Monday, November 26, 2012


In Absalom, Absalom!, Miss Rosa Coldfield stops her feverish remembering of the past in order to repudiate any belief in the objectivity of memory. Memory is nothing more than the body’s longing for what it has lost, she tells Quentin Compson, the young man that sits in her darkened living room listening to the tales of people long dead. Memory for Miss Rosa is desire deprived of its object. Everything we remember, according to her, is subjective and interested and part fantasy, or, in Faulkner’s beautifully crushing language, memory is worthy only of being called a dream. In Absalom, Absalom! this attitude toward memory makes perfect sense. Of all of its narrators only Miss Rosa personally knew the people whose stories she recounts, and by putting the negation of memory in her mouth, Faulkner questions the privileging of the experiencing subject. Language, not experience, insists Faulkner, allows you to know something. This idea is very appealing to literature people and our natural resistance to empirical facts, but I resist it. Like a heavy stone before the breeze, the ineradicable facticity of the past remains unmoved by the subjective remembering of people. There are many people but there is only one past. Though we may fail to remember adequately as individuals, this does not mean that all memories are the same, that they are all equally truthful or fantastic. Such thinking not only relativizes memory, it transforms the past itself into an act of the imagination. It turns history into fiction and doing so it misunderstands the fundamental ontological difference between the two.

Memory might be partial or incomplete but if it is to be truthful it must attempt to be faithful to the past. Many years from now, I will hear Ke$ha’s “Die Young” and I will picture you sitting in the passenger seat singing along ecstatically with your eyes closed, your head bouncing with its slight list to the side, and your hands out as if in supplication. I will remember your spiky hair, so different from when I first met you, and your glasses turning green in the sunlight, and your perpetually runny nose, and the way your woman’s smell mixes with the boy’s deodorant you put on. I will remember waking up to your face pressed against the back of my neck and your arm wrapped around my stomach as you slept and how that feeling defeated all ideas I might have had about getting up early and being productive. And while all of these things did not happen at the same time nor are all these reminiscences related to that silly song and its misleading representation of the triviality of youth and the hedonism of an inconsequential life, the truth of those memories, all compressed into my memory of you, will flood me with nostalgia, and it will remind me of how much I loved you when that song was first popular.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Some of Us Never Learn

Anxious, reading absent-mindedly, and drinking a beer. We were going to meet later but nothing is settled these days. I check e-mail, like a fool.  E-mail and texting have only made the weak even more so. When we were young, before these terrible technologies, people like me had the great luxury of not knowing when someone was not thinking about us at all. But there is a message from her. She says that she can’t come to dinner and that all this is a mistake and that she wants to stop. This is the fifth or sixth time she has said this. I try to take it well, and I write her a message supporting her and telling her that I will try to move on because, after all, this is the best for both of us. And she’s right and so am I. But as I sit getting angrier for falling into this trap again, for accepting the way she changes her mind so that some days I’m in her bed and some days I’m not, I pick up the phone to give her a piece of my mind. She doesn’t answer. I call again and again she doesn’t answer. I’m furious; I go home. Her house is near mine. I look down her street to see if her car is there and it’s not. When I get home, I leave a series of angry messages on e-mail and on the phone. I’m crushed. My heart is beating into itself. My stomach has lost its sea legs and it lurches here and there. The evening darkens. The penumbra chases me outside. Like the idiotic cliché that I am, I walk on the road that puts me perpendicular to her street. Her car is now there. I know that walking to her house is the worst possible choice I can make at this moment. In thirty seconds I am knocking on her door. I knock loudly. Her friend, whom I was not expecting, yells at me through the closed door to fuck off. I yell at her to mind her own fucking business. Soon she replaces her friend behind the door and we are screaming awful, cutting things at each other. I scream the worst things I can think of, trying to kill the thing in me and in her that won’t die on its own. I picture her brown hair and her sleepy eyes, my favorite things about her, on the other side of the door. I hear the hurt in her voice and imagine the way her perfect shoulders drop when she is crestfallen. I can’t go on. I walk away while she keeps screaming in her broken voice from the other side of the closed door. Later I sit in my living room in the dark and after the pain and anger fade away a little I’m left crossing an ocean of shame and humiliation thinking about what’s just happened. I know that after this it is finally all over. Less than four weeks later, I’m in her bed again.

I marvel at the conviction in Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” She seems to me one of those incomprehensible people that appear to learn from their mistakes. Whereas she sings with an unwavering conviction about the truth of what she says, a dope like me sees in life only equivocation and misunderstood lessons. I listen to her with the pathetic realization that she already knows how to live better than I ever will.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Epic Life and the Demands of Time

The hero is complete and unchanging in the epic view of life. The hero faces trials, is confronted by challenges that would break a less capable, less resolute person. These trials may be physical (a test of strength or endurance), emotional (separation from or the loss of a loved one), or moral/ethical (the choice to forsake a friend or help a foe) and their completion, though arduous, affirms the hero’s character. Affirms, that’s the crucial point. These tests don’t reveal character because in order for the epic hero to be truly epic we cannot maintain, in advance, the possibility that those qualities were not already present in the hero, awaiting only the moment that would make them manifest. An epic hero never knows the choice between courage and fear. The hero only requires the right occasion in which to display courage in the face of danger. The trials the hero confronts also do not affect him/her in any fundamental way. The hero does not grow or change, nor does our understanding of the hero develop as we see him/her confront increasingly more difficult obstacles. The hero’s deeds serve only to illustrate for us who s/he was all along. They bring out elements of the hero’s personality that were always and forever present and unchanging. An epic hero’s deeds confirm indeed that s/he could be nothing but an epic hero.  The epic hero, thus, embodies our highest aspirations, presents to us the image of whom we wish we could be. The epic hero cannot change precisely because we believe, implicitly at any rate, that those aspirations and the values they represent are themselves immutable and everlasting.

Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time” posits a sort of epic protagonist. This protagonist is a young person facing a transitional moment in his life. The choice he makes will be unconventional—the “rain checks” he refers to—but it is consistent with who he is, which is described in distinctly epic terms: “I get a little bit bigger, but then I’ll admit/I’m just the same as I was/Now don’t you understand/That I’m never changing who I am.” Just as the actions of the epic hero affirm who s/he always was, so too do the choices of this song’s protagonist affirm his static nature. This is of course coded in purely positive terms. His rigidity and fastness seem to be related to an ethical purity that remains untouched by changing circumstances. His body grows bigger, his situation might shift, but he never changes because he is always the person he was meant to be. Like I said before, this is an appealing self-image to have. If we see ourselves as unchanging, that is because we want to see ourselves as living in an uncompromised way the values we hold dear .

The problem behind the epic view of life is that it makes no space for the historical self: the part of us that fails sometimes in the face of life, the part that changes over time, the part that learns from experience, the part that becomes more entrenched in stupid beliefs. In other words, that part of us that confronts and is affected by the motherfucking ticking of the clock cannot really enter into the epic and heroic view of life. The epic hero shows us the person we want to be. Life reveals to us how often we fall short of that ideal.