Cameron Merrill recently contributed a piece about memory, focusing on the memories of individuals, communities of memory, and how these communities surround those individuals who have begun to lose their own memories. Memory and forgetfulness have always interested me, and both are important categories in Walker Percy’s The Second Coming.
In the early lines of the novel, Percy introduces Will Barrett, who is having a particularly bad game of golf. Not only has he hit his ball into a sand trap, but also while attempting to salvage his ball, he’s fallen down in the trap, his face in the sand. He doesn’t even know how he fell in the trap in the first place.
A few moments later, he’s slices his ball into the trees, something he never does. Percy narrates:
As he searched for the ball deep in the woods, another odd thing happened to him. He heard something and the sound reminded him of an event that had happened a long time ago. It was the most important event in his life, yet he had managed until that moment to forget.
Percy goes on to recount Will’s memory about a girl he knew back in high school, but the scene’s action oscillates between what Will remembers from long ago and his forgetfulness of a few minutes ago.
“Forgetfulness” is a strange and clunky word. The word’s succinct but infrequently used synonym is “oblivion,” a word which names the place where memories go when they have been forgotten, like a trash heap or a furnace. The man or woman who forgets so much or so often as to be marked by this state of forgetfulness is “oblivious.”
Most of the time, the adjective “oblivious” is rather innocuous. The men sat there oblivious of the night’s bill, which the waitress had placed on their table twenty minutes prior. In this example, it is likely that the men may have acknowledged the waitress when she put the bill on their table, but their conversation continued and passed over the bill exchange, and the men have simply forgotten about the bill in their midst. “Oblivious” sometimes stands in for “aloof” or “unaware,” which both name a person as “inattentive” to her surroundings or the time. In contemporary usage, “oblivious” lacks the severity that “oblivion“ evokes.
“Oblivion” is much more serious. Shakespeare’s “oblivion” is consequent of the tomb, where men and women are forgotten and their bodies are returned to dust. For Mary Shelly and Charles Dickens, “oblivion” is the anonymity that accompanies a person whose words go published and unread, or whose deeds go unacknowledged.
Unlike memory, which we sometimes posit as either a natural gift of the mind or a skill that can be actively enhanced through repetition or memory games, forgetfulness is always passive. We cannot actively forget a moment in time or an idea we once had. In fact, the very act of trying to forget something only does its part to refresh the matter, sometimes with increased acuity, the very opposite of intended forgetting project.
Instead, forgetfulness is something suffered. We forget the names and faces of former acquaintances, colleagues, classmates, and even family members. When the condition is clinically diagnosed, we give the condition names like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We lament when our loved ones begin to show signs of these conditions because the sufferer is now seems a shade of his past self.
I’ve often struggled with mild forms of forgetfulness: I don’t remember phone numbers or the names of former students; I rarely remember the previous night’s dream after breakfast; I often forget my rain jacket on the back of a chair in a room and then forget which room that is. But these are mild in comparison with the loss of memories associated with Alzheimer’s.
The question for Percy is how do we name such a condition and can we overcome it. Do we simply use the expressions and opinions of the medical experts and their judgment? Percy entertains the clinical diagnoses:
Certain “quasi-sensory” symptoms, as one doctor explained later, began to manifest themselves. There was a slight not unpleasant twisting sensation in his head. A pied weed at the edge of the rough gave off a faint but acrid smell which rose in his nostrils The bright October sunlight went dark as an eclipse. The scene before his eyes seemed to change. It was not really a hallucination, he learned from another doctor, but an “association response” such as might be provoked by a lesion in the frontal lobe of the brain.
Percy’s opening scene illuminates the struggle to express accurately what is going on in his character’s head. Is Will’s situation on the golf course and in this stage in his life something we can explain with purely clinical jargon? Percy continues:
Instead of the immaculate emerald fairway curving between the scarlet and gold hillsides of the Appalachians, he seemed to seem something else. It was a scene from his youth, so insignificant a recollection that he had no reason to remember it then, let alone now thirty years later. Yet he seems to see every detail as clearly as if the scene lay before him. Again the explanation of the neurologist was altogether reasonable. The brain registers and records every sensation, sight and sound and smell, it has ever received. If the neurones where such information is stored happened to be stimulated, jostled, pressed up, any memory can be recaptured. Nothing is really forgotten.
In one sense, Percy is expressing his anthropology. The tension is that the human mind has an immense capacity to remember anything and everything it wants. But if this is the case, why does the memory fail at critical times, like Will’s uncertainty about falling into the sand pit? By this same token, how and why are some memories reactivated when we see or smell or touch something so everyday common place, like when Will smells the pied weed and remembers the girl from his high school class whom he never asked out.
The tension pivots on what we choose to remember in our daily routine. If the human mind is capable of retaining every memory through every sense ever received, forgetfulness is choosing not to remember again today what you knew yesterday. We do this in many of the various practices of family, work, and religious community: we keep photo albums on our coffee tables and framed family trees on the wall in the hallway to remember our blood ancestors; we put company mission statements in places of prominence at the work place to remember our company’s interests and direction; we daily and weekly recite creeds to remember what we believe and listen to readings not to forget our religious story and identity. All these are forms of active remembrance lest we forget where we’ve come from, who we are, and where we are going. To quote Percy again, “Nothing is really forgotten,” but we do need certain disciplines of memory to help keep our memories with us.