Salter and Aciman on the Past

Street in Rome (Photo by Sean O'Neill@oneillsdc5)
Portico d’Ottavia in Rome  (Photo by Sean O’Neill@oneillsdc5)

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m teaching an online memoir course.  I’m captivated by watching my students grapple with and write about the past.  Here are two passages for writers and anyone else who muses about the nature of memory, one from a novel and one from an essay, both beautiful and thought-provoking.

The first is from the narrator of the novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

And this from “Intimacy,” an essay by Andre Aciman in his collection Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere.

In this passage, Aciman revisits after many decades the street in Rome where he lived for three years as a boy, having emigrated there from Egypt with his family, while they waited to get visas to America.

One more block and scarcely five minutes after arriving, our visit was over.  This always happens when I go back to places. Either buildings shrink over time, or the time it takes to revisit them shrinks to less than five minutes. We had walked from one end of the street to the other. There was nothing more to do now but walk back the way we came. I sensed, from the way my wife and sons were waiting for me to tell them what to do next, that they were glad the visit was over. On our way back up the street, I did spend a few more seconds standing before the building, not just to take the moment in and never say I’d rushed or bungled the experience, but because I still hoped that an undisclosed something might rush out and tug me, exclaiming, as some people do when they suddenly show up at your door after many years, “Remember me?”  But nothing happened. I was, as I always am during such moments, numbed to the experience.

Writing about it – after the fact, as I did later that day – might eventually un-numb me.   Writing, I was sure, would dust off things that were not there at the time of my visit, or that were there but that I wasn’t quite seeing and needed time and paper to sort out, so that, once written about, they’d confer on my visit the retrospective resonance that part of me had hoped to find there on Via Clelia.  Writing might even bring me closer to this street than I’d been while living there. Writing wouldn’t alter or exaggerate anything; it would simply excavate, rearrange, lace a narrative, recollect in tranquility, where ordinary life is perfectly happy to nod and move on. Writing sees figures where life sees things; things we leave behind, figures we keep. Even the experience of numbness, when traced on paper,  acquires a resigned and disenchanted grace, a melancholy cadence that seems at once intimate and aroused compared with the original blah.  Write about numbness, and numbness turns into something. Upset flat surfaces, dig out the shadows, and you’ve got dreammaking.

Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?

3 Replies to “Salter and Aciman on the Past”

  1. I so appreciate this post, especially the quote by James Salter. I'm putting it in my commonplace book. A terrifying quote, when you think about it and mental illness. I especially like it that the counterfeit is no less important.

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