“Life is everywhere, life is in ourselves, not outside.”
(Dostoevsky, just after his death sentence was commuted)
Vision from the metal cubicle circling over the shores of southeastern Sicily seems to encompass the entire Mediterranean world, the spatial unity of which world atlases confirm: Sicily, now just beneath us and to the West, Africa fixed to the South, Greece and the Balkans to the East. Against this immense backdrop of puritanical azure skies and the magical seas extending in all directions, the Ancient World appears in all its glorious superiority. To enter the Mediterranean Sea today through the Strait of Gibraltar and under the shadow of Hercules is to sail back into olden times. No less than it did for ancient mariners that entrance point into the world of today still transmits to world voyagers a sense of returning home. (A return which may quickly become disappointment!) Though I love in a special way the arc of the coastline along the sea’s northern shores reaching from Gibraltar to Naples—the Latin Mediterranean—I perceive the entire sea as my sea, lined by an extraordinary diversity of ancient peoples and cultures reaching from Morocco across to Spain and from Tunisia to Italy, then on to Greece, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine; peoples interlinked by erratic histories of war and peace and by a common cultural heritage: Persian, Byzantine, Greek, and Roman. The Great Sea is thus one whole, for millennia the world’s major maritime route linking three continents. Often disputed among its peoples and faiths, climate and magic have nevertheless attracted to the Great Sea’s shores also countless non-Mediterranean conquerors and colonizers in search of treasures and a new way of life. The kaleidoscopic world beneath is a soothing vision; albeit, perhaps an historical optical illusion: wishful thinking or exaggerated northern romanticism. We follow the wars raging there today from Libya to Syria, from Palestine to Iraq and recall that those good old times were not all good times either; but sometimes they were good times. Yet, conscious of being minute in the brilliant vastness, I bow to the ubiquitous dark blue-green seas that must be omnipresent in the mind of each member of the human landscape below me. And I want to hold fast that past passing before me.
The past. We are uncertain about the past. There is a song, Olvidar El Pasado, Forget the Past. The song reminds me of my Mexican period to which my memory clings; I don’t want to forget that past. Forget the past? Who can? Who really wants to? Well, yes, you think you can do without the painful part. But can you? Is that pain not also yours? Still, you might wish you’d treated the past better, that you’d done some things—maybe most things—differently. But it is there. It exists. The past. Done. Finished. Yet it is everything. Without the past you are nothing. You can only try to adjust to what you’ve done … and hope you did less harm than you fear you did. The future is the mystery.
For most people, the past is fixed. You can trust it to remain the same. In any case, you can’t change it, and you don’t or can’t really forget it as the song suggests, ugly or beautiful as it may have been. It lives in you, the past. It’s with you from day to day. It’s your life. Perhaps behind a veil of oblivion, but as Freud says, it’s always there, somewhere, your shadow self. If the past is not in your conscious then it lies deeper, now quietly, now rowdily, but most certainly it is there. However much you may want to forget, something always remains. In that sense the past is present. Maybe residing in a corner of your subconscious, elusive and slippery, or wandering around lost and unwanted. But it’s there, illuminating and nourishing some … and killing others. For the past can also be murderous. Slowly, ever so slowly, it kills. Remembrances of the past have the capacity to both soothe you and pave the way for your acceptance of what really happened … or it can destroy you.
Yet—as if it were possible—the song suggests forgetting the past and remembrances of its richness and thus leaving behind only dark and empty spaces; the times of the past exist but the song rejects remembrances of them. The past times become those unoccupied spaces, spaces to be erased or perhaps, someday, to be reoccupied. You look backward and may see only darkness which if it becomes total blackness could mean non-existence. You see the scrapbooks with records of your exploits, the old photographs of how the beautiful body that belongs to you once looked. But if you cannot forget it, that past, then you may try to alter it or reject it outright. But in so doing you reject yourself.
Memory is the power to remember what happened; remembrance is the act of remembering, and recollection is the conscious desire and ability to remember how things actually went in the past. The stronger the memory, remembrance, and recollection, the greater the role the past plays in your daily life.
For some people that living chameleon-like past seems to reflect the many aspects of the putative soul. The soul? I wonder about that delicate subject. I ask others if they believe in the soul. What do you mean? they ask. I mean the unknown. The soul. Do you believe in its existence? Silence. Then, what is it? Maybe a spirit, you say. The soul is the essence, another answers. Then where is this spirit-essence-soul? Silence. No one knows. It seems to come and go. A Biblical kind of thing. A ‘being human’ kind of thing, too. A vague concept to justify the human’s exceptionalism: kill the animals at will like the Old Testament God said we should. Slaughter them all, soulless beasts. They don’t feel anything anyway. You kill nature, you kill the whole planet Earth right here at the center of all things. Earth, that speck in the All, invisible from the stellar universe and ignored by the probable superior civilizations that don’t even bother observing us. Earth beings, that bad mood of the Creator God! someone said. Exceptional humans, continue to believe human beings, convinced of their souls’ existence and therefore of the pain absent in animals.
Forget the past and get on with it. An American spirit. A TV reportage on the film director, Truffaut, showed how many contemporary filmmakers relegate him comfortably to the past together with the Nouvelle Vague, and then forget them all there in the past; they don’t realize that Scorsese’s cinematographic generation are the children of the New Wave and of Truffaut who so cared for narrative in the cinema. However, most filmmakers forget that memory—remembrances, recollections, and reconstructions—will never coincide precisely with what really existed or with what really happened. Nor does it have to, as Fellini showed so vividly in his cinema. For your memory will never grasp the true reasons of why or of the manner in which the great fracture in your life came about. In the passing of time your conceptualizations warp and then alter your remembrance of the reality of what was and of what occurred. So that it seems that the defensive task of the brain is the accommodation of the needs and instincts of your own frangible being in order to make them bearable so that you don’t blow your brains out on a daily basis.
Remembrances. A throbbing thrill. And an aching torment. The throb intensifies the pains of separation and makes me aware that I can turn around right here and go back. Yet I know the future is problematic … the where-I-am-headed, slowly, with consummate care. But no matter! No departure excludes a return. Departure is not final separation. It is only temptation.
But what confusion! At times you become sick and tired of remembrances and their shadows and imitations and your useless attempts to change fixed realities and permit new unimaginable destinies. It’s enough to make you want to declare yourself out of the running and accept your simple straightforward self. Enough! Basta such ruminations. As Cioran notes, such musings would be like “discovering that the consciousness of life is superior to life and the knowledge of the law of happiness superior to happiness.”
Something had happened in a young friend. Something in him emerged and clipped him off the main. Fortunately, however, he did come to feel hope again—he proclaimed proudly (maybe also vainly)—when he came to understand that his perceptions and his until then unacknowledged desires and concealed maneuvers would warp with time and alter remembrances and sentimental recollections of the reality of what truly happened and that whatever happened in him happened in order to accommodate his needs, instincts, and desires. He thought that remaining sensation of attachment to his original place were of a purely sentimental nature. It had been sad to see him lose his hopes and dreams when the rose-colored veil through which he observed things and human feelings fell away. Even though some hope remained, he simply replaced old delusions with new ones, no less illusory, but regardless no less sweet. Still, willy-nilly his heart hardened and his soul closed; back in that dangerous past, he’d mistakenly put his trust in the search for happiness. Happiness: an untrustworthy state. For after all this so-called happiness is vanity, egotism, and ignorance.
“Remember those little birds in Mexico we so loved? Remember the Colibri? That little bird doesn’t think. It doesn’t read. It isn’t interested in us humans or even in animal life. It’s oblivious to truth or untruth unless it relates to its daily consumption of seed, water, insects, and of the nectar of the most beautiful flowers. It doesn’t stop and assess the situation. It’s content to listen to the harmony of other voices among the flowers. The bird of love is tiny but it seems to feel the full weight of the indifferent universe against it, demanding that it act differently. It must feel hemmed in on all sides. That’s why it flits around so fast. Maybe this little love Colibri in reality just wants to fly away to Lalaland, where all is right. And the Colibri is right. That tiny bird may know who and what destroys people.
You have to admit that the possibilities or the dangers of departure or return haunt your remembrances. Like remembrances of a place. In my memory, the smell of grilling würstel and the bitter-heady taste of a grosses Paulaner beer and the warm and gemütliches feel of place are homey feelings. Such nearly forgotten things count. Dismal, some people say of remembrances of the past, forgetting the joys and remembering only the sorrows. Though it is more dismal to forget, people may reject remembrances because they remember only disappointments and failures and deaths. But I hang onto my memories of you and our halcyon youth, gone and past; yet, like the determined Colibri and the tenacious romanticism of flowers inevitably wilting and dying, those times are ineradicable. In my heart—or should I say in my soul?—remembrances of you are inviolable.
So what is it? Is it the sweet pain of remembrances? And the pain of how hard it is to forget even superficially and to cast that sheen of oblivion over the past? Unpredictable time passes but in truth you never really forget. A haunting obsession if for example, you are stuck on keeping love. Or if destined to lose out on a love you can never have. Still, you may expect things to remain the same. Undecided. They do and they do not remain the same. Sometimes you just have to stand up and walk away … but looking over your shoulder. And accepting memory as a travel companion. Yet though those memories will age and fade, the ghosts of the past will forever roam around inside you. Your lived life and your former hopes and loves run all over you. So that sometimes like the song advises you try to believe the past is really the past. Once and for all forgotten.
Freud didn’t insist that repression was necessarily unconscious but he warned that repression did not have to be conscious either. It seems he used the terms repression and suppression interchangeably. Precious few psychologists dispute the phenomenon of conscious repression or suppression. In fact, experiments show that avoiding thinking about a complex event leads to memory “decay”. However, most “decayed” memories are recoverable by refocusing thought upon the forgotten material. The point is that not-thinking/repressing/dissociating / cognitively avoiding can result in amnesia. It seems Freud was right; when we cease thinking about something, it becomes harder to remember. And as Freud admitted, repression is a conscious rather than an unconscious mechanism.
I’ve tried over and again to describe how hard it is to forget. You run, you play, you try to imagine an existence without the past. You can climb mountain peaks until the weariness of the body conquers the anxiety of the mind. Yet time passes and you never really forget even though you may cry because your memories have warped with age. For time erodes memory. And in the worst of times you’re inclined to think were it not for memory and the remembrances and the hopes memory preserves, you would be happy. But then if you are fortunate you become aware that the goal of mere happiness is truly no more than vanity.
On the other hand, the person who doesn’t insist on forgetting and ruthlessly exposes his weaknesses and vices is often sincere in his confessions. Even the weakest and most pitiful individual is no less curious and useful than a whole people; therefore the prevalence of the weak ones with simple hearts.
Which makes me aware that in simple hearts the feeling for beauty and the magnificence of nature is often stronger than in people of intellect and of complex minds who devote themselves to translating such feelings into written words. So then I too wonder why I write so many words about memories, remembrances, and recollections. Words, words, words. I tell myself, well, they’re mine and after all, I am free to write anything I desire. Others can be disinterested but for me, those words can become a cherished memory … and perhaps reflect a better part of me.
As Lermontov’s mysterious young maiden Bela says: ‘There where it is not better, it will get worse, but from bad to good is very distant indeed.’ Yet a more positive outlook can be that the impossible is sometimes possible.
For there are still persons to whom at birth it seems written that many unusual things must happen. So let it all come down.
What goes around comes around … as they say.
Gaither Stewart is a veteran journalist, essayist, and internationally recognized novelist. His latest novel is Time of Exile (Punto Press), the third volume in his Europe Trilogy, of which the first two volumes (The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll) have also been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. His newest novella, Words Unspoken, is available in multiple formats. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in UncommonThought