Thursday, 4 August 2011

nowhere near

Train stations I have seen: Cologne, Brussels, Rotterdam, Alfreton.
This is the song I've been listening to since I've come home.
Fair warning to anyone who reads this: The following is a product of lack of sleep, euphoria and a terrible habit of mixing my metaphors.

Yesterday I was on a train to London, contemplating the past week or so, when I realised that there's an obvious problem with using a device like a Pensieve. (Let's just pretend for a moment that it's real. Non Harry Potter readers, I'm talking about this.) It's quite simple, really - memories aren't either pure, or have been meddled with.
In fact, they are always tainted or tinted, by other experiences or nostalgia. They are shaped by the narrative we force upon them, the stories we tell our friends and the confessional notes we scribble into journals. A wonderful, unique moment is gone in an instant, as per definition. If it is retrieved however, looked at again, it can never take the shape of those neat and orderly scenes encountered by Harry Potter when he dives into the Pensieve. We know that. Historians have tried to either ignore that fact or work around it for ages.

But still, it is a dilemma. I'd love to keep the memory of certain moments safe, like an old photograph hidden in a dark place so as to keep it from aging. This means keeping it locked up, not sharing it: The more you look at the picture, the more fragile it gets. And the more you talk about moments, share them with others, the more they turn into a story - until you can only remember them with the words you use to describe them with. And of course words aren't all that accurate.

It's similar to something I discovered when I (finally) met my friend Q again and we talked about the last time we had seen each other: Our memory was shaped by the photographs we had taken. It is confined to the limits we imposed on it.

Basically, I am facing quite a simple question: Is it better not to take any pictures? And, even more importantly: Should you avoid talking or writing about precious moments? Your memory will remain in the solitary confinement of your brain, undisturbed, it won't turn into a story that loses its depth of feeling after having been told for the third, fourth, fifth time. It will, however, be all the more prone to merge with illusions, what if's, daydreams, wishful thinking, until the original is changed, until it's hard to tell what actually happened. And one day, you'll forget about it, forget what it meant to you that day, the immediacy will be gone.

In the end, what happens is this: You sit on a train, and then later you're at Heathrow and it's six in the morning. Instead of writing down what has happened, events, people, places that have had an impact on your life, instead of facing the dilemma of turning your feelings into nothing more but words and a story because you want to keep at least a part of them alive forever... instead of doing that, you just write about what a strange thing memory is. Contemplating what has actually happened seems like a task you can't face right now.
You talk to your friend Martin who wisely says, "You're overthinking this, aren't you?"
Already, nostalgia has set in.

Later, you'll board a plane. You come home and, half-convinced that you must have been dreaming, you tell your friend all about it, just to confirm to yourself that things have happened. The moment is gone, tainted, mixed with longing and regret, just a memory, bound to fade. Only wizards and robots know how to keep them pure.


  1. You are amazing.

    Philip Pullman said that once he's written a character and sent it out into the world, that's it; he has no right to control how people shape her or him. And I think that's another aspect of memories turning into stories in telling them to others: they leave your mouth, and the reactions, opinions, retellings in the words of others further alter them.

    And your friends' expressions (as you explain something for the first or seventh time) are weaved into your remembering of the event.

    I've also been guilty of thinking of people in terms of the narrative in certain songs, casting them as a particualr character. Shaping my experience to fit the expression of someone else's. Can a memory be kept safe from that?

  2. I love this, it's something I battle with all the time but struggle to put into words.

    I'm also prone to pondering 'what if' situations. What if something different was said or done? What would the magnitude have been on the situation?

    Ah. 'Thinking too much' seems to be something we share :)

    Hope you're well x

  3. I beg to differ about the robots.

  4. Thank you for your thoughts! But I also like your pics! The reason is that I suddenly remembered Gare du Nord in BXL and the feelings I had sitting in the train looking outside the window! Have a nice day!

  5. Great text! I just wrote a comment which got superlong so I thought I'll put it in a blog post myself. I'll post the first part of my comment though:

    1. Nowhere Near made me think of Nowhere Fast which is a Smiths song I listened a lot to one summer. To share a memory I most likely haven't shared with anyone before: I remember making walks through different parts of my hometown, parts I didn't really explore before, in 2006. And once I came upon a graveyard in a deserted neighbourhood, trains were passing behind one wall and sunflowers grew everywhere. I remember finding it a weird plant for graveyards.

  6. Lovely.

    I took a seminar on first person narratives once and we talked a lot about memories. It's funny to think that the ones that have the most meaning to us are usually the ones that are the most tainted by frequent recollection and retelling.

    I sometimes try to jot things down when I have moments I want to remember, but even in the short time it takes me to pull out a piece of paper and pencil, my mind has already warped the memory into something it wasn't.

  7. Dear people who responded, thank you. Your comments are food for thought and I appreciate it.

  8. Hi, I just found your blog and really wanted to comment on this post because it resonated with me a lot and just tugged at my heartstrings in more ways than one. I think when I first started photographing years ago, I became nearly obsessive-compulsive with it because it was my way of building memories. Being so visually-driven, I wanted to hoard my memories through pictures, but it got to a point where I felt burdened by those photographs, by the impact that they had on my memories, by my dependence and reliance on them, by the fact that the act of photography can ruin the purity of a moment. Studying photography at school became really difficult for me and still is - I'm still in the process of discovering what photography really means to me - maybe I'm overthinking it, I don't know! But anyhow, I do agree with you that a memory is such a personal narrative that twists and turns and warps over time, and i'd like to think that a photograph might be an anchor for that memory, but we know that our reactions to and perceptions of photographs also change over time... but i think in the end we create our own truths and own images - which is a pretty beautiful thing in and of itself.