The Burden of Memory

The burden of memory is what prevents us from living in the present. Every event, every perception in our lives is new, and yet we cannot perceive the newness, due to the framing devices which memory imposes on us. There is a context to our experience. That context is called our life.

When we wake up on a beautiful morning and look outside the window to see the snow gently swirling around the corners of our house, and the sun shining on the near and distant hills, we cannot help but notice what we already know inside: we have seen all this before, one way or another. And so we catalog it alongside other mornings, with good or bad memories, either way consigning the experience to the file drawer of memory. Memory is not immediate. Memory is a learned response consisting of a cluster of of sensory impressions. These sensory impressions have accumulated over time, and they cause us to filter all new experience through them. As a framing device, memory is useful, but has the ultimate effect of taking us out of the moment and reducing the immediacy of experience.

Travel lets us get away from ourselves. To wake up on a beautiful morning and look outside the window to see a different landscape is liberating. Still, we compare. This place reminds me of that place. This place smells different from that other place. I have known many people for whom travel is a wasted experience, because they are forever expending vast amounts of energy looking at everything they see and not really seeing anything but what they have already seen elsewhere. Travel is different from daily routine but it’s still a memory-mediated event. We approach immediacy for a time, but manage to back away from it through the framing device of memory. Still, one of the great pleasures of travel is its tendency to penetrate through the shell of ego-induced memory, just for a time, allowing us to catch a glimpse of alternative and fresh sensory impressions. We can catch ourselves unawares by waking up and seeing the unmediated world. There it is, and we are in it. How did that happen, and how can it continue … such are the concerns of memory, as it reasserts its primacy over the course of the day.

Travel is akin to amnesia, and as a trope for writers interested in exploring the themes of memory, freshness, and identity, amnesia has no equal. Despite its appropriation by generations of hack writers, amnesia remains the vehicle of choice for describing the encounter with unmediated reality. Imagine waking up on a beautiful morning and looking outside the window to see a scene which is not only fresh, but a scene which has absolutely no relationship to you. Not only did you not choose to place yourself in a scene involving the beautiful snow gently swirling around the corners of your house, through dull routine or intentional travel, but you also have no way of placing yourself in the new landscape in any meaningful way. Amnesia is generally regarded as both liberating and frightening. In any case it is exciting. It is the staple of spy thrillers, where everyone is out to get you, and you would simply like to know why, in order to save your skin. A tunk on the head is generally what caused it, and sometimes it is also the cure. In your new unmediated life there might be a woman who loves you, a fresh woman, but there is usually another woman who has always loved you. The playing out of this melodrama is interesting on a soap opera level, but is far more interesting on a metaphysical level. Who are we when stop being ourselves? The reason this situation is exciting (in a purely narrative sense) is that the character with amnesia is still firing on all cylinders: there are no deficits, only a lack of personality framework to process the sensory input. The reason that Alzheimers Disease is not generally useful for writers is that it involves a degeneration of personality, a loss of individual story without much hope of recovery of that story. While amnesia may be both frightening and liberating (exciting), Alzheimers is merely sad.

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