On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

This is the English novel that begins: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. It tells the story of a boy named Leo who spends the summer of 1900 at the home of a wealthy friend. Without understanding the significance of his role, Leo begins delivering messages between his friend’s unmarried sister and a local farmer. He is told that the messages are secret and pertain to “business”, but of course there’s more to it than that.

The novel, published in 1953, was the basis for an excellent movie of the same name that starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates. It’s beautifully written, if a little verbose at times. The only odd thing about it is that it’s in the form of a memoir, as if the grownup Leo is describing events of 50 years ago. Since no normal person could possibly remember what happened that long ago in such detail, we have to assume that the narrator is unreliable or it’s a case of extreme artistic license.

If You Remembered Every Day of Your Life

I haven’t been feeling communicative lately, so I’ve got a backlog of interesting articles to mention, like this one from New York Magazine. It’s called “What It’s Like to Remember Almost Everything That Has Ever Happened to You”. It’s about a woman who has Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM): 

For a given date, I could probably tell you something that happened to me on that day, where I was in life, and the emotions attached to that. When I’m recalling these memories I’m really back there, emotionally. I’ll remember how I was feeling at a certain time very vividly. Prior to being diagnosed with HSAM I always wondered: Am I just a sensitive person? I’ve always been deeply impacted by things…. 

In general, I’m not good at remembering fashion; maybe because I don’t care about clothes. But I can remember the weather. I go directly to a moment, or a date, and then zoom out from there. I’ll remember what I experienced or how I felt on a particular calendar day and I’ll start thinking about that time period — here’s what I was going through, here’s what I was doing, and then from that point forward it’s a sensory experience like I’m reliving the day or time….

Sometimes it’s great because there will be good experiences associated with certain memories. I’m grateful to have had more good than bad in my life. Today, I can go back about 20 years or so and if given a date I can tell you usually at least one thing that was happening on that day as I experienced it. Some days, I honestly don’t remember, but that’s rare and I can usually remember the day after or before. The memory will trigger images, sentiments, emotions—literally the way someone looked in a certain light or something like that.

I often wonder why I’ve forgotten so much of my own past, yet keep returning to certain moments. Why did those particular events make such an impression? Is it possible that some people remember a few things so vividly that they don’t have the capacity to remember much else?

If I ever write my life story, it will be a mosaic.

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Or rather a plain broken by the occasional big rock.

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I highly recommend the article. As I remember, it’s quite good.

A Paragraph About Memory

There was a review in the New York Times this weekend of the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, autobiographical novel My Struggle. I especially liked this paragraph from the reviewer Rivka Galchen:

In and out of the book, Knausgaard repeatedly claims to have a weak memory, a claim one might argue the book belies, but I believe him. Knausgaard forgets most everything (which is very different from everything) the way we all forget most everything, and he might forget even a little bit more than the rest of us. His grandfather tells him a story about having once joined a rescue mission for a plane that crashed in nearby mountains. No one survived, the grandfather says, but he remembers seeing the captain’s head: “His hair was perfect! Combed back. Not a strand out of place.” It’s a kind of gruesome metonymy for memory itself: So much life gone, and this one head in the snow is what remains in the mind’s eye. The past returns to us like light almost entirely obscured by a heavy, dark screen in which memory has made a few pinholes; we see very little, really, yet we look upon it as if at the starry vault of the heavens.

But why are bad memories often more powerful than good ones? I wonder if Knausgaard has anything to say about that.

(Thanks to linuxgal of Terminal Cruise for motivating me to remember reading the paragraph about memory. According to Professor Rosenberg, of course, it was just a matter of electricity flowing in and out (see previous post).)

Memories Are Made of Something

A lot of us old people are excited about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. It was February 9, 1964. A Sunday night, of course. I was 12 years old and we were living in an isolated area six miles west of Lancaster, California, in the desert about 70 miles north of Los Angeles. I remember watching the program, as we did every Sunday night, right before Bonanza. Everybody watched Ed Sullivan and Bonanza.

I also remember being excited about the Beatles’ performance that night and how excited my friend Dwight was too. Dwight was a tall, skinny kid, three or four years older than me, which was a little odd, but there weren’t many kids my age where we lived. That night is one of my favorite memories from those years.

Today, however, it occurred to me that by 1964, I was in junior high (the 7th grade) and we had moved into Lancaster, where I attended Piute School (it’s still there). We weren’t living in the desert outside of town anymore and I couldn’t have talked about the show with Dwight. I’m pretty sure he and I never saw each other again after my family moved into town. 

Maybe Dwight and I watched something else one night and were excited about that? And as the years went by I somehow combined that memory with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan? Is it ok that some of the best things we remember never happened? 

At least I don’t remember being at the show in New York City with all those screaming girls, but give me a few years.