in silence I celebrated departures,
all these revelations and masks
dredged down from the day.
— James Sallis, Memory at 3 A.M.
The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go
— David Whyte, Finisterre
From at least the time of the Renaissance onwards advances in scientific understanding and our ability to measure accelerated and expanded. They enhanced our understanding of time and space, our diminishingly small place in the universe, our history, the fragmentation of our days and our servitude to the clock. It resulted in what Douglas Rushkoff termed present shock, the modern-day obsession with now, unmoored from ‘desire, reasons, or context’. The now of digital ephemera; the Snapchat message or Instagram image, barely apprehended and lost to the immediate past.
As the Industrial Revolution prompted changes in people’s behaviour, regulated by the mechanical clock rather than the rhythms of the seasons and an agricultural life, so an interest in time began to permeate other aspects of our culture too. The novel, for example, gained a firmer foothold during this period, and by the early twentieth-century notions of time had become a dominant motif, influencing and being influenced by the work of poets, painters, photographers and filmmakers. As Milan Kundera argues in The Curtain, where the scientific approach to history relates to progress, when ‘applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them.’
The first decades of the last century were a great melting pot of ideas. Mathematics and geometry feeding Picasso’s art. Music and philosophy inspiring Einstein’s science. Mythology and psychology infusing the work of novelists and poets. The working of the mind, of its apprehension of time, its expansion and elision, proved a source of fascination, shaping the work of Joyce and Proust, among others. Their successors remain enthralled by the notion of memory, of how with the passage of linear time, there was an uncoupling of lived experience from the emotional, the sensory. The latter informed memories that could be shaped into new narratives that carried greater meaning than any factual recording ever could. These were personal stories, linked to inner feelings and sentiment. It is an idea beautifully captured by James Sallis: memory is forever more poet than reporter.
[Photo credit: Departure, Richard Martin, October 2015]
This sense of personal narrative being informed by emotive memories has really been brought home to me in the last fortnight, triggered by the deaths of two people with whom I had worked but did not know well, Lisa Jardine and Jay Cross. Lisa was the Chair of the HFEA during several of the years I worked there. My enduring memories of her, though, have nothing to do with the domain of IVF regulation or embryo research, but rather of discussions relating to literature and technology. Jay was someone who I was aware of for some time, but had only connected with this year, when we began to work together on his latest book, Real Learning. It was a brief acquaintance of Skype conversations, texting and email exchanges, focused on readying his book for publication next month. Yet in such a short time, I was impressed by his restless explorer’s energy, whether that was seeking to help others learn, travelling or following his enthusiasm for classic cars.
The eulogies that have appeared in the media, in print, online, on social platforms, offer a more rounded picture of the people I briefly knew, but also capture the sensory memories of those who have crafted these written pieces or selected certain images to share. These past two weeks I have learned so much more about both Lisa and Jay, their broad interests and their effect on those they touched during their brief time with us. Both achieved a degree of celebrity in their respective fields. Lisa as a polymathic academic comfortable in both the humanities and the sciences, as a radio personality and as a member of various societies and public boards. Jay as a pioneer of informal learning, and as someone who disregarded lazy generational labels and demonstrated what it was to be a septuagenarian digital native. They both showed others how to live a life of curiosity and constant learning, consolidating their own learning through guiding and teaching others.
Both Lisa and Jay live on through the memories of those they befriended, influenced and guided. I am grateful to have known them, however fleetingly; grateful too to have access to those memories shared by others. Departed but not forgotten.
Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over worlds unwittingly weave
— W. H. Auden, O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven
an ancient pomegranate tree
gnarled and twisted and the dark bark shredded
the rings inside it holding its long story
and the sap still climbing to make
another life as I sat there by the wall
— W. S. Merwin, Can Palat