Whenever I hear Bach’s “Air on the G String” I am transported back to Quebec and the apartment in which we lived when I was completing my graduate studies. At night, after Connie had tended to the baby and gone to bed herself, I would sit at my desk, studying, smoking, listening to the radio. At eleven o’clock, a program of classical music began, Bach’s air its theme song. After all these years that measured sound unfailingly brings back the peace of that time, my wife and son asleep, the text of Thomas Aquinas open before me, smoking homemade cigarettes. Long before I knew what that music was, I realized it had stamped itself upon my soul.
So what? We listen to other people’s memories to earn the right to tell our own, but theirs are theirs and ours are ours. Wives remember things their husbands don’t and vice versa. There is a strange scene in Tender Mercies when Robert Duvall as Matt Sledge is visited by his daughter, whom he has not seen for years. She remembers things, he remembers things. She tells him that he sang a song to her when she was a little girl. Something about a dove, the wings of a dove. He thinks about it, then shakes his head and says he can’t remember. After she leaves he stands silently at the window, time ticks by, and then he begins raggedly to sing the song his daughter remembered.
Did her memory trigger his? Was he afraid to admit to her that he remembered it? I remember it now because it was music she remembered, her father singing to her as she drifted off to sleep. My children remember things that I do not. Former students sometimes tell me in great detail something I said in class. I don’t remember a word of what they say.
When you think of how little and how randomly we recall of what happens, our lives seem episodic. What of all the things that really happened and yet have left no deep imprint on our memories? It is said that the brain, properly stimulated, could bring back every event of our past lives. We would be swamped in the inconsequential.
Proust’s masterpiece, Rememberance of Things Past, seems the product of total recall, and yet how selective it had to be. Long as it is, it could not contain everything he might have dredged up from memory. There is a haunting remark of J. M. Barrie that J. F. Powers used as the motto for Morte d’Urban. “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another …” That seems true, but to think of one’s life as a story is to leave out most of what one has done. Where do all the unremembered memories go?
That is not a question like, “Where does weight go when we lose it?” John Updike said, half in admiration, half in rebuke, that J. D. Salinger loved his characters even more than God did. I don’t think so, at least if he meant God’s creatures, not Salinger’s. Plato likened our life to a turning wheel that touches the surface only a point at a time. We move out of the past into the future, out of what is no more into what is not yet, and the point separating them is now Our existence is in the instant. We hardly exist at all. Insofar as we do exist it is thanks to the continued causality of God.
Once, years ago at a banquet, a shy brother was called on unexpectedly to say grace. He stood silently for a moment and then said very slowly, “Let us put ourselves in the presence of God.” The way he said the words indicated he was already there. So are we all, one way or another. It is the condition of our existence. It is also the point of our existence. When we see even as we are seen, it will all come back to us, everything we have done and thought and hoped and desired. The good and the bad.
Let us hope that the story we have more or less unwittingly written will be the one we were meant to write.
Meanwhile, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”