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“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”: Matters of Memory

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 29, 2012 | Comments ()


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This includes hints of events and revelations within Robin Hobb's books. If such words spoil you, then go read the books before you bloody well read this.

It's always wonderful when you discover an author worth reading who has somehow escaped your notice for the previous years of your life. When you're young, every author you read tends to be that way. Oh, there will be a few who are cutting their teeth on writing just as you are cutting your teeth on reading, but most books you pick up will be gateway drugs into another dozen books by the same author. So finding an author like that, is like being young again, like being twelve again at the used bookstore and finding an entire bookshelf by the same author that you take home for a couple of dollars.

I wrote about this before, and it's not the main thrust, but the introduction here. See, a couple of months ago, I started ripping through Robin Hobb's various Farseer series (starting with The Assassin's Apprentice, and having devoured nine books like an addict finding a forgotten stash). Hobb weaves thoughts on memory throughout the novels, subtly at first, but in mounting metaphor until the novels truly hinge on what memory means as much as they do upon the particular maneuvering within their fantasy domain.

Her work features inanimate objects that are given some form of life by taking on the memories of people. Mere piles of rock become dragons, mere wood becomes a talking ship. And on a deeper level, her characters are constantly at war with their own memories, with a childhood unremembered, with torture and betrayal that echoes forever, with voices of long dead companions that still echo as if they are there. The memories of individuals are intertwined with each other, so that one so imprinted forever keeps alive the dead in a literal sense.

And the dragons, oh the gorgeous dragons. They look down on humanity, not because it is different, but because it is so insignificant. And not simply because we are small and short lived, but because we don't remember. My gratitude, a dragon offers, puzzled at the notion of a bargainer wanting more out of an exchange. The gratitude of an immortal is worth more than anything that can be obtained in present value, for it is a gift given for time immemorial.

Serious academic sorts have their own sub-niche just on memory studies. There are of course the psychologists and brain research folks, who have shined lights into the way that people think, both from a bottom-up biological approach, and from a top-down psychological approach. These approaches have yielded the fantastic insights into the way our brains work, little nuances that make sense poetically even if we don't understand the science that went into their discovery. When we remember, the part of our brain that fired off at the original event, fires off again in exactly the same way. When we remember, our brains are literally reliving the past. And when we empathize with others, our brain fires in the way that it did when we experienced what they are experiencing. Empathy is the same mechanism as memory.

But an interesting adjunct to such work is the research into the way social memory works. That is, the way that groups of people remember over time. This is very distinct from history, as it draws more on the narratives we tell ourselves over and over, the stories we mold over the actual historical facts to streamline the complexity of the past into a succinct and identity-driven picture.

If every cell in your body was replaced with a simulacrum, with some magically hand-waved technology, it would not necessarily be you. If this simulacrum could think exactly at you do, if it had your mind, it still would not necessarily be you. It is your memories that would animate it, that would make the mere structure and central processor animate. Our memories are what we are. That's part of what horrifies us so terribly about the diseases that prey on our minds. We can lose every part of our body and still retain our identity, but even a brush of fingerprints upon our memories and we can never be sure of anything again.

There's the old Greek myth about Tithonus, and how he was granted the gift of eternal life while neglecting to ask for the corresponding gift of eternal youth. It was a mistake to be sure, but in the end it cost him merely his body. I've always thought a more horrific fate would have been to be granted eternal life but not eternal memory. So that every day you forget more and more. You live a thousand years but never remember more than a day. Living forever might not be fun without eternal youth, but it is the definition of hell if you cannot remember that eternal life, without that memory you're just a particularly talkative Joshua Tree.

Is it any wonder then that immortals look down on us so much in our fictions? We are thinking beings whose memories die with us. Is there anything more tragic and terrible? Anything more wasteful?

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Dragonchild

    "We are thinking beings whose memories die with us."

    No, we are not. At least, those with the capacity to write. It's how society got this far. Nowadays we design devices so complex that no single human can even absorb the KNOWLEDGE required to BUILD it, let alone understand the underlying scientific principles that led to the thousands of inventions used to design it, let alone invest the time to discover each one of those countless principles. The Mars Rover is currently the most advanced piece of equipment, operating semi-autonomously millions of miles away, and it won't be the last thing we build. But its design was possible with the investment of thousands of books' worth of knowledge, thoughts, and memories passed on by language.

    P.S. Blade Runner is a good movie but Roy Batty proved to be an idiot. The guy was supposed to be highly intelligent and spoke with prose, but he treats his death as a tragic loss of memories when he spent more time sacrificing his bretheren to revenge than WRITE A DAMN BOOK.

  • mclbolton

    I hope you have some say in what appears on this site - No I will never go see Dread , no matter the review ! The pop-up ads are more than irritating ! One is bearable but they are doubled!

  • ChuggaWasTaken

    Robin Hobb is easily my favourite author of all time. I first started reading the Farseer Trilogy when I was about 10, and though I was already reading fantasy at that time, the series really kicked my love of the genre into high gear.

    I actually held off rereading them again until earlier this year, as I was afraid that the books would never be able to measure up to my memories of. Thankfully, this wasn't the case, and I've now convinced roughly half the people I know to read them (they all loved them almost as much as I did).

    Another great article SLW, kudos!

  • Loved this piece, mate. Loved the Farseer and Liveship books when I read them too, a long time ago. You brought up some pleasant memories for me right here.

  • ,

    So that every day you forget more and more. You live a thousand years but never remember more than a day.
    ---
    This is a fate my MiL may be facing. Not for 1,000 years but possibly 20. At 78 she's in good enough shape to live a while longer, but she can't remember what she had for lunch, or where, 10 minutes after eating.

    SLW, if you haven't discovered him yet, you might enjoy the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who wrote "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and other books about the astonishing ways our brains can fuck with us. One of his stories, truly heartbreaking, is about an accomplished man who through IIRC an illness completely lost all his memories PLUS the ability to form new ones. He quite literally can't remember anything for more than a few seconds. He says every day he wakes up is like being born again. He can somehow, though, still play music.

  • Sirilicious

    Most of us believe that creating offspring is an antidote to this. That all of a person will be remembered & lives on in the next generation.

    But it is not.

  • RudeMorgue

    Loved the Assassin's series and the Tawny Man. Liveships was very hard to get into, but the second and third books are good. Dragon Keeper was incredibly tedious.

  • Jannymac

    "...but even a brush of fingerprints upon our memories and we can never be sure of anything again..." Lovely phrasing...thanks

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