For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Memory And Imagination

While the New Year is a time for anticipation and looking forward, Christmas is a time for reflection and looking back.

The future is by definition an imagined land. But what's often forgotten is that the past is also imaginary to a great extent. I've been looking back again through my old notebooks of quotations as I did before here and here. At the head of one of these notebooks I see that I've written this: to remember is also to imagine.

There was a time when I used to read a lot of John Fowles. I copied down these 2 quotations from his Victorian-pastiche novel The French Lieutenant's Woman:

His statement to himself should have been, 'I possess this now, therefore I am happy', instead of what it so Victorianly was: 'I cannot possess this for ever, and therefore am sad'.

It may be better for humanity that we should communicate more and more. But I am a heretic. I think our ancestors' isolation was like the greater space they enjoyed: it can only be envied. The world is literally too much with us now.

These short passages still resonate strongly with me. And how relevant the 2nd one is in these days of instant, unrelenting communication by text and email, by mobile phone and Internet.

I also used to read a lot of Aldous Huxley. These extracts are taken from Texts And Pretexts:

All 'feelings and opinions' are temporary; they last for a while and are then succeeded by other 'feelings and opinions'... The 'all' feeling is brief and occasional; but this is not to say that a metaphysical system based upon it must necessarily be untrue... Our experience is divided up into island universes. We jump from one to the other - there are no bridges.

The mind purifies the experiences with which it is stored, composes and informs the chaos. Each man's memory is his private literature and every recollection affects us with something of the penetrative force that belongs to the work of art.
Man is so intelligent that he feels impelled to invent theories to account for what happens in the world. Unfortunately, he is not quite intelligent enough, in most cases, to find correct explanations. So that when he acts on his theories, he behaves very often like a lunatic.
The magic of irrelevance is one of poetry's most powerful instruments. Why are poetical phrases poetical? In most cases, because they contain ideas which we normally regard as irrelevant one to another, but which the poet has contrived to make relevant... Every good metaphor is the mating of irrelevances to produce a new and more vivid explosion.
Dominic Rivron has been ruminating recently on metaphor in his blog - how about that for a brilliantly succinct description of metaphor, Dominic?
In case we nail all our colours with utter and complete abandon to the mast of Art, it's salutary to be reminded occasionally that Art and Beauty can sometimes lead to dangerous excess (as Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray showed only too well):
The religion of imagination is a dangerous faith, liable to the most deplorable corruptions.
Finally in Texts And Pretexts Huxley states a great truth about nature that many cosy nature writers fail to recognise:
Very few 'nature poets' have the courage to admit that their goddess lives with an unknown mode of being, that she sometimes reveals herself unequivocally as the most terrifying and malignantly alien of deities.
I'm sure that Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers would agree with this!

5 comments:

forest wisdom said...

Great post, with much to ponder here. Thank you, SW. I am reminded of the impermanence of all things...all things arise, bloom and then die....

"Each man's memory is his private literature." I like that...

The Weaver of Grass said...

Nothing is ever as it seems. We re-shape, adjust and invent our memories subconsciously in order to fit them into our "reality" - and that reality is never the same as anyone elses - it is personal to each individual. I think the same can be said of metaphor too - what strikes us about a metaphor may well not be what strikes someone else. Does this make sense? (If it doesn't, don't tell me!) Happy new year.

Jay said...

Two passages in particular strike a chord with me:

"And how relevant the 2nd one is in these days of instant, unrelenting communication by text and email, by mobile phone and Internet"

How true that is! I used to feel compelled to interact with, and absorb as much as I could from the world at all times. These days, through sheer self-protection, I'm much more selective.

The other is this one -

"Very few 'nature poets' have the courage to admit that their goddess lives with an unknown mode of being, that she sometimes reveals herself unequivocally as the most terrifying and malignantly alien of deities."

Absolutely. Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, and the utterly beautiful Antarctic will do its impersonal best to kill you, as will the equally beautiful Death Valley. You can romanticise it all you like, but those are the facts.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I've just been reading Weaver's wonderful poem, and so agree with her about erasing the painful and enhancing the good in our memories.

I believe (from experience), that this has a very positive and practical effect on one's future too. Primes one's reticulated activator, so some psychological schools of thought teach!

I'm also constantly amazed how potent memories are of books read in childhood - maybe a source of those unconscious metaphors?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks everyone for these comments. Enjoyed your reflections about memory too, Weaver.