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Archive for January, 2007

Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

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Kinds of Forgetting (recalling memory)

I often wonder how a memory dies, how we forget something, more often than I wonder how we remember. What’s more, I’ve been considering lately if these two things are more closely related than they seem at first, that they’re not so mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There is one kind of forgetting that seems to be nothing more than misplaced information. We see a face and can’t remember the name, or pick up a telephone and can’t remember the number we want to call. This is simply a failure to remember. We know we have the information, it is somewhere in our mind, but we don’t know where in our mind. In a similar manner we lose things, or can’t find them. We know the object is still somewhere in our house, that it hasn’t disappeared or ceased to exist, even though we look everywhere for it.

There is another kind of forgetting: when we abandon a memory, do not keep it alive in our mind. This is temporary, because one day, perhaps even decades later, you remember it again, usually involuntarily. Once, for example, V. jokingly used a Greek expression that is often used with children, an expression I had not heard for many, many years, and as soon as I heard it, I realised that in the decades that had passed since I had last heard it, I had not even once thought about it. And yet, there it was, suddenly presenting itself, suddenly appearing, summoned before I myself knew it had been summoned.

(I find the experience of saying I have not thought of this at all in x years very strange, although I can’t quite explain why.)

I have a memory of walking down the hall of the apartment where we lived until I was two years old. I see the living room as I enter it. A small white television set is on the floor, a black and white football game on the screen. I think I remember my father lying on the floor with his head resting on the green couch. I remember another time, in the same apartment, being taken from my crib and being carried — probably by my mother, but perhaps by another woman — and being taken out into the hall, where a group of people are leaving. The light hurts my eyes. One woman has a sort of beehive hairdo and is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. I am the centre of attention, although I am grumpy and don’t want to be. I don’t know how much of this is accurate. I may be embellishing.

It once occurred to me that I was keeping these memories alive simply by thinking about them again, by bringing them to life again and again, by running these short films over and over again, and that I was actually remembering the last time I remembered them, the last time I’d brought up the images. Remembering may be like a relay, the passing of a baton: the initial memory may have died a long time ago. I cannot remember the event itself, as I did the first time I remembered it. I only remember the last few recreations of the memory, the last recall, and I don’t know how much the memory is embellished or how much it loses and becomes poorer as time goes by and I keep recalling.

There is yet a third kind of forgetting, similar to the second, where we stop thinking about something, where we forget that we ever knew something, but unlike the second kind, we never have any occasion to remember it again. The possibility of remembering remains forever unfulfilled.

This is the darkest oblivion, and I find it oddly frightening, I suppose because my mind cannot fathom it. How can I imagine something I have forgotten without also at least imagining that I have remembered it?

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Ten Years

Today is the tenth anniversary of my arrival here in Greece. Where has the decade gone?

(Why do we ask where time goes? Has something gone, while other things remain? Why do we think of time as passing? When we look around at what remains the same and think about what has changed, we must, I suppose, think that something has left — all those things that don’t exist any more — and we say that they have gone somewhere. To where time goes.)

It feels like only four or five years ago. But, really, what difference is there between five and ten years? In the long run, nothing. But in one’s life it makes a big difference, when you consider that life is too short. At the end of it, you would be glad to have another five. I wish I could go back five years and do some things differently, now that I’ve learned from my mistakes, or some of my mistakes. And yet in another twenty years I will look back at when I first came to Greece, first moved into this pokey little apartment, where so many important things happened to me, and where I was so happy, and I will say, “Was that really thirty years ago? It only feels like five.”

Once, years ago in Canada, I was discussing such things with G., an old friend. I wondered about how time seemed to be passing more quickly than it used to, and he said that, as far as how we perceive time is concerned, the amount that seems to pass until we reach nineteen seems equal to the rest of our life. In other words, that time speeds up in such a way that the rest of your life seems to be nothing more than another nineteen years.

Six of my first twelve months here were spent in the army. Roughly 180 days. It seemed like such a long time, a big chunk of my life. It was a formative experience, I know, but at the same time it’s only a dim, brief memory. As soldiers approached the day of their discharge and return to freedom, they would count down: “Seventy-eight and today!” “Forty-six and today!” Someone once told me, “Here in the army, the hours and days crawl by; the weeks and months fly past.”

So do the years, and not just in the army.

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Lakkos

When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.

(more…)

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