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How Memory Interconnects Everything We Watch and Read

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 27, 2014 | Comments ()


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There’s an ancient circular argument about art that all of us have taken part in at one point or another. One person asserts an interpretation of a work of art, be it prose or poetry, spoken or sung. A second person argues that said interpretation was not the intent of the artist and is therefore invalid. First person retorts that the creator had her chance and now it belongs to the beholder.

We’re all on one side at one point or another, and justifiably so. At times we’re the ones having a unique reaction to a work of art, and at times we’re the ones calling bullshit on someone else’s outlandish interpretation. And the artist’s intent is a logical trump card in these arguments: Hamlet simply isn’t about your personal struggle with gluten allergies, no matter how many parallels you draw when you’re reading it.

But that doesn’t mean that every bit of art doesn’t interact individually and personally with each of us. What’s curious to me is how different stories and songs and movies end up intertwined with both personal memory and each other, turning into a cacophonous series of interconnections of place and sound and memory. They hardly have any reason to be intertwined other than our own personal experiences, our own happenstance of consumption. The song that was on repeat when you read a certain scene in a novel, the landscape that was filtering through half-seen as you sat in the backseat of the car and read while your parents drove.

None of those connections could be predicted by the artists. Most of them don’t even make a rational sort of sense, just random associations forever stapled together in our minds. All these weird interconnections are the skeleton though that the flesh of our memories hang on. Big events in our lives end up wrapped around the stories we were reading, the songs we were listening to. And even if they had nothing to do with each other on a topical level, they’re forever embedded together in our subconscious. So a certain song transports you to a place, and to a story you haven’t read in years.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed” always takes place to me on a cold and rainy December day, reading on the top bunk a few days after Christmas. Joshua Tree is playing on repeat, and the melancholic softness of the back half of that album is always intertwined with the still nameless Roland trudging across the endless desert.

Jake Chambers will always be writing his essay and wandering through the wastelands of New York as the highlands of northern New Mexico - too many trees and rolling hills to properly be a desert - trickle by for hours as afternoon slowly stretches into twilight along the side of the interstate.

“Waldo Butters decided to be a hero” always happens in rural New Hampshire. “A Long December” is always playing on repeat on the worst days of my life. Sam Vimes relays his socioeconomic theory of boots as the sun rises in Detroit’s airport and crackling voices are barely audible on the intercom. Emond’s Field survives its siege on the day my parents drive me to college, sitting in the endless lines of Los Angeles traffic as the women plug the holes in the lines, children strapped to their backs, choosing to die on their land instead of running. Joscelin turns in the snow and draws his sword for the first time as the six riders approach, on a ninety degree day, sun blazing, Spanish language radio floating in from over the fences.

They run on infinitely, so that our minds short circuit and fire up associations like synesthesia. A gorgeous moment of bravery evokes the memory of an airport terminal to you. That flutter of fear that something terrible is about to happen puts a Metallica song on loop in your skull, even as you’re reminded of a gas station in Kansas.

And those associations are deeply, intimately, and irrevocably ours. We can explain them, when we’re able to even triangulate for ourselves the path particular associations trace, but they will always lose something in the translation to another person. The stories we’ve loved and songs we’ve sung can’t be separated from the moments in which we did those things. They’re not incidental to the experience. Poetry is the evocation of one idea by saying something entirely different. And so the way we integrate all of the art we experience is its own poetry, a unique fingerprint of the way our soul has touched a thousand worlds in a thousand moments.

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 and order his novel here.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Like Proust and the madeleine cookies.

  • narfna

    "They run on infinitely, so that our minds short circuit and fire up associations like synesthesia."

    As someone who actually has synesthesia, I can verify that this statement is accurate (as well as being well-written, as usual). Actually, I think that's one of the reasons stories consume my life the way they do, is that the way they act on our memories mimics the way my brain works anyway.

  • Absolutely. Music in particular has always had this effect on me. Just the other day, my iTunes's shuffle unearthed "Too Late" from No Doubt's Return of Saturn album. Suddenly, I was back in my high school, sitting in my bedroom at my parents' house, reading the X-Men's "Ages of Apocalypse/The Twelve" comics. That album and that storyline will forever be linked in my mind.
    Thanks for sharing and sending us all down memory lane.

  • dragonchild

    When I read this essay, I remembered I'm still at work. Thanks for destroying my adulthood, SLW!

  • karen

    Polka will never die!

  • denesteak

    I can never think of any on command, just only when it comes to me. But i know waht you mean.

  • emmalita

    I was listening to a chef talk about cooking tater tot casserole for his wife on their first date in college while I drove through a hilly part of Northern VA. That radio piece comes back to me every time I drive that section of road, even though I've listened to many things on the radio since. I don't even remember which chef.

    M&Ms are linked to the Pink Panther. I remember eating them while I watched the movie.

  • Linda Lupos

    When my father finally threw his dark blue leather reading chair away (it was basically cheaper to get a new one than to have this one patched up), I was somewhat unreasonably upset: that was my Harry Potter chair! I had read the last three HP books in that chair, and it was intrinsically tied with those long summer days when I would have no attention for the outside world because I'd be at Hogwarts, rushing through a schoolyear in a single day. I'd cheered for Harry, laughed out loud and cried for... too many characters in that chair.
    Order of the Phoenix also reminds me of Scotland, as I visited there two weeks after the book had been released, so it was everywhere and I still had it on the brain. Quite appropriate, really. :p

    Likewise, HP1 and 2 always take me back to two campsites in France, where I read them in the shadow of my tent. I finished the first one with the second one next to me so I could continue seamlessly. I still remember what that campsite looked like - at least, the immediate space around my chair.

    Lord of the Rings always takes me back to one vacation home in Austria (what is it with me and vacation reading?), where I finally finished Return of the King in two days.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Weird. I don't seem to experience these kinds of connections. I can see myself lying on my bed when reading Lords of the Rings for the first time, but I have to think about that specifically. The memory doesn't come automatically.

  • madderrose74

    "The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed" leaves me in a stifling top-bunk dorm room, with the sounds of 5,000 freshmen coming through the open window under the drone of a useless oscillating fan, the smell of industrial disinfectant and teenage girls in the air.
    Listening to Don Williams, I can smell high-summer pine trees and damp, green grass, iron-heavy water and the rubbery scent of bath toys. It's immediate and intense.

  • luckypete

    Nothing to add here except nicely done.

  • BWeaves

    I agree, SLW.

    The brain is a collection of interconnected neurons. There's no way to experience a single "sense" individually.

    Case in point, when I was little, I visited an very, very old auntie. She would feed me sugar cookies with the sprinkles on top and 7-up. To this day, if I eat sugar cookies with sprinkles and drink 7-up at the same time, I immediately time travel back to her little house. It's a very queer feeling, but very enjoyable.

    I don't drink soda or eat cookies, and haven't for decades, so the sensation has not dulled, like it might have if I ate that stuff all the time.

  • JustOP

    Interesting article, SLW.

    One christmas I received both a Resident Evil game and a much anticipated Foo Fighter album. Due to the immense desire to hear the album, I ended up listening to it repeatedly whilst playing Resident Evil (not because I was a giant pansy and was too afraid to listen to the spooky noises of the game, nope, nothing to do with that). To this day, anytime I hear a song from that album I immediately flashback to scenes from that game. Always makes me smile.

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