Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity
Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline
All remembrance of things past is fiction.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
A clear December morning. With a new road bike awaiting in the shed, it was all too easy to convince myself that the conditions were perfect for a morning ride. As I left the last houses of our small coastal town behind me, the white fields that lay ahead, heavy with frost, made me silently question why I was on the road at such an early hour. It would be some time before the sun effected any change on this wintry landscape. Meanwhile, the chill worked its way to my bones.
The only sound as I climbed up the slope into a neighbouring hamlet was my own laboured breathing. Its smoky plumes offset by the blueness of the sky and the ice particles twinkling on trees and rooftops. The road gradually shifted from incline to false flat, and all of a sudden I was sliding along it, separated from bicycle, both of us on our sides atop the asphalt.
Of course, as James Sallis contends, our memories are more poets than reporters. Much of what I have just related happened on a frozen morning in December 2008, but it is not a real memory. The details have been filled in, revisited, rewritten with the passage of time. That particular cycling route is one I have ridden often since then, gathering more information about landscape, road layout, housing.
Consciously, I recall being upright and then suddenly sprawled in the middle of the road. The fall itself is blacked-out, redacted. I then remember checking for damage to myself and machine, briefly talking to someone at the roadside, remounting and coming off the bike twice more as I gingerly made my way home. Whenever I think about this particular ride, I always experience regret. Regret for having headed out on a road bike in such icy conditions. Regret for endeavouring to complete a circuit when the safer thing to do would have been to turn around and head home the same way I had come.
What remains missing from my recollection of that day is the initial fall itself. That moment of hitting black ice, losing control of the bike, falling, becoming unclipped from the pedals. Yet my body retains a trace of it, my unconscious too, even if my conscious mind does not. This takes the form not just of road rash on my right knee but of physical sensations too.
It is normal, after a long bike ride, as I rest on the sofa or sit at my desk, that I feel my leg muscles twitching, almost as if they are still in action, turning pedals, climbing hills, struggling against the wind. On the days immediately following the crash, however, a combination of unconscious images and muscle memory pulled me from sleep on several occasions. With each recurrence, I awakened suddenly, sensing that I was falling again. My body and unconscious mind were bridging the gap in memory, filling it with vivid snippets, sensations and imagination.
The story of my crash, then, is a mixture of fact and fiction. Whatever I perceived as reality was laid down in my memory, the brain serving as computer. But those dream effects have blended with it over time, the computer serving as a mixing table. The story has become more finely crafted with each telling, diverging ever more from what was experienced in the moment.
But is that not always the case? Our memories accumulate not only what our eyes see, but signals from other sensations and emotions as well. These fragments become associated with images, books, phrases or locations – time capsules, if you will – the accessing of which can serve to unlock the stored but ever-fluid memories. The sharing of the stories changes our memories too as friends and family add their own perspectives, their own accounts, in Rashomon-like retellings of the same event. The boundaries between my memories and their stories blur.
I am reminded of an observation in The Neo-Generalist: ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’ Our pasts travel with us, constantly reinserted into the present, experienced again, in new ways, adapted as we too undergo change.
What I read, hear, see, imagine, dream, discuss becomes me. Where I go is who I am. But that identity is always changing, affected by the journey itself. Our memories are contrails gradually dissolving, and what we carry with us are comfortable fictions.
Time’s whispers are suspect, memory forever as much poet as reporter, and perhaps this is only the way that, retrospectively, imaginatively, I make sense for now.
— James Sallis, Moth
Accumulated experience always alters perception of the past.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Remembering is an act of creative reconstruction rather than simple replaying. Every time a memory is recalled it is re-formed, and in the process it becomes mingled with the stories of others and shaped by our own anxieties, desires and imaginings.
— Ian Leslie, Born Liars
Memory, as it happens, is a fairly unreliable search engine. It’s fuzzy and utopian, honoring an imagined past over a real one.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire
Memory, which dives into our sunken libraries and rescues from the long-lost pages only a few seemingly random paragraphs, chooses better than we know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity