How Memory Interconnects Everything We Watch and Read
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.