In Peter Cowie's essay on Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, there is this description of a key theme: "the phenomenon of old age wherein childhood memories return with ever-increasing clarity while great stretches of the prime of life vanish into obscurity."
I know a little of what this is like. I am not all that advanced in age — I need stronger glasses than I did before for driving, but at least nothing else is out of whack (yet) — but I know how there are already swaths of my life from not all that long ago that are being bleached out by time's sun.
And I know why: because those are the periods of my life where I didn't fill them with anything of distinction, and I did so by choice. Those were times when I grabbed for a purpose and came away either with sand that ran through the fingers or with nothing at all. And so there was nothing of consequence to remember. It bothers me that there exists even a year or two like that, where before I found the direction and incentive I document here regularly I spent my time floating.
Japanese popular culture often features young people doing things for the sake of "creating memories to cherish" (kids on summer vacation, etc.). I never thought much about the significance of this; I figured it was just some sentimental ready-made, a source of canned emotion the way a needle-drop on a soundtrack is. But every cliché grows from a truth, and the truth I wasn't privy to before was how memories are the ribs to which our lives stick. You make memories out of life to remember that you had any kind of life at all, because our brains are only too happy to eliminate redundancies. (Quick: what did you have for lunch exactly one week ago?)
The other month I was telling someone relatively new to my work about why I have never written a sequel and never will: because I don't want to repeat myself, and there are too many things I want to do justice to in the very small sliver of time I know I have. I realize now this is part of the same feeling. A life where I had settled for simply doing the same creative thing over and over, with only the most minor variation as could be excused, would have been unacceptable. The act of making each of these works had to be as dissimilar as the making of any of the ones before it. Otherwise, they would have had no flavor from within. From the outside — the things included, the plot — they would be different enough for the people who read them. But I would always know differently, and it would be too easy, within me, for them to blend together and become as undifferentiated as any two bottles of water from the same pack of twenty-four. And I know how I would feel: that I had given nothing of real value to the world; that I had produced nothing of real value for myself, either; and that I had squandered one of the great gifts I knew I had for doing so.
I know it is possible to take this too far. Yukio Mishima, in the months before his suicide at the age of forty-five, once said something to the effect that when he looked back on his life up to that point, he was astonished by its emptiness; he could scarcely say that he had lived at all. This from a man who had more in any one day of his adult life than most of us had in a month! What about it seemed empty to him? Maybe that his standards for what meaning he could ascribe to it were so impossibly high that he could never have fulfilled any of them, and his egotism would never let him simply enjoy what was within reach. For him it was all or nothing, which in turn became all for nothing.
Among the key phrases that shaped me was Hubert Selby, Jr.'s declaration that he started writing because he did not want to die having done nothing with his life. He went on from that to describe how easy it would have been to do just that. Not because he was lazy, but because a bout of TB left him with a miniscule fraction of the lung capacity of a normal person, and he could have elected at any time to lie down and let some kind of death overtake him. He chose instead to make something.
It is easier than ever now to live a life into which nothing is poured, nothing is kept, and nothing returns to its earth. It's a struggle to have a life where there is something worth remembering, some ribs for life to stick to, instead of merely the drab tide of the one day and the next washing everything out to sea. It has never been easier to live without having anything worth remembering as our own. It is no life I want.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind