Commonplace Thoughts on the Remembrance of Things Past

April 2016

Reading Katie’s travel notes about trips made years ago, I came across an entry on Bergamo. We were there in 1984 with two children (aged ten and eight). After reading about what we had seen in the Città Alta I was surprised to read the following final comments on paintings in the Accademia Carrara (so we really did drag the children around art galleries): ‘Bergamasco Moroni — much portrait painting. Lotto — very clear colours.’

     I know I remember Moroni’s portraits from this visit, but Lotto? I thought I’d been introduced to the name of Lotto by a participant on Learn Italy trips, and had eventually followed up this suggestion by searching out his many major paintings in Le Marche. I had completely forgotten this earlier encounter, quarter of a century before, with Lotto and his ‘very clear colours’.

     In English we have a word for the collection of what we remember, our memory, but we don’t have a similar word for all that we’ve forgotten, our forgettery. There is a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious’ who has the misfortune not to be able to forget anything at all: ‘he remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times that he had perceived or imagined it.’ Consciousness — piling up yet more memories — became so painful to him that he could only lie unmoving in a dark room. He ceased to be capable of thought: ‘To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.’ I have read also of memory experts, who cannot forget the dozens of sequences of shuffled packs of cards that they memorised years ago as tricks to entertain theatre audiences; they have to invent rituals to purge them from their minds, writing them down and burning them.

     I once asked a colleague whether he knew how many of the population of Italy spoke Italian at the Unification of Italy in 1865 (the answer I found out later is only ten per cent). He replied that it was ‘the sort of thing he used to know’, as if the things he’d forgotten were still a kind of knowledge to which he could lay claim with credit, that made actually remembering them unnecessary.

     In youth I thought I could remember with clarity and accuracy at least the events of my own life, if not the sorts of things that school demanded — French irregular verbs or nineteenth-century European history. This confident belief was shaken by a visit to Aigues Mortes in the Camargue in my twenties. I had in my mind a perfectly sharp image of a church with a thatched roof, and I was sure that I would find this there. There are lots of thatched houses in the Camargue, and there is a notable church in Aigues Mortes. But what makes it unusual is that you can clamber about on its stone roof. It is not thatched. My memory had fused two quite separate things and made a compound unreality, which presented itself as a clear but entirely erroneous image. How can one trust a mind that does this kind of thing?

     Indeed how can one trust one’s own mind at all? Psychologists of the last century (Freud, Jung, Adler) taught that we are driven by needs and desires and struggles in our unconscious which, by definition, we do not know, and knowledge of which we can only arrive at tangentially, through dreams for example. I have never been entirely convinced by this construction of the way we work. My dreams are no more than ‘sleep’s faded papier-mâché’; their source is so obviously day-to-day anxiety: lost suitcases, late trains (never planes for some reason), struggling towards some unknown destination (though of course all these may have some symbolic meaning about life’s journey, and so on).

     But when I heard the name of Lorenzo Lotto, did I respond because of the earlier encounter with that artist, because of something quite forgotten but still lurking somewhere in my mind? Or was it just a coincidence?

     There are the things we remember (perhaps mis-remember), the things we know we have forgotten, and then all that we don’t remember at all, our personal forgettery, a galaxy-vast oubliette of stuff, by far the most part of it the detritus of day-to-day existence, well out of the way, but a tiny proportion of it valuable experience and knowledge just waiting to be brought back to the surface, or, alas, probably forgotten for ever.

     We are all caught up in a flux of endless forgetting, infinitesimal specks swept gently along in the vast and non-stop river of History in Time. Painters (Moroni, Lotto), poets (Wallace Stevens, whose is the fragmentary quotation above), psychologists and historians and other creators of grand narratives — all attempt memorial acts to set against the chaos of oblivion. As do smaller efforts, travel notes, or this disquisition.