Time Forgot

“We remember that we forget,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal years before advanced age robbed him of his memory, causing him to forget even that we forget.  Blessed for most of his life with prodigious powers of recall, Emerson wrote an essay in 1857 called “Memory” as part of a series published in his Natural History of the Intellect.  Memory, he wrote, “is a scripture written day by day from the birth of the man; all its records full of meanings which open as he lives on, explaining each other, explaining the world to him and expanding their sense as he advances, until it shall become the whole law of nature and life.”  Yet Emerson also noted that “this mysterious power that binds our life together has its own vagaries and interruptions.  It sometimes occurs that memory has a personality of its own, and volunteers or refuses its informations at its will, not at mine.”  Near the end of his life, Emerson read his essay to a private gathering in Cambridge, unable to recall that he had written it.

Loss of memory robs us not only of the past but of all time.  This was an insight I gained while caring for my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia in the final years of her life.  As her memory faded, so too did any firm sense of time passing.  Once a week my wife and I used to take her out to eat, then sometimes we’d go for a short drive.  Eventually I had to stop doing this, because my mother found these excursions too disorienting.  Unable to anchor her immediate experience in memory, she had no idea how long we had been driving or how far we had gone.  Sometimes I was barely out of the parking lot before she wanted to turn around and go back because she believed we had been gone too long.  On the return trip she might then marvel at how quickly we arrived back at our destination. 

Does time still exist when we lose all recollection of the past?  At first blush, the very notion seems preposterous or, at best, philosophical.  And yet we must grant that loss of memory differs fundamentally from the loss of other faculties, such as hearing or sight.  If I can no longer hear birds singing, this does not mean they have gone silent.  Similarly, if I can no longer see an object, I can still stub my toe against it.  But what can I say about an event that is lost to memory?  Once it has disappeared into the past, where exactly has it gone?  I can point to an old photograph or a document recording the event.  But the experience itself no longer has any tangible existence.  This does not mean the event never happened, only that the passage of time from then to now cannot truly be bridged, since its starting point no longer exists.  The present is a concrete reality, whereas the past exists only as a memory, with all its vagaries and interruptions, so any connection between them is essentially a bridge to nowhere.

Memory, Emerson said, is “the thread on which the beads of man are strung.”  Without memory, life as we experience it from moment to moment is exactly the same as before, only now one moment follows the next in meaningless succession.  Like time itself, my understanding of who I am exists only in relation to my past.  Without memory there is no past and no duration, no sense of time moving forward.  I am reborn from moment to moment but die just as quickly.  Perhaps I can still answer to my own name, but I am myself in name only.  

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