Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mansions of Memory

I've just finished reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. It's a book I read in my twenties, and which rather disappointed me, since I was expecting the archetypal university story and it isn't a university story at all. (Whenever anyone refers to an idyllic view of university life they always speak about 'dreaming spires' and Brideshead Revisited.) In more recent times, I felt I should give it another chance, as it is considered one of the great Catholic novels in the English language-- or perhaps the greatest Catholic novel in the English language, since I can't think of another more celebrated example.

Well, I enjoyed it a little more, though I'm still not bowled over. Along with many readers, I'm bothered by Waugh's snobbery-- not for its own sake, but because he seems to give some kind of spiritual significance to good taste and elegance. Nor does the story ring very true to life to me. I know scads of baptized Catholics who don't show the slightest sign of being haunted by the faith from which they've turned away. And having a Catholic upbringing doesn't seem to make all that much difference when it comes to this. I have no doubt that there is a supernatural grace to baptism and confirmation, but I don't think it operates as obviously as it does in Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps Waugh had to exaggerate it in order to dramatize it.

In any case, I think I might be prejudiced against Waugh because he is one of that trio of Catholic fiction writers before whose shrines every thinking Catholic is expected to burn incense-- Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Of them all, Waugh is the only one who has given me any pleasure at all. That might make me a philistine, which doesn't bother me very much. (I should also admit that Graham Greene did give me some pleasure, through the title of his book of film criticism, Mornings in the Dark-- which I haven't read, but may yet.)

That's all by the by. The reason I mentioned Brideshead Revisited is because one particular passage-- in which Waugh is describing a passage on an ocean liner-- got me to thinking about memory, about the flavour of particular passages of time in our lives, and this thought has been haunting me ever since.

We live our lives a day at a time. This is a very pedestrian observation, I know-- but, somehow, when I think about it, it seems very odd. On any given day, we are inhabiting an island of consciousness, surrounded by an ocean of sleep. And each day has a unity of its own-- a unity of mood and atmosphere, as well as of circumstances-- no matter how various the events of that day. (I guess one of the reasons that my favourite film of all time is Groundhog Day is because few films have paid such attention to a single day-- even if it happens to be a day that is being repeated over and over, with variations. How it continues to be the same day is an interesting philosophical question.)

I find it our attitude to days fascinating. Days are the small change of our lives. We spend them heedlessly. Rather than disapproving of this, I find it inspiring. The idea that you should live each day as though it was your last sounds good as a slogan, but seems to miss the whole point (so to speak) of days. The point of days is that there are lots of them. Obviously this is not true of people who are in the last stages of terminal illness, or facing imminent death for some other reason. But most of human life is not spent in such a condition. Even people who die tragically young experience more days than they can remember-- nobody could give a day-by-day account of their lives, even if they started from the dawn of the age of reason. Even very old people have an indefinite number of days before them.

I'm not sure that living each day to its fullest is a good idea-- not if we take 'fullest' to mean 'busiest'. Would a lifetime of busy days really be living life to its fullest? What about lazy days, dreamy days, humdrum days? What about sick days, indeed? Would a person who quite literally never had a day's sickness, who never spent a day 'laid low' in bed, be a lucky person? I think few people would answer 'yes' to that.

A few years ago, in winter-time, a female friend of mine had a very traumatic break-up and told me she was going to ignore Christmas that year. I have always been a devotee of Christmas, and at that stage of my life I was particularly intent upon making every Christmas as Christmassy as it could possibly be-- a determination that can be very stressful. So her declaration shocked me, but even then, I think I felt strangely attracted to the idea of just skipping Christmas-- for once. We have enough Christmasses to afford it, and Christmas will happen with us or without us. We can talk airily about the 'year we didn't bother with Christmas'. I'm not exactly sure why I find this such a pleasing thought, at this juncture in my life, but I do-- even though I remain a fervent lover of Christmas.

We live a day at a time-- and every day has its own unique flavour. (I'm listening to music on 'shuffle' while I read this, and 'Days' by the Kinks has just started playing.) What gives a day its flavour? The weather. The time of year. The news. Work, or school, or its absence. The people we're spending it with. Travel. Physical location. Mood. Drama of one kind or another. Of course, the list could be expanded forever.

There are days, like September 11th 2001, where the entire world (or most of it, anyway) is focused upon one particular public event. I'm glad those days are exceedingly rare, somehow-- and not only because they are usually tragic events that create such a sensation. (The last one I can think of is the day that Robin Williams died-- or, rather, the day after he died.)

I started out writing this post about memory, but I find myself hundreds of words in, and having concentrated entirely upon the idea of days. I suppose it's because that's how we tend to classify our memories. When people are recalling a memory they say I remember the day that or That was the day when or It was a snowy morning. These little scene-setting phrases always give me a thrill. I suppose I am writing this post to analyse and try to understand that thrill-- the same thrill I felt when I was reading Waugh's account of a stormy day on an ocean liner.

I also like the idea of in-betweeny days, and I suppose this is part of why the passage in Brideshead Revisited appealed to me-- since days spent crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner is about as 'in betweeny' as you could get (although, of course, in the novel they are very consequential days indeed). In my experience of life the in-betweeny days are often the best days. 'The morning after the night before' (one of my favourite phrases) is usually invoked as something seedy and depressing, but I've personally found that the mornings after the nights before-- and the days before-- are the most delicious, in the same way that re-heated leftovers are often the most appetizing food.

The first example that occurs to me is one from a whole twenty years ago. I was a keen follower of the Irish national soccer team back then. (As were most of Ireland, since they were experiencing a lot of success.) The day before, Ireland (or the Republic of Ireland, as I should specify) had qualified for the 1994 World Cup in America with a dramatic 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland. The Republic equalized late in the game and, until then, it seemed as though they were going to be eliminated. There was a good deal of ill-feeling; the Republic had beaten Northern Ireland 3-0 in a previous qualifier, and the Republic's fans, rather unsportingly, began to chant "There's only one team in Ireland." So passions were running high. To a teenage boy these things are a very big deal.

Well, the memory that I am recounting is not that, but rather, the very next day. I remember myself, my brother and my cousin sharing a copy of The Irish Press between us-- we unfolded it into its separate pages, and then swapped them about, reading the various reports and analysis of the previous day's match. It may be a strange memory to pick out of almost thirty-eight years of life, but it strikes me as a perfect example of an in-betweeny kind of day. It's a very cosy memory.

Another memory that strikes me is a conversation I had in college, towards the end of my time there. It was in journalism college and at this stage I knew I was not going to be a journalist. (Though I do write for a Catholic newspaper now, so I suppose I did belatedly become a sort of journalist after all, even if it's not my profession.) I was speaking to a class-mate who was, in contrast, already writing front-pages stories for a Dublin daily paper. We were alone in the college's radio studio. He told me that he was so exhausted from all the reporting shifts that he'd been doing that he was looking forward to just switching off and watching television for a day. I found the idea of such an in-betweeny day extraordinarily appealing.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day; discovering the website Snopes, which has articles about urban legends (and which is extraordinarily well-written), one Christmas time, and reading article after article after article, for hours and hours, while drinking Coke. This was soon after I'd begun working in UCD; it was around the time I went to my first library Christmas party. Somehow, the fact that the memory of the Christmas party is stuck to this memory of reading Snopes for hours makes it less anti-social than it might have been otherwise.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day, and again around Christmas-time; it was two or three days before Christmas, and I had gastroenteritis. I wasn't allowed to eat anything for two days, but I cheated by sucking lollipops. I was reading All's Quiet on the Western Front. I was sitting in the living room and the Christmas tree was up and decorated. I had reached that age where we feel ashamed to be childishly excited about Christmas. My cousin (who also featured in the above memory) was in the living room. My father asked him what he was getting for Christmas. "Bills", he said; because he had just entered adulthood. "Maybe you should give them back to Bill", said my father, and I remember thinking even then how better a witticism it would have been if he'd asked what presents he was getting for Christmas. But here I am, remembering it some two decades later.

"All our yesterdays", Macbeth says, "have lighted fools to dusty death". A wonderful line; but we die anyway, whether our lives are mundane and quotidian or not. And part of me thinks that we are most fully alive, not when we are scaling the Himalayas or witnessing history unfold before our eyes, but when we are cutting and pasting pieces of paper into a scrapbook while watching repeats of sit-coms in our pyjamas.

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