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.

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