Tuesday, January 31, 2023

'The Memory of Little Snapshots'

The late Adam Zagajewski distinguishes two sorts of memory. “One is intelligent,” he writes, “educated, not only able but eager to synthesize; this is the memory that sets forth large outlines, rational theses, vivid colors.” 

If I understand Zagajewski correctly, this is the sort of memory I often distrust. It prizes generalities over particulars, whereas some of us revel in the precious details, random and otherwise. By “synthesize” I think he means deducing theories from multiple acts of remembrance. Its devotees include would-be intellectuals, many politicians, Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehogs. The poet then defines the other sort of memory, the “humbler sister”:


“[T]he memory of little snapshots, fleeting instants, a single-use camera producing atoms of recollection, which are not only unsuitable for enlargement and standardization, but even take pride in their absolutely idiomatic nature. And it is this memory—small, quick, acute—that refuses death, will not agree to alter completely its system for archiving recollections. And thanks to this, it retains more life, more freshness in its flashes. It keeps repeating: remember, remember, remember . . . and after each ‘remember’ another slide from its vast repository lights up.”


In other words, foxes. As my late friend David Myers wrote, “A good part of being a hedgehog involves feeling superior to foxes.” Zagajewski is writing in an essay about his friend and poetic mentor Zbigniew Herbert, “Beginning to Remember” (A Defense of Ardor, trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2004). Herbert’s poems are rooted in what Zagajewski calls “slides,” recollections of particulars. Here’s how the younger poet concludes his essay, which he addresses to Herbert:


“I remember, and I’ll try to remember well and carefully, since I know that beginning to remember coincides over time with beginning to forget.”


I’ve read Zagajewski’s essay collection before but what interested me most this time were his observations on memory. So, here he is on Herbert:


“The hard, very hard life and the radiant clarity of the poetry; the contrast was striking. But Herbert never would have written – as William Styron did, for example – a confessional book on his depression. This choice was both personal and part of the cultural tradition he endorsed. He took classicism to mean: Don’t complain. This is precisely the point of his brief poem ‘Why the Classics.’ In the depths of despair he wrote another lovely poem, ‘Old Masters,’ in which he marvels at the anonymous restraint of the Italian Gothic painters. No, he couldn’t write ‘American-style,’ he couldn’t acknowledge his ‘problems,’ share his personal cares with his readers.”

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