The Persistance of Memory, by Dali

Penelope Lively has a view of memory that reflects my own beliefs about this extraordinary thing we can do with our minds. In an article in the Guardian by Sarah Crown, Lively’s view is stated clearly:

“The idea that memory is linear,” says Penelope Lively, crisply, “is nonsense. What we have in our heads is a collection of frames. As to time itself – can it be linear when all these snatches of other presents exist at once in your mind? A very elusive and tricky concept, time.”

I have read a few of Lively’s books—they are well written and veddy English—and remember in particular her novel Moon Tiger. The protagonist is an aging historian named Claudia Hampton. In this excerpt from the book, Claudia speaks for Penelope and for me:

Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once. The machines of the new technology, I understand, perform in much the same way: all knowledge is stored, to be summoned up at the flick of a key. They sound, in theory, more efficient. Some of my keys don’t work; others demand pass-words, codes, random unlocking sequences. The collective past, curiously, provides these. It is public property, but it is also deeply private. We all look differently at it. My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours … The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life. I, me. Claudia H.

Haven’t we all known those people who remember everything in perfect sequence? My friend Richard’s father could retell his experiences of being in France on D Day with such accuracy when he was in his late 80s, never missing a detail or a time stamp. I can’t do that about yesterday let alone an event that happened when I was a teenager. I used to think it was an artistic liability but now I have come to believe it cuts through the population in general. Natalie Angier, the gifted science and health writer at the New York Times, is wired like me too. (And yes, I have to admit I was comforted by having her in my camp.)

And as the haunting (and I do mean haunting) film Memento points out, what are we if not an assemblage of our memories? That movie, structured backwards like a plate broken into shards, was the most visceral encounter I have ever had to what Alzheimer’s might be like.