Thursday, June 12, 2014

`Then There Will Be Nothing I Know'

Only vanity keeps me quiet, as it never has before. Mustn’t acknowledge those memory lapses, gaps all the more irksome because I know I know that nugget of fact, and can fit a name to that face, or at least I used to. Tell me, who sang “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”? Who was FDR’s first vice president? And where are the car keys? I’ve looked for a pattern in forgetting. Could it be temporal, memories beginning in a certain year growing threadbare? Not likely, at least not yet. I remember my childhood telephone number, the combination to my locker in junior high school, scads of Latin verb conjugations, and the name of every teacher I’ve ever had. Could memories without emotional content, if there is such a thing, be hardest hit? Nothing. We cover up such lacunae with self-deprecating humor, hoping they’re as meaningless as we pretend they are. What we once consigned resignedly to “senility” in others is now self-diagnosed, with a laugh, as “early-onset Alzheimer’s.” Even the “early” is self-serving. The horror of dementia, a sort of living death, may outweigh fear of the real thing. Baby-Boomers are a notoriously self-involved bunch. 

Here is a Larkin poem dating from 1978, after he had mostly stopped writing poems. He turned fifty-six that year, and had another seven years to live. “The Winter Palace” was first published in Collected Poems (1988): 

“Most people know more as they get older:
I give all that the cold shoulder. 

“I spent my second quarter-century
Losing what I had learnt at university 

“And refusing to take in what had happened since.
Now I know none of the names in the public prints. 

“And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I've never been in certain places. 

“It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage. 

“Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.” 

The first three stanzas are familiar Larkin, contrary and amusing, poking fun at his philistine self. The dawning sense of horror begins with the fourth. The fifth stanza suggests a familiar rationalization – that the loss of memory will cancel our awareness of its loss, and so we’ll hover in pain-free ignorance. Not likely, knowing what I’ve seen of diagnosed Alzheimer’s. I used to sit with the mother of a friend when he and his wife wanted a night out. The old lady sat motionless for hours in a chair. Her eyes shifted and I could see her breathing, but she seemed otherwise inert, an impression that at first was disturbing, as though I were sitting with a corpse, and guilt-inducing. At some point I turned on the television and found reruns of Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music. Something reached the old woman. She patted her knee with her hand in time to the music. “The true art of memory is the art of attention.”

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