud determines that the memory, despite acting as a cover for these two moments, is (at least to some extent or in some form) genuine, telling his patient: “you selected it from innumerable others of a similar or another kind because, on account of its content (which in itself was indifferent) it was well adapted to represent two phantasies which were important enough to you… In any case you will cease to feel any surprise that this scene should so often recur to your mind. It can no longer be regarded as an innocent one since, as we have discovered, it is calculated to illustrate the most momentous turning-points in your life, the influence of the two most powerful motive forces – hunger and love.” [S]

To leave the field of dandelions, it is, as ever, Freud’s larger conclusions that prove most compelling. For example, in his later return to screen memories (Childhood and Concealing Memories), Freud suggests that the “childhood reminiscences of individuals altogether advance to the signification of concealing [screen] memories…the so-called earliest childhood recollections are not true memory traces but later elaborations of the same, elaborations which might have been subjected to the influences of many later psychic forces.” (CCM, 1901).

We have all played the game of ‘what is your earliest memory’. It’s fascinating to see how each of us responds to that question and a source of repeated frustration to bump up against an ‘amnesia’ that is written into the human condition. Here, Freud is taking note of what he called “infantile amnesia… that failure of memory for the first years of our lives,” a failure he would relate to repression occurring during the child’s psychosexual development. But the concept has been much researched and re-worked since Freud so that now, under the term “childhood amnesia,” it is viewed as a cognitive phenomenon best understood as having to do with child brain development, specifically the brain’s capacity to encode memories.

But the point is that (especially) after Freud, our broader understanding of the workings of memory was forever destabilized, and we cannot maintain a naïve faith in its accuracy, as understandable as such faith is to the human condition. If memory is always at least in part, a search for self, then its unreliability can leave us feeling unmoored, all at sea. The only way to proceed is to grab hold of that problem as a lifeboat, find beauty and wonder in our constant re-writing of ourselves, and in the constancy of the mystery that we are. Surely it is our capacity to do so that has made Freud’s closing passage in Screen Memories the one that is now most widely cited:

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.” [S]

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Dandelion Wine

If we consider memory as a representation of our past, a reconstruction, then we understand Freud’s passing remark to his ‘patient’ that our memories often take shape “almost like works of fiction.” [S] And Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (1957) can hardly be considered anything but the author’s own extended memory work in relation to his childhood.

It would be many years before I learned that Bradbury had been moved from his hometown at roughly the same age I was moved from mine. When I was fifteen, my family moved from a small, brick bungalow in one Detroit suburb to a much larger, faux Cape Cod in another. In the new home, I immediately began honing the sullen misery of a teenager into a critique of our displacement. Even this half-century later, I can recall the feel of the wound. It was political and emotional. Not only did I see the move to the wealthier suburb as some sort of class betrayal, but I missed my friends terribly. Although I now realize that I had experienced a prior malaise relating to the first suburb, one that would later develop into a scholarly critique, I could not see that at the time. I longed for the old suburb with the ferocity of Dorothy’s desire for Kansas after her landing in Oz. At fifteen, despite all the comforts of our new dream home, I succumbed to a serious bout of home-sickness.

Bradbury was thirteen when his family moved from Waukegan, Illinois to Los Angeles. “I left at just the right moment,” he later remarked, “so that nostalgia set in almost immediately.” (see Henry Stewart, “Childhood’s End: Death and Growing Up in the Books of Ray Bradbury,” Electric Literature, 2015.) Knowing this now, it seems fortuitous that I first read Bradbury soon after moving, and that the book I chose was Dandelion Wine, his great semi-autobiographical novel of Midwestern boyhood.

Set in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, the novel recounts the adventures and perceptions of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding over the summer of 1928. It opens with an epiphany – “I’m alive” – that occurs while foraging in the forest with his father and brother. Douglas insists that he carry the pails that are heavy with gathered fruit:

“He stood swaying slightly, the forest collected, full-weighted and heavy with syrup, clenched hard in his down-slung hands. I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn’t forget, I’m alive, I know I’m alive, I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.”

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Something yellow this way comes too. In a “yellow nickel tablet” and using a yellow Ticonderoga pencil, Douglas undertakes to record the summer. The town and its people. Summer rituals – new pair of tennis shoes, running through the ravine with friends, harvesting the dandelions for wine, the penny arcade. The surprises, losses and dangers – a cross-generational love affair, the death of old people, the ravine made frightening by night, and most menacing of all – a serial killer. Douglas determines to write down his observations concerning all of these.

Soon, the intense realization of ‘being alive’ is followed by its correlative. Douglas tells his brother, “Tom, a couple of weeks ago, I found out I was alive. Boy, did I hop around.  And then, just last week at the movies I found out I’d have to die someday. I never thought of that, really…it was like… all the peach trees outside town shrivelling up and the ravine being filled in and no place to play ever again and me sick in bed for as long as I could think and everything dark…”

Death stalks Bradbury’s characters as much here as in his science fiction work, and in ways not unlike its stalking of Freud. “The goal of all life is death,” Freud wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Bradbury learned the lesson early. He was five when a grandfather died. An older brother, Sam, died during the 1918 flu pandemic, two years before Ray’s birth. A baby sister died from pneumonia in 1927.

Finally, Bradbury’s 1943 short story, “The Lake”, the piece he considered to be his first work of literary merit, draws on “a disturbing incident from his childhood, when he built sand castles with a little girl on the shore of a lake. She went for a swim and never returned.” (See Steven L. Aggelis, Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 2004).

In an interpretation reminiscent of popular readings of Freud, Aggelis notes that the story helped Bradbury “to purge from his system a demon that had long haunted him, the memory of her death.” Bradbury echoes this account, recalling the story’s creation as follows: “When I finished it my hair was standing on end and I was cold all over. I almost wept with joy. For I knew I had trusted my subconscious and allowed my emotions to write the story for me.” (Conversations with Ray Bradbury, 2004)

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In Bradbury’s life and fiction then, death strikes the old, as we may expect, but it strikes the young too. More importantly, it comes to the young as a fact. A realization. His fictional children ruminate on death. A father in one of the The Illustrated Man stories says of his ten-year-old children, “They were awfully young…for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really.”

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Late in Dandelion Wine (and late at night, writing by the glow of fireflies in a Mason jar) and with a child’s love of capital letters for important things, Douglas records the following in his notebook:

“YOU CAN’T DEPEND ON PEOPLE BECAUSE…

they go away.

…strangers die.

…people you know fairly well die.

…friends die.

…people murder people, like in books.

…your own folks can die.

So…!

 IF ALL THIS IS TRUE…THEN…I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOMEDAY… But the fireflies, as if extinguished by his sombre thoughts, had softly turned themselves off.”

With its lyrical prose and love of place, its hometown familiar and disturbing by turns, its sombre mélange of childhood adventure and fears, and finally its explorations of aging and death, Dandelion Wine reached a long, bony hand into my heart and twisted it until I wept for my own lost places and times. I loved the book obsessively, vehemently, reading it over and over during the hours of loneliness in the new suburb. Then, slowly, over many months, I relented. I began to adjust to the outer circumstances of the move, a new school and the need to seek new friends there. But I am not sure I would have managed it without Dandelion Wine.

Pumpkin-Tree

I kept the book by my bedside until I left home for college. Before leaving, I wrote and posted a letter to Ray Bradbury’s publisher. My words are lost. But I know that I thanked him for helping me through a difficult time, for showing me a language for these changes, for being unafraid to speak of dark things to young people. Death, remembering, forgetting, being forgotten, the instability of memory. For making those dark things beautiful because they are how we live. Many weeks later, I received a reply. I keep it on my desk, a card (now framed) with a front cover featuring one of his paintings titled The Pumpkin Tree. A different season. Bradbury, like me, was also a lover of October. As for his generous message inside the card, that remains for me alone. Those were the days of private letter writing.

But surely, this is why every spring, the arrival of dandelions transports me back to that lonely time, when my only friend in the new place was a boy in a novel. It’s a painful memory, but it is also a memory of overcoming pain.

 

 

 

 

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I Cannot Go

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The Night Is Darkening Around Me

(by Emily Bronte)
 
The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
 
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
 
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.
 
 

 

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Photography days

 

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Northampton, Massachusetts

 

Must be a lockdown effect, but it’s been years since I had the urge to read about photography or look at the black and white prints. I miss my Leica, sold in L.A. during lean times, and the freedom of wandering with it. The people and places, the old me, of those photographs.  It’s all of a fraying bundle.

 

 

 

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