On a cloudy morning you wake up. As your warm feet touch the cold floor, a sensation of loss jolts you. It’s the feeling of having a word on the tip of your tongue but knowing you won’t remember it. You’re haunted by something profound. How do you mourn a nameless and shapeless loss?
This is the world of Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; an island where a mysterious organization keeps erasing objects from public consciousness. When the organization outlaws an entity, it mysteriously vanishes from the collective memory of the inhabitants of the island. One day, books are outlawed, and the town sets about starting skyscraper-height bonfires, condemning centuries of knowledge to ash and dust that turns the sky black. People wake up the next day unaware of what a book is and how it looks and feels. Another day, it is birds that have been outlawed. Repeated excommunications turn people into hollow shells, cut adrift from the materiality of objects – buoyant sentient islands no longer anchored to reality or each other.
The Memory Police (1994), Yōko Ogawa; Pantheon Books and Harvill Secker
I thought The Memory Police was less a tale of an oppressive regime and more a meditation on the nature of memory; how memory tethers itself to tangibility, how material objects shape our sense of self, and how cutting oneself from them could disconnect one from life. Someone I no longer speak to once told me how he wished to have little earthly possessions around, to live his life untethered from things, to be more connected to the world. I wondered at what material point his quicksand of minimalism would collapse, exposing the abyss of disconnect that Ogawa forewarned. I still wonder.
While cleaning my closet, something I both enjoy and avoid, I came across a 100ml bottle of Hugo Boss’ Infinite. It was a cylindrical glass container with a silver bottle-top. Pale blue liquid swirled as I turned the bottle in my hand, wondering why I had left it unfinished. I uncapped it and took a whiff, and was back in France in September 2019, walking on the wooden floors of my rental apartment, feeling the sunlight slant onto the forbidden terrace. My reverie split into multiple fragments, as I relived moments and sensations that were lost. I held my 100ml time machine and put it back on the shelf.
On the study table where I’m writing this, there’s a multi-coloured coaster with sheep drawn on it. Underneath is the corny phrase ‘Baaad girls.’ It was a gift to me by one of my closest friends and one that makes me think of her every time I use it. There’s a Tame Impala song that reminds me of a friend I haven’t met in two years. There’s a word in the English language that I associate only with my school friend; I read it and I see him hunched over, writing it in class. My memories, like most of yours, are housed in things. Memories I’m so sure of that I have put them into words so neither you nor I can refute their existence. What gives me this certainty?
A gift from a close friend
In the complicated crisscrossing jumble of neurons that is my brain, reside my memories. Ironically, they do not physically exist. They are created and recreated every time I wish to revisit them. Scattered networks of neurons hold parts of a puzzle that, when asked for, are expected to synthesize into a coherent whole. As this video puts it, “Memory is an action, not an object.” I walk about the world basing my confidence in what I think I know, on fragments that construct a version of reality for me to inhabit. Fragments that, undoubtedly, toy with reality with a capital R. That misquote, misplace, misguide, misremember. And yet my faith in this reconstruction is firm. My flawed memory is the foundation upon which my identity is anchored. What if this foundation falters?
In Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, a man comes ‘undone’ when he experiences the same accident thirty years apart. Adrift in time, he overlays past onto present onto future and attempts to assemble a narrative of his existence from a morphine-induced drowsiness. “Perhaps I was history itself, flailing around in a number of directions, sometimes all of them at the same time.” To live with oneself, there are self-deceptions that are accepted and inevitable. How much you can get away with, before being labelled delusional, is key. For the man in this book, his lover seated by his bedside ensured that while he could suspend himself in potential realities that his fractured mind constructed, he could not run from reality with capital R. Certain realities refuse to be altered. You may run away, you may forget, but you cannot erase them.
The Man Who Saw Everything (2019), Deborah Levy; Bloomsbury Publishing
This is also the premise of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). A man approaches an organization that erases painful memories when he realizes that his ex-girlfriend has had hers erased after their tumultuous relationship ended. In the course of this erasure, he realizes that despite the end of the relationship, there was something to be salvaged within the bittersweet texture of memories, a sentiment echoed in another movie quite different in its tone, Inside Out (2015). The personification of Joy side-steps her quest to dictate life upon the acceptance that memories hued with sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are what add dimension and depth to people.
An Aeon essay builds upon this and asks – “If you could alter or mute your worst memories, would you still remain yourself?” It goes on to discuss a drug, propranolol, that shows promise in treating PTSD, addiction, and phobias. To dilute its neurochemical working into simple words, it is able to erase the emotional component attached to memory without erasing the memory itself. Thus, in theory, you could relive a traumatic experience without feeling debilitated. Naturally, it raises questions surrounding this act of erasure. Should one dampen the traumas one has lived with? Is ignorance of the magnitude of what you’ve experienced a healthy coping mechanism? Should we curate our memories to assert a specific identity? Should we tamper with an evolutionary mechanism that is supposed to assist you to outlive the dangers around you, even if those dangers no longer exist and the mechanism itself is a roadblock to a happier life? In erasing memories, do we erase ourselves?
The acts of forgetting and suppressing memories go hand-in-hand. If we were to live with the repository of all our senses heightened and memories intact, our inner monologues would handicap us. Yet some of us are gifted enough to do that. HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory) is a condition where people recall with astonishing accuracy, events from years and decades past. Less than 100 people have been recorded exhibiting the same. Imagine having access to the repository of every sense you’ve engaged for every day of your existence. I used to think it was a superpower to live without having to forget. To potentially relive every sensation, every experience, every failure. One tiny trigger, and you’re suspended in time. I do not wish for this superpower anymore.
It has been a year since I lost my grandmother. I can recall in detail where everyone was sitting around her, which relative was called to be informed, and what was made for dinner that night. But I don’t remember what I wore. I can put some distance and reflect that traumatic as that was, in the days that preceded and followed, I was not paralysed or overwhelmed. I was almost sleepwalking, dulled by the certainty of what had happened. I have revisited that day more times than I can count. Because my mind is primed to protect me, the sensations have dampened. I have grown to accept that someday, the memory of what happened would settle on a scale – the magnitude of loss balanced against the progression of time. It is my own version of propranolol administered unasked and unadvised, pushing this experience to a recess where it resides instantly accessible but not as frequently called upon.
In the months following her passing, we sorted through her belongings. A sewing machine came up. It hadn’t been used in years but from some corner of my childhood, I could hear the rhythmic klick-klack of the wheel as the thread unspooled. I could visualize the metallic box that housed the coloured threads. I pictured her mending some garment, wearing her spectacles. It was clear the machine would not be used anytime soon but it was kept underneath the bed. There was no further discussion.
Two years ago, when I was travelling, at some point I cut down the documentation of my experience, convinced that I was diluting it by filtering it through a camera lens; that to be present in all senses at that moment was all that mattered. I was wrong. There are gaps in my recollection due to my hubris. Fortunately, I was not travelling alone, and have similar recollections of my friends to aid my schisms. Sure, I do not feature as the subject in those; I am at the very least, part of the backdrop of the digital canvas, and at most, a chorus member. But I, like most of us, am grateful that my life and existence are also documented by those around me, that parts of me float as fragments contained within the narratives of others. I cannot curate what is thought of me. I get to be a hero, a villain, a comedian, an idiot, a friend, a foe, a child, an adult, all of it simultaneously; often unaware, mostly unaware of which and to whom. Talk about range though.
In the tussle between remembering and forgetting, one can concede with humility that forgetting is unavoidable. We all live seemingly stable lives owing to the act of forgetting. This erasure, which is sometimes permanent and sometimes equivalent to the boxing of unused cutlery kept in the attic, is why we walk through the day giving no indication of the iceberg that lays submerged.
I go back to The Memory Police and wonder about the memories that have been lost to me and will be lost in future without my awareness or desire. I ask again: how do you mourn a nameless and shapeless loss? In Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, the protagonist returns to her hometown and relives her childhood with a depth and clairvoyance that surprises her. “You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” To be able to retrace the years, she physically retraces her steps, her upbringing, her hurts. In her present she finally understands her past. In The Memory Police, a character quietly revolts against the regime and physically conceals outlawed artefacts within sculptures, morphing into a tactile form the metaphorical belief that art contains a part of the world we inhabit.
Cat’s Eye (1988), Margaret Atwood; Anchor
The antidote to our in-built propranolol is the material and the tangible. Books and vases and songs and perfumes and paintings and chairs and houses and friends and parents and colleagues. I would tell this now to the person who wished to be untethered, but I forgot we do not speak anymore.
I now try to capture and document more than before, either in word or picture. I want to record what I live through even if it makes no difference to history with a capital H. I am privileged to have the technology to record the inane and mundane. There shall be journals with stream-of-consciousness thought, albums capturing the consumption of coffee and croissant. They shall be recorded with the sole intention to mark my insignificant presence. Maybe at some indefinite point I will come across these physical or digital artefacts and will be suspended in time. Perhaps they will remind me of something I wouldn’t even realize I had forgotten. But until that moment arrives, I will read Atwood’s last line and feel both, hope and fear. I want my dysfunctional memory to note this prophetic sentence over and over again.
Nothing goes away.
Nothing goes away.