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The fiction writer and all of us
All novels, I would argue, deal with the concept of memory. Even an author whose fiction is highly imaginative or supernatural works from memory of their own perceptions of reality. Our worldview, the way we form characters and opinions, and the way we create scenes come from experiences or responses or sensory observations.
We can consider these ideas in the scope of phenomenology, that is “the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I once reviewed a very interesting book on the topic within the scope of modern art. Here’s a slightly lengthier description, although I recommend visiting the Stanford page if you’re encountering it for the first time:
The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action), etc.
But the way we experience the real world is open not only to our initial perspectives but also to our memory’s filtering and shifting of these experiences. In that sense, our worlds are formed from the now, the interpretation of the past, and the projection of the future.
A couple of novels I read recently made me consider especially the function of memory in writing fiction and what memory has to do more broadly with collective identity shared through writing.
Personal identity and memory are, for many thinkers, necessarily linked. In “Morals, Not Memories, Define Who We Are,” Bobby Azarian first quotes the often accepted understanding of the link between memory and identity: “According to [John] Locke’s “memory theory”, a person’s identity only reaches as far as their memory extends into the past. In other words, who one is critically depends upon what one remembers. Thus, as a person’s memory begins to disappear, so does his identity.”
However, the article goes on to explain the way research has shown a different side of identity:
Fortunately, science appears to suggest that being robbed of one’s memory does not equate with being robbed of one’s identity. A new study has found that “who one is” is largely defined by one’s moral behavior, and not by one’s memory capacity or other cognitive abilities. Thus, although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits—when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics—seem to have no effect on how others perceive “who you are.”
What are the implications for writers? Well, if writing plays with memory as ideas, including morals and philosophical reflections, then the writing itself may represent an individual more than their personal memories.
Their memories also become blended with these ideas to become part of a collective identity once they are published and read. It is no longer necessary to remember; a collective memory is formed of many peoples, texts, and forms of language (including visual or architectural, for example) that represent identity in a more abstract and interconnected way.
Cultures and subcultures form over time in this way. And then there is the collective identity of humanity, also dependent on an interpretation of memory.
These four novels investigate concepts about memory and identity, helping us to paradoxically let go of the need to document and hold onto every single piece of our personal histories in order to be ourselves.
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and the fear of disappearance
We are fascinated, too, by disorders of the mind. But perhaps more than malfunctioning, we fear loss.
Amnesia, dementia, Alzheimer’s…these are terrible diseases that we see in literary texts. There are many texts that explore these issues, such as the films Memento, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Father. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a book by neurologist Oliver Sacks describing in narrative form some of his patients, often dealing with issues related to memory loss. It is a touching book, at times funny and other times sad.
In Ogawa’s novel, the entire population of a Japanese island loses memory of items that disappear. The Memory Police ensure that any trace of the items is destroyed and any people who remember are taken away, likely to be destroyed as well.
The novelist-protagonist and her editor, someone who does remember and therefore must be kept in hiding, attempt to preserve memories through her language. This doesn’t mean that she describes exactly what she sees or what is happening. Rather, fictions she creates capture identity of an island and a people that is fading away. As even bodies begin to disappear, the need to preserve this language is even stronger.
There are early discussions of the need to preserve the novels, even though people are no longer reading them. They rest with yellowing pages in bookstores and the “old man” keeps the protagonist’s books safely, “forever,” afraid that if he reads them, then they will be over.
Even as it is difficult, she perseveres: “I continued with the task of writing strings of words that made almost no sense.” At one point, novels disappear, and she must throw away and burn her books, echoing many other book burning dystopias. But she keeps writing: “‘If I go on writing stories, will those memories protect me?’ / ‘I know they will.’”
Does the loss of cultural space lead to the loss of language that once inhabited that space? Do the memories of identity formed in such spaces cease to exist?
It seems to be the question that Hong Kong poet Leung Ping-Kwan (Ye Si in the Mainland) asks in “An Old Colonial Building”: “Might all the ruins put together present / yet another architecture?…So what’s left are fragmentary, unrepresentative words, / not uttered amidst the buildings of chrome and glass, but beside / a circular pond riddled with patterns of moving signs.” He’s talking about the historic center of The University of Hong Kong, a place that continued to host learning and ideas, literary revelations through the Japanese Occupation and later the Handover1.
Antonio Muńoz Molina’s To Walk Alone in the Crowd and the experience of past and present living side by side in the layers of the city
Antonio Muńoz Molina’s novel To Walk Alone in the Crowd2 has little narrative and a lot of philosophical musings as well as mini narratives, such as running away from terrorism in Nice, reconnecting with a lover, and many walking journeys. Molina blends his own past and present and that of the city itself, also blending fiction and fact, into a reflective excursion through space and time.
The book weaves through memories and movement in places, as if a dream, but also so real in that it is the way we experience our worlds. He speaks of hauntings in the city spaces like invisible photographs being taken, discussing Baudelaire and Benjamin in Paris (for example, pp. 275-7, 326) and Poe in the Bronx (p. 382+) as well as Melville in Manhattan (p. 256+). He also speaks of “trying on a new identity” (p. 71) as if the movements in places allows such an act as one’s own experience blends with the collective memories of that place.
One section discusses a personal house move and all the items connected to memory going into boxes, including things he “did not remember keeping,” such as “drawings that my children made when they were little; telegrams from a not-so-distant time when one still sent such things;…keys to unknown doors” (p. 77). The experience bombards him with moments from the past that seem to have moved quickly and mysteriously.
Later he says: “Memory betrays us” as a box falls to the floor, emptying its contents. There, the items he collected in the wake of his father’s death reach him “as if by sheer chance from an archaeological site” (p. 78). It is as if he is aware that his own items will one day be haphazardly thrown in a box to study as specimen of time past, forgotten.
When you encounter a person from a different time in your life, you likewise recall not only your memory of them but your memory of your self at that time in the past. Or, perhaps worse, you only have a hazy memory of who you were then: “He was someone I knew, after all, someone with whom I had a relationship, even if I couldn’t remember that earlier life anymore, that pristine time, never to return, of a nascent vocation, the joy and the uncertainty of all beginnings” (p. 179).
The narrator has a hard time approaching the old friend due to a feeling that the old relationship and their former selves were “mummified.” But at the same time, those frozen selves are unattainable, as if sealed off, elusive. In this case and in many other parts of the novel, it doesn’t matter so much who he was exactly or how he’s changed; rather it’s more the fact that it happens (to all of us) and that those fragments show up also in our writing. There is an awareness that the former self is at play in the writing, and at times it is the persona that is conjured by the writer.
Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House and disassociating memory from the self
Honestly, I had a hard time connecting to the characters in this book even though I' loved Egan’s earlier work, especially A Visit from the Goon Squad. However, I was fascinated by the book and found the ideas as well as the structure compelling and clever. I guess you could say I enjoyed exploring the book more than actually reading it.
In this dystopian narrative, people download memories, as if freeing up more space in their brains. Own Your Unconscious is a business set up to allow you to access your memories and exchange them with other people. One of the issues, of course, is that the way we experience memories isn’t like a documentary. While there may be pros to remembering correctly, which we are inclined not to do, remembering in a faulty manner is part of our unique consciousness as well as our imagination and creativity.
So if we download memories to access like information on a computer database, we lose its function as a an integral part of ourselves. We begin to look at it like an outsider and feel confusion about a sense of self.
We experience the effect of the “Consciousness Cube” on those who wear its sensors, allowing access to one’s own memories as well as trades for others. Roxy revisits a trip to London with her family and is confused by the motivation she discovers from her father’s perspective: not pride but ‘education.’ However, she has a lot of “satisfaction” from these particular memory trips, but then ponders the effect on her self. Similar to Muñoz’ character above, Roxy attempts to rediscover a younger version of herself from her past:
The movie she's longed to see of her young self in London is the one she just watched in that flurry of memories dislodged by the upload. What more does she need? How could revisiting that time in its unfiltered state improve upon the story her memory has made? What if, like those vile moments inside her father’s mind, the truth disappoints?
Roxy understands now why Chris Salazar opposes even the most private, limited use of Own Your Unconscious. The logic of this process pushes out. She feels it as a natural force, a current drawing her consciousness beyond the limits of her self into a wider sphere. To converge, to be subsumed — how she longs for this! (pp. 157-8)
Roxy follows the trial by quickly allowing all her memories to move into the portal: “The whole of her past whirls through a portal and vanishes onto a separate sheet of graph paper” (p. 158).
When we write and document memories to be shared with others, we are filtering what is shared and remembering a human, faulty way. We are creating and imagining. This is why the line between memoir and novel can be easily blurred. But as we write these memories, they are not erased from inside our minds. On the contrary, they might be enhanced by considering juxtapositions or growth.
Do we already allow certain types of memory to exist in portals instead of ourselves? Take the way we learn. Schools focus more on how to learn and ways of thinking now rather than facts and details, or the system of rote learning. This allows us to access many facts and details in computers (or books or phones…) and then process and use the information, hopefully, for good. In reality, having some accessible knowledge allows one to more easily form an argument and consider what further research one will conduct to reach into new depths of understanding. While there is great benefit in learning this way, it’s about balance.
Is it not the same with our personal memories? We have long used photographs and journals or other resources to remember what happens in our lives. Then videos and digital photographs added more memories to that list. Facebook (etc.) made some of these memories into collective, accessible forms (although filtered). Some details — even objects — bring us joy and understanding as we remember, or allow us to reflect on pain we have gone through and the meaning of that pain to ourselves. But just like with learning, it is a balance. It would be overwhelming to replay one’s entire life experience; conversely it would be frightening to lose these memories as a part of ourselves that we would only occasionally access.
Annie Ernaux’s Happening and novels of the quasi-real
Let’s stick with the idea of collective memories while we consider this courageous story about an abortion from Annie Ernaux, written in 2000 under the French title L’événement3. The story is a form of autofiction, quite popular in France, where memoir and novel lines are blurred. In this tale, Ernaux discusses in flashback an abortion from just before the legalization of the practice in France4.
After already diving into a few doctor’s visits and the humiliation they made her feel while at the same time asking about her male classmates at The Sorbonne as if networking, she tells us why she writes the book:
If many novels describe an abortion, they don’t go into details in the way it happens exactly. Between the moment that the girl discovers she is pregnant and that when she is no longer, there is an ellipses (or a gap). In the library, I researched the term “abortion.” There was nothing there except for medical reviews.
One can go further in fiction because reality is too painful. Ernaux deals with a collective idea - that of what abortion is and means - alongside a moment in history (repeated) - and the way it impacts the individual. This is like the genre of quasi-real films, pseudo-documentaries that allow us to go deeper into private lives in order to understand a real-world situation, like illegal immigration or what it means to be part of a specific subculture.
Ernaux also writes books labeled as memoir in addition to autobiographical fiction. Some of the best novelists have written memoir, blurring the lines in their fiction and making us supremely aware of the role memory plays as they write. Orhan Pamuk, Paul Auster, and Joan Didion are some of these writers.
In a recent interview with Philosophie Magazine, Ernaux discusses the way she blends memoir into novel, although this is not so uncommon in French novels, and the way she uses the body as a collective. She talks about her own experience, for example with abortion and pregnancy and the way her body is also one of all, of humanity. She doesn’t mean others should control it; on the contrary, we must care for all bodies as if they are our own. She discusses also ‘saving herself’ as an individual through writing as a way to also work toward ‘saving the entire whole,’ or humanity itself.
This idea is in contrast to Egan’s dystopia; the collective is not something that is lost and swallowed up by AI. Instead, it is of the body, supremely individual, and yet a responsibility for all to protect. We share our memories through our collective physical experience in the world.
Ernaux’s experience, in the book at least, is one that leaves her in grave danger and also exposes the assumptions those she encounters has about ‘educated’ women and those who are not. The character chooses not to tell interns at the hospital mocking her that she is also a ‘student’, which surprises a nurse who later tells her she would have better treatment if she simply told the doctors so at the start. She reminds us this can happen to anyone. While there are many who judge her along the way, a woman who performs the operation is viewed as a kind of hero.
Ernaux tries to take something positive from the experience and sees it as a collective human one (p. 112):
I finished putting the story in words and it seemed to me like a complete human experience, one of life and death, of time, of morals and the forbidden, of the law, an experience lived end to end through the body.
My literature students occasionally asked why we read so many books that ended in death. Because, I said, not only can we learn from tragedy, but death is part of life. To understand life and humanity, we must read about it all in complete. Ernaux, without dying herself or killing off the fictionalized version of herself, allows us to experience a death within her own body. It’s not one she wishes on anybody else, but one that can be experienced through her writing to allow us to feel more collective responsibility, much more than empathy alone.
Other literary considerations
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer and the ghostly memory of collective trauma mixed with personal experience and discovery (slavery in the US)
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — similar ideas with a very different context (9/11 NYC) and the personal pain of losing a parent as a child. From the start:
What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles, who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’être, which is a French expression that I know.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the concept of making individuals visible through literature who have been overlooked. The novel begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and cultural memories mixed with the familial that help us consider politics. Also an exploration of the way twins remember differently and therefore become different people. From page 5:
In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha's funny dream.
She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
She remembers, for instance (though she hadn't been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches--Estha's sandwiches, that Estha ate--on the Madras Mail to Madras.
And these are only the small things.
Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the memory of englightenment and time spent with a loved one, his son who would die only five years after publishing this memoir of their journey. From page 289:
Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been. At the leading edge, there are no subjects, no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of knowing where to go. You don’t have pure reason—you have pure confusion. The leading edge is where absolutely all the action is. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past. Where else could they be contained?
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Funes, his Memory” and the voices and languages of the dead, as well as the idea that a man with many languages might contain deeper or more far-reaching memories
I sought ideas about this post in the early days of Substack Notes and was amazed at the response from other writers and readers with texts or ideas. Here it is:
Through this post,from and I connected to share complementary posts. Please check out her work on memory last month —
So what do you think about memory and novels? Are the memories embedded in the layers of narration personal or collective? As they are written, whose memories do they become? What other literature speaks to you specifically about memory?
I’ll pick up with several of the topics mentioned today in the first few podcasts of the new season on The Matterhorn, including PK Leung/Ye Si’s poetry, the quasi-real, and mapping literary dialogues. Thanks for reading today’s post.
That building is where I dwelt for years as well, when it used to house the department of Comparative Literature. About ten years ago, Centennial Campus was built where we welcomed skyscraper views of the harbor and islands. Despite the more tech-friendly and temperature controlled classrooms as well as simply more space, there was something of the history that was lost in this transition that felt a little like a harbinger of things to come. It’s something PK Leung, who had once been a professor in our department, seemed to anticipate even before this change.
Translations from the French are my own.
I would be pleased if the US Supreme Court Justices read this book for perspective.