26 August 2015

Nature Photography, W.C. Williams, and the Emancipation of Memory

(Notes inspired by nature photography and the memory of WCW's fragment "The Descent", which often appears as an individual poem, but also notably in the midst of Book II of his epic Paterson.)

For whatever reason, as life goes on things from our past become encrusted with a patina of bitterness or disdain.  As a child, one likes a particular story.  When one reaches adolescence, one says to oneself "I am tired of this story! It is time for me to move on."  The adolescent then moves on, but this moving on is not so much an act of progress as one of alienation from things that were once familiar.

What I am describing is different from the simple act of forgetting—once I found flashlights delightful and collected them, but at some point without any particular act of will I forgot this love and it faded away through lack of attention.  When one forgets, one can always remember, and renew the gestures of love and engagement which made an object or interest or place significant.  When one intentionally moves on, the thing is no longer available, and one returns to consider the acts of love or engagement only through the distance provided by one's notion of self-progress.  The person who loved that story is an object of interest or study, and not the persistent "I" who can, with a few moments of imagination and renewal, love the story again.

Sometimes we encounter this phenomenon in precocious children who wish to demonstrate their adulthood by distancing themselves from things they perceive to be associated with childhood.  If the habit of moving on gets out of hand, it develops into a generally cynical outlook on life.  The person no longer allows himself to love or be engaged by anything, out of the conviction (or fear?) that anything or everything can eventually prove to be contemptible and unworthy.

But moving on is only one cause of the tarnishing of memories and past objects of interest.  There are others.  Sometimes we cease to love something because it is associated with the memory of pain, or with an enemy, or because it invites us to despair.  The most memorable paragraph in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (Part VI) describes this phenomenon:
"He could not stand it. He despised his brother so much that he would not allow him to love the things he loved. He would have much preferred to hear Christian speak of them in his Marcellus Stengel voice. Thomas had read a book, some historical work, that had made a strong impression on him, and he praised it in stirring words. Christian was impressionable and easily influenced, always depending on others for his views; he would never have found such a book on his own. But he read it now, and, having been primed and made receptive by Tom's praise of it, he found it quite splendid himself, describing his reactions as precisely as possible. And from that moment the book was spoiled for Tom. He spoke of it with cold disregard. He pretended that he had barely looked at it. He left it to his brother to admire it all by himself."
Here Thomas loves some book, but the pain of his resentment for his brother is such a powerful psychic force that his brother's appreciation for the book is enough to make the book hateful to him—he cannot abide anything tainted by his brother.

Imagine a different scenario, less extreme: you are in a relationship, with a person who loves a particular bit of music.  Under their influence, you too begin to love the music, and not merely out of a desire for harmony, but for the music's own revealed excellences.  Then the relationship ends.  Perhaps it ends poorly.  Perhaps there is a lingering wound left by the separation.  Now you return to that music.  Can you still love it?  It is difficult, because the act of loving the music is now associated too much with the closeness of the other person, and so that habitual proximity involves the music in the pain of the separation.

As time goes on, the clutter of these unlovable objects lingering about in one's life becomes a hindrance.  One goes about avoiding things, or reliving painful memories.  You cannot love this bit of music, because it brings you close to that person.  You cannot delight in this story because you have chosen to progress "past" it.

But if one can suspend these associations, it becomes possible to delight in things again.  This one, which called up memories of pain, does not belong to the source of the pain.  It is its own thing.  We would tell Thomas, if we could, that Christian's love does not subsume the book under his own nature. And as for moving on, at some point one has to progress to the point at which the idea of moving on is itself jettisoned, and one allows oneself to abide and behold things as they are.