Wednesday, November 19, 2014

`Subtraction of Interchangeables'

Dead friends leave us an unforeseen bequest, an almost inexhaustible trust fund of memories and associations. If the friend was bookish, his spirit may dwell in any book we open. If his sensibility was sufficiently large and elastic, almost anything releases remembrance. Charles Lamb writes in a letter to William Wordsworth on March 20, 1822: 

“Two or three have died within this last two twelvemths., and so many parts of me have been numbed. One sees a picture, reads an anecdote, starts a casual fancy, and thinks to tell of it to this person in preference to every other—the person is gone whom it would have peculiarly suited. It won’t do for another. Every departure destroys a class of sympathies.” 

True, but every departure likewise activates an endless spool of private home movies, a process replicated the longer we live. I conjured David Myers a dozen times this week -- while reading Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers and R.L. Barth, listening to Jimmy Rushing and watching the film of The Day of the Jackal. The little spark says: “David would get kick out of this,” followed by the dull thump of reality. Louis MacNeice writes in “Tam Cari Capitis” (the title is borrowed from Horace): 

“That the world will never be quite—what a cliché—the same again
Is what we only learn by the event
When a friend dies out on us and is not there
To share the periphery of a remembered scent

“Or leave his thumb-print on a shared ideal.” 

MacNeice’s choice of scent is shrewd, a nod to the memory-provoking potency of the olfactory. Memory, at least when vivid and new, is specific, not generic. I don’t remember “David-ness.” I remember the time we realized Jackal was a movie both of us liked immensely. Lamb continues in his letter to Wordsworth: 

“There’s Capt. Burney gone!—what fun has whist now? what matters it what you lead, if you can no longer fancy him looking over you? One never hears any thing, but the image of the particular person occurs with whom alone almost you would care to share the intelligence. Thus one distributes oneself about—and now for so many parts of me I have lost the market. Common natures do not suffice me. Good people, as they are called, won’t serve. I want individuals. I am made up of queer points and I want so many answering needles. The going away of friends does not make the remainder more precious. It takes so much from them as there was a common link. A. B. and C. make a party. A. dies. B. not only loses A. but all A.’s part in C. C. loses A.’s part in B., and so the alphabet sickens by subtraction of interchangeables.” 

And that’s why we have an obligation to remember. Forgetting is an ungrateful slur.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Yes, the importance of the uniquely personal beautifully explained by Lamb.