by Jane Lewty
I heard about someone who could recall 5,442 pages of the Talmud.
Apparently, he had a photographic, or eidetic, memory: the ability to restore an image or event in the mind’s eye from looking at an object. In this case, page after page of lettering, vividly re-experienced, easily accessed. An eidetic person can visualize the smallest of once-encountered things. They describe it as though it were present, they see its properties. A leaf, a table, a stone. Varicolored shades of each.
I try an online experiment. I’m supposed to remember underground stations in Moscow: Turgenevskaya, Filevsky Park. I’m supposed to remember ∑ =i: eiπ /−1 and e2iπ and more of the same. Then a painting with intersecting circles and lines. Next, a musical score, a trio of treble clefs for piccolo, flute and clarinet. I’m pleased because I recognize the symbol for “pause.” I scan, focus, close my eyes, open them. Scroll down.
The same four images are shown. I’m asked to name what is missing. Name the missing stations. What is missing from the formula. Draw the missing section.
I can’t do it. Something else comes into my head. An image from a book. The base of a marble statue. A panel of white stone between two semicircles. Seven carved figures in a round dance. Two words inscribed: TIME and LOSS.
On the screen, there are further instructions: If you know that you have no chance of answering any of the questions, just click here to escape. And so I do.
There are many types of memory. Sensory (one second); short-term (one minute); long-term (life-time); explicit (conscious); implicit (unconscious); declarative (facts, events); procedural (skills, tasks); episodic (events, experiences); semantic (facts, concepts). I wonder about running my own experiment. Paying attention to how I remember, and how I get lost, and what I keep or bring back, and what I cannot bear to assemble again.
In writing the previous paragraph, I’ve had to stop after every couple of words. Click back to the website from which I’m getting the information about memory types. I must be worried about veracity, about spelling and order. But really, the fact is that like a catch of breath, small spaces are opening up in my immediate recall. My sensory memory is terrible.
Often I’m dismantled by memory and want. By re-envisaging a specific event. The process consumes me, and I have a habit of pressing my eyebrows upwards with my hands, as if to smooth out a tangled network that runs beneath the skin. But more frequently I think in a continual stop-start. Instantly forgetting. Instantly restoring.
One day I cried because I’d deleted a photo from my computer and didn’t mean to. I threw a fit and sat sulking on a chair for too long. I got upset at myself for crying about a photograph. I cried in a wrenching way, because I was ashamed at getting distracted and sabotaging what was valuable to me. Suddenly everything was wrong and skewed, like a tense conversation.
When I pause like that, memories tend to appear and occupy the moment when I retreat from what is tangible—the space where my attention slips. Disparate memories.
Such as: I am lying down, one leg pointing at the sky, moving my ankle in a circular motion. Feeling its causal sequence up and into the body. My thigh is contoured by sunlight. I run my fingers along the line where gradations of shadow appear. I stretch, I luxuriate. I’m not sure that this tiny gesture-event happened, but it is so much a part of me. Or a person I would like to recall being.
I am never enough myself. I suppose the people I love are never enough themselves. I don’t mean a deficit, or disappointing. I mean that I can’t connect the dots. Can’t link an intense remembered moment to the one before it. A glance over my body—that glance endures. But why does it become a defining factor of how I loved the person? Did they speak as they looked at me?
Certain episodes. Their vibrancy doesn’t diminish, but they float, unattached, in contexts that lose their potency. I don’t trust myself. For not being enough.
I look at an essay written in 1906 by a man called Charles Grivel about the phonograph. He talks about the invention itself and its effect on the culture of the time. How artists went wild over its sexualized appearance, its animal spasm. How it made a false copy of the spoken word, how it brought back voices of the dead.
He says the phonograph “heats up” particles that have already been gathered up by a memory. He says that the phonograph might be the embodiment of what we do. That anyone’s memory bank contains an infinite and submerged number of impressions. Sound, touch, sight. That all we want is to write them down, affix them on the page. To restore figures out of inscription. Make the someone or something indelible.
My favorite line in Grivel’s essay is this: “I do not want the phonograph to repeat me, but more than this, to capture me and find me.” I think of that line a lot.
There was a phone call, once. In the snow. The other person was stuck on a bus, also in snow. Pressure leak of tires in a north-fleeting journey. There was a sense of distance, calling into long distance, the desire of long distance. A winterish magnetic voice. What can you see? Just yourself in the window too? Frozen dark shapes outside, yes, it could be anything. Nerves. I miss you. The chill of each air and how, at my end, it merged with the scent of a perfume I don’t have anymore. Neroli, citrus, and a base of rosewood. The type of perfume not meant to be folded into layers of outer cold. But that’s how it was. The chill and the ice and yet the ardency of nature. Earthiness. In the dark, I looked at my own face, heard the faraway imprecise voice saying I miss you.
Remember when you called me in the snow? I say.
No. No, I was in town all that weekend. It didn’t happen.
How many years ago was this? Ten? I must have crafted a story, staring out the window, silhouetted by the electric light behind. Perhaps I was just lonely. Either way, to me it has become declarative, like some kind of allegory for a town that had its own standalone wind, where I think my key would have fit any door. When I’d spend evenings getting ready for wherever-I-was-going, benumbed, fabric slipping from my shoulders, and being angry at that.
Another line from Grivel’s essay: “One finds in oneself what one gave to oneself, dream accomplished.”
In what seems like a very distinct memory, I’m wearing a red, almost transparent, shirt with fine vertical lines in the fabric. It’s very expensive. My breasts are seen. Or suggested-seen. They’re perfect. The best view is when I turn slightly to the left, my waist dips inward. I’m inside a building that won’t be silent for long. People walk by quickly. I view myself as they would. I turn face-on and my eyes are very large. Defined. I turn back and in a second the shirt becomes dark blue, sleeveless with a keyhole clasp. My shoulder blades are visible. Just enough. I imagine that the vision of me is embedded in someone’s consciousness. A small iota they will never forget. I imagine that person thinking time and again how they walked towards me, touched my hairline, gently put their mouth to my neck. This didn’t happen.
The book that got in the way of my photographic memory attempt is Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (from Greek hýpnos, “sleep,” éros, “love,” and máche, “fight”), a romance published in 1499 by a monk named Francesco Colonna. I would say it’s about the external and internal world and how they’re so very unsynchronized. The protagonist, Poliphili, has a dream; within that dream, he falls into a second layer of unconsciousness, another dream about trying to find his lover, Polia, who has abandoned him. While asleep he composes letters and sends them, unsure if they will ever reach her. He encounters other people, gods, animals, lost souls. They direct him to architectural sites and works of art, many of which are decorated in hieroglyphs—LOSS, TIME, etc. Above all, it is an explicitly sexual book, with many symbols to evoke Polia’s body and Poliphili’s obsession. One-fifth into his journey, the narrative is interrupted, and a second voice takes over: that of Polia, relating Poliphili’s erotomania from her point of view. And it is an entirely different rendition.
To complete the story-within-a-story-within-a-story, Poliphilo’s narrative returns. Polia is discovered on the island of Cythera, but she rejects him for a second time, having been unmoved by Poliphilo’s letters. Cupid intervenes, urging her to recognize her cruelty and to love the man who has ceaselessly searched for her. She relents, and for one moment the couple are united in passion. But as Poliphilo embraces Polia, she vanishes and he awakens from his doubly-enveloped dream.
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is hard to read; it’s dense and overwrought. But it has to be. It is the story of psychological breakdown in the pursuit of love. It tells us that the effort to recall the beloved has to be experienced in a trance-like state, because insanity is the condition of obsessive love and vice versa.
Poliphilo recreates Polia through sensual observance. She is present in the bright colors of fabric and bas-relief, ornaments and music. She impacts the natural world, turning woods and expanses of water into a landscape that pulses with minute life. He talks about his defrauded senses, his mindless fury.
Although he finds Polia and persuades her to love him, she only does so in his subconscious. He even articulates her version of the story in order to make sense of her initial departure. Her final disappearance into thin air is the way he would have preferred her to leave him. As if to say, I had her in my arms and she left me. But at least I had her in my arms.
I’m always drawn back to the epigraph: THE HYPNEROTOMACHIA OF POLIPHILO, IN WHICH / IT IS SHOWN THAT ALL HUMAN THINGS / ARE BUT A DREAM, AS ARE MANY / OTHER THINGS WORTHY / OF KNOWLEDGE AND/ MEMORY.
Drawn back, also, to the fact that we can never know what is right. That within repetition and remembering there is invention. It’s a kind of madness. A trance-state where you stop and turn, correct and rebuild. Where the declarative and semantic become implicit and then the implicit becomes a space that flings out erratic, erroneous, and yet believable moments.
Fantasy somehow justifies the erasure of pain. As if to say to someone, you never came back in the right way. I will make you the right way.
The photo I lost is of me. I’m younger. Standing naked in a room, surprised by a camera, not posing. I know my body will never look like that again, but that’s not the point. What’s important is the light outside. It must be a hanging white low kind of light. Late afternoon slipping into evening because a lamp is on, illuminating the wrong side of a room that’s losing its precision. I look dazed. I seem to be in a state of disoriented peace. I know I’ve been caught because I’m staring at the camera and defiance is there too. Lazy yet provoked.
What I’ve lost is a reactive memory. The dots won’t be joined. I’ll miss my glance of desire and certainty and quiet power, but I swear—even though I don’t have the photo—I’ll be able to recall that look on my face forever.
But I’ll forget when it happened. What time of day, and what month. The backdrop will be gone, the gradual lowering and effacement of day. That low-hanging kind of light—it meant February.
I’ll forget what happened after and around that photograph. The translucence of everything. Grains of face powder in the sink, seen through a glass of water.
Furniture, spirals in wood. Marked so by a tide that showed its matchless anger.
An ivy-colored plant, but not ivy, ruinous to the touch because it instantly made me want and crave. It made me wonder if I should have a more elemental life.
I think it did. If I had a clinical eidetic memory I’d be able to remember what I felt.
I’ll forget how I pressed against a wall, its coolness at my temple then forehead, gently rolling. Lips meeting the salt-grainy surface as though it was a body. Slow, languorous. Slow, slow and papillae-aware. Touching my own jawbone, knowing it is the most-loved feature I have. Slow eyelids dropping. My hands, both enclosed by another’s and bent backwards. Clutched at the base of my spine. So slowly, and then—the feeling of being exactly where I want to be.
The right episode is here for now. But it will evolve into something else. Over time, there’ll be a different me, a different other.
For someone who likes to be watched as much as I do, I need the photograph to prove it happened. A static picture activated to the level of a story. Brought back to life, and so on in permutations. What my mouth can do. How I reach my potential in someone else’s mind.
But then again, do I really want a memory that unfolds itself from objects? What if I’ve interpreted that February afternoon wrongly in the first place? The plant and the powder and the wall—none of it would matter. Through forgetting and reinvention I can surely make an imprecise narrative that somehow tells the whole story. Prismatic rather than linear, which is what life is like anyway. In a reverse take of memory, I discover myself: the person who thought a phone call happened because she remembers being lonely, the woman who would secretly like to command a room with her effortlessly clothed body.
The event I lost may not have been perfect, or epic or rhapsodic or even worth trying to describe. And there’s a parallel event, experienced by the person who took the photograph, who may have kept a copy. It’s all second-degree, half-understood.
Pause. I used to be able to play piano concertos by heart.
Sometimes I think TIME and LOSS could be the same word.
Published on November 24, 2015