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.
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.
“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.
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.)
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]
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.”
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)
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.”
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.
…people you know fairly well die.
…people murder people, like in books.
…your own folks can die.
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.
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.