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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 18, 2018
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Reggie Lewis was a local hero, a star guard for the Boston Celtics during the early 1990s. When Lewis died suddenly of a heart attack in July 1993, the stricken Celtics retired his jersey, meaning that no Celtic ever again would wear Lewis’s number 35. The team took this step, they explained, as “a memorial to him.” The Brooklyn Nets used similar language in announcing the retirement of Jason Kidd’s number 5 in 2013: the gesture, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov said, was meant to “commemorate” Kidd’s career. And when the Los Angeles Kings retired Wayne Gretzky’s 99 in 2002—every other NHL team also retired the number—Gretzky, wiping away a tear, declared that “to be remembered as an LA King is something special.”
But the idea of retiring a jersey as a “memorial” to an athlete, or as a way of “remembering” him, seems odd. How can the disappearance of the number worn by a star player memorialize him, bring him to mind, make us recall him? It’s true that an athlete’s retired jersey might then be hoisted to the rafters of his home arena, or exhibited in a hallway. But as a visual display, that too seems more like a withdrawal from view—placing the jersey out of the way—than a claim for attention. In any event, the commemorative gesture is almost always described as retiring the jersey, not hoisting it to the rafters. The Major League-wide retirement of Jackie Robinson’s number 42 in 2012 was called a “commemoration,” and there are no rafters in open-air baseball parks.
Strange. If a team really wants to memorialize a star performer, then shouldn’t all its players’ jerseys henceforth be emblazoned with his number, along with each player’s own? In fact this too has been tried. In 1974, every Philadelphia Flyer wore a number 4 “memorial patch” to commemorate the career of Barry Ashbee, cut short by an injury. Gretzky himself, when he started out, wanted to wear number 9 as a memorial tribute to his idol, hockey legend Gordie Howe. And even as it retired Jackie Robinson’s number, the evidently self-divided Major League Baseball organization also created a “Jackie Robinson Day” on which every player wears Robinson’s 42.
But how can these two contrary practices, number-retiring and number-emblazoning, both be appropriate forms of commemoration? If the one is apt, then how can the other be? Keeping a great one’s number in view seems like a natural way of making sure an athlete gets remembered. But withdrawing his number from view? It’s certainly understandable as a kind of honor. But not as a memorial. And yet that’s the language being used.
For all of that, though, there is a kind of memorialization going on with jersey-retiring. But to see this, we must first consider another contemporary memory-related practice. It’s the advent of so-called life-logs.
Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell is the pioneer here. Bell’s battery of cameras, recording devices, and computers is designed to capture real-time video, audio, and textual representations of everything he sees, hears, reads, thinks, does, and even dreams, 24/7, with the idea that it will all then be digitally preserved forever. With life-logs, a person’s complete temporal biography, the entire contents of his memory—and more, since he will inevitably forget much of what he sees and does—gets permanently converted “into a spatial dimension”: into digital storage space, cloud cyberspace. “I can off-load my memory,” Bell says, and thus gain “a kind of immortality.” After all, as Bell puts it, “I am data.”
With my death, or so I would have thought, will come the complete obliteration of my memories. My demise, as J.M. Coetzee’s character Elizabeth Costello says of hers, will bring the “collapse” of “my whole structure of knowledge”: in particular my knowledge of the past, all those recollections that live in my mind alone, including the exquisitely unique combination of emotion and sensation that I associate with events that others may recall as well, but only through their own unique lenses and filters. It’s almost too much to bear—“surely it won’t all die when I do—or even to state explicitly. “She will not be forgotten as long as I live,” E.M. Forster wrote of the warm memories he held tight of his mother, instead of acknowledging what he actually feared: she will be forgotten as soon as I die. But now, as Bell says, life-logs promise immortality at least to that part of our self that consists of our memories, even if it cannot promise immortality to our entire self. “My memories,” Proust says, “did not easily resign themselves to the idea of ceasing to be, and desired for me neither extinction nor an eternity in which they would have no part.”
Or put it another way: what Bell proposes with his digitized life-log is a kind of faux immortality, not the real version in which we actually live forever. In its way, it’s a natural extension of Epicurus’s first consolation—that as long as the self is present, death cannot be. As long as our memories are preserved, then to the very considerable degree that we are our memories, we haven’t died completely. “Memory is identity,” Julian Barnes says, “I have believed this since—since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are.”
Certainly, the tenor of Bell’s remarks, in fact of his entire endeavor, resonates with a kind of death denial, although it’s a turbocharged version. Bell not only emphasizes that our future projects can continue on after we have departed, as Ivan Ilych’s did. He promises that all our past memories can live on too. As one digital memoirist puts it, “I feel I have left something which will still be there for others to see long after I’m gone.”
But it’s one thing to create a digitized running record of your memory. It’s quite another to ensure that others, going forward into the limitless future, will actually look at it. If all that your memories are doing is lying as bits and bytes inside the “spatial dimension” of an online archive, inert and unviewed for eternity, is there any sense in which they would continue to live?
In Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello the title character, an author, ruminates on a similar question concerning her literary legacy. On the one hand, she well knows that “it is only a matter of time before [her] books . . . will cease to be read and eventually cease to be remembered.” Yet on the other hand, even though the day will come when nobody ever again will absorb her prose, Elizabeth still takes comfort in knowing that her novels will continue to exist. They’ll remain accessible in libraries or at least online. Perhaps, even ages and ages hence, a lone copy will still inhabit somebody’s dusty bookshelf: “a home where it could snooze, if fate so decreed . . . and no one would come poking with a stick to see if it was still alive.” But can Bell’s digitized memories claim immortality if nobody ever pokes them with a stick? Wouldn’t they then be well and truly dead? Or would they just be snoozing?
Let’s try a different analogy. Compare a person’s digitized memories, lying unread in cyberspace, not to unread books but to unconscious memories. As long as they are unconscious, my memories comprise a set of unaccessed images or thoughts recorded in a substrate of neurons within my brain. Call the images and thoughts the “higher level” of my memories. And call the neural substrate the “lower level.” When an unconscious memory becomes conscious—when it crosses my mind—it changes in neither respect. Conscious or unconscious, a memory remains composed of higher-level thoughts and images recorded in a lower-level neural substrate. And so no justification exists for saying that my memories are any more dead when unconscious than when conscious. By bringing an unconscious memory into consciousness, it makes more sense to say that I have taken something from the dark and brought it into the light than it does to say that I have converted something dead into something living. It’s a process of transfer, not transformation. Unconscious memories, even permanently unconscious memories, are no less alive than conscious ones. So will my unread memories, as long as they continued to exist on the planet in digitized form, really be any less immortal than they would if someone actually accessed them now and then?
But what if my unread memories, archived in cyberspace, are less like unconscious memories than like unread books? When I take a book off the shelf and read it, I haven’t simply removed something from the dark and brought it into the light. Here, it does seem more apt to say that I have converted something dead into something living. While it lies on the shelf, the book comprises a series of higher-level words and sentences recorded on a lower-level substrate of paper and ink. When I pick the book up and read it, those higher-level words and sentences become images and thoughts dancing in my mind. And the book’s lower-level substrate of inert paper and ink becomes a substrate of electric neural circuits sparking in my brain. There is a real transformation here. What was on the shelf has germinated into something new in the mind, at both the higher and the lower levels. In that way, it does make sense to say that the reader is giving life to what would otherwise have been a dead, inert text.
Now, what about my memories, sitting in a digital storage space long after I am gone, never viewed by anyone else till the end of time? Are they like unconscious memories—no less alive than conscious ones? Or are they like unread books—dead as a doornail unless they are otherwise brought to the consciousness of readers?
They are like unread books. My digitally banked memories will consist of higher-level video, textual, and audio tracks resting on a lower-level substrate of bits and bytes. If by happenstance a future viewer does look at them they would, in her mind, transform into a flow of higher-level images and feelings, conveyed along a lower-level substrate of neural firings. And so it makes sense to say that they would undergo a real chrysalis: that they would morph, that they would spring to life when they make the move from the digital bank to the mind of the viewer. Meaning that—like a book on the shelf—if no one ever does view them, then my digitized memories, on into the future, will remain as dead as I am. And if that’s what lies in store, then Bell’s attempt to give our memories immortal life stands to be defeated.
“Misty Pastel-Colored Memories”
But what if that’s not what lies in store? Let’s be optimistic. Let’s assume that you can download everything that’s downloadable about your memories, and that it’s guaranteed that from time to time someone in the future will look in on them. Let’s assume that they will live on after you. Even so, there might be a problem. It’s not that other minds won’t view your digital record. It’s that your digital record won’t reflect your own mind.
While I can digitize any memory that consists of words, sounds, and images, some memories—in fact, my most important memories—cannot be fully or even fractionally captured in text, audio, or video. They consist of indescribable feelings, untransmittable sensations, incommunicable meanings: the kind of memory about which Wittgenstein said: “Nobody but I can see it, feel it, hear it; nobody except myself knows what it is like. Nobody except I can get at it.”
These kinds of intimate and inimitable glimmerings lie beyond expression through text or evocation by video. The novelist W.G. Sebald shows this better than anyone. His pages are filled with groping words and gauzy images that scarcely manage to imply otherwise unutterable remembrances. Sebald’s character Jacques Austerlitz harbors the following elusive, barely articulable but (to him) deeply meaningful recollection of a moment from his youth on Barmouth Bay, Wales:
all forms and colors were dissolved in a pearl-gray haze; there were no contrasts, no shading anymore, only flowing transitions with the light throbbing through them, a single blur from which only the most fleeting of visions emerged, and strangely—I remember this well—it was the very evanescence of those visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity.
Okay. Digitize that.
Still, who can say? We might one day gain the capacity to digitally conserve for all time, and hence come to know, even those contents of each other’s memories that cannot be conveyed in words and images. Suppose that we cracked that nut. Suppose that others on into the future, viewing your digital record, would feel, sense, and grasp the utter totality of what you felt, sensed, and grasped during your lifetime, even to the last ineffable nuance. Your memories would be fully immortalized, living on forever. Is this what you would want?
Think again of the ritual of jersey retiring. We proclaim, as a “memorial” to a great athlete, that the number that once attached to him will never again be sported by anyone else on his team—perhaps in the entire league. We erase it from public view. But as I’ve suggested it’s an odd kind of memorial. It differs profoundly from a statue that thrusts the great one’s dynamic appearance into public sight. Or a web page that displays podcasts of his triumphant moments for all to marvel at. Or a book that explores his sensitive side for everyone to admire. Instead, something about him—number 99—is deliberately withdrawn from the gaze of the public. Something that might otherwise remind us of him, that might spark our memories of his greatness like nothing else—after all, what attaches more readily to Gretzky than number 99?—gets removed from view. What kind of memorial is that?
What’s going on here is rooted in a kind of Hippocratic oath that memorials in effect take: first of all, do no harm. A memorial to a person must respect, not stain, the memories that it recalls. As long as the memorial takes the form of a statue or a website or a book, it remains clear that no one else is presuming to claim anything even remotely proximate to (say) Gretzky’s commanding appearance, or his record-breaking accomplishments, or his life story. No one else is horning in on his memory, presuming to bask along with him in its glow. And so we are fine with it.
But when the memorial entails another person claiming—even seeming to claim—the status we accord the great one, then we balk. If Gretzky wore number 99, and Joe Blow now wears number 99, Blow doesn’t keep Gretzky’s memory alive so much as he tarnishes it. In memorializing Gretzky this way, Blow is suggesting that he somehow feels capable of filling Gretzky’s shoes—or shirt; that he somehow shares the same status. When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman “retired number 99 league-wide,” the International Ice Hockey Federation’s website observed, “he was only doing what every player to follow would have done anyway . . . the first person who even tried to wear the number would have been ridiculed for trying to follow in the Great One’s footsteps.” He would have been scorned for sullying the memory of number 99 by presuming to share in it, not praised for trying to honor Gretzky by memorializing him, for calling him to mind.
Something similar may be true if I seek to digitally bank my most cherished or intimate memories, such that others can share in them: view them, understand them, grasp them in the same full-blossomed, full-bodied way I did. True, if no others ever do, then those memories will die with me. But what kind of memorial tribute can it be if, in the process of keeping a memory of mine alive, others necessarily sully it by sharing it?
One of the great comic scenes in John Updike’s “Rabbit” series occurs in the latter part of the final book, Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit, aka Harry Angstrom, is attending the funeral of Thelma Harrison, with whom he had been conducting a long affair. Her widower Ronnie, having just heard Thelma’s deathbed confession of her unfaithfulness, confronts Rabbit. Taken by surprise, and grasping for words to console Ronnie about the quality of woman Ronnie had spent his life with, Rabbit whispers a few syllables of succor. Not “She was a great mother.” Not “She was a lovely person.” Rabbit comforts Ronnie with what he knows: “She was a fantastic lay.”
Maybe Ronnie would indeed have wanted others to know what a fantastic lover his wife was. Maybe Ronnie would have wanted others to know that, among his memories, there were many enviable recollections of extraordinarily blissful intimacy. Presumably this is what the dim-witted King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther was up to when he called for his queen, Vashti, to appear before the assembled court wearing (nothing but) the crown royal. But though Ronnie, like Ahasuerus, might have wanted others to know that he was blessed with a trove of euphoric erotic memories, he would not have wanted others to know those memories themselves. He would have preferred that they die with him, rather than live on in the memory of others, such as Rabbit, to share: to understand, grasp, and know as fully as he, Ronnie, did.
True, Rabbit shares Ronnie’s memories of Thelma only indirectly, and that is because he shared Thelma directly. Suppose instead that Ronnie had digitized his memories of Thelma in all their emotional and sensual glory, preserving them as part of an online archive so that they wouldn’t die with him. Then in viewing them Rabbit— or any future Rabbit—would instead have shared those particular memories directly, and Thelma only indirectly. Possibly Ronnie would have been less jealous, perhaps even in some weird way more fulfilled, with the direct sharing of his memories than with the direct sharing of Thelma. Yes, digitizing them would keep those memories alive in the minds of others. They would do so, however, only at the cost of indelibly tainting their intimacy, of eroding the privilege Ronnie had of being the only one to know them. “’Twere profanation of our joys/To tell the laity our love.”
Better to allow such memories to die with us. Better that they remain as mortal as we are. Faux immortality, via the digitized immortality of our memory banks, remains in the most crucial way not an option—certainly not when it comes to the memories that matter most. And I’m not talking just about erotic or romantic memories. I doubt whether E.M. Forster would have wanted anyone else to intrude upon, listen in on, or lay claim to the tender moments he shared with his mother. They belonged only to him, or to her, but certainly to no one else. If such memories were to live on once she’d gone, as indeed Forster hoped they would, then they could so do only in his own mind, the mind of the other subject who experienced them. But live on as “objective data” for other minds to view? No. Even though they numbered among his most important, most identity-conferring memories—the kind of memories most capable of making the person whom Forster really was live on—it was better that they died with him.
And yet one final question remains.
Look again at jersey retiring. You know what number 99 did. He was the most sublime hockey player of all time. And the reason you can never wear his number, if you play for the NHL, is that although you can—indeed you should—know what he did, you could never do what he did. And so to properly memorialize Gretzky, his fans make sure that the world knows what he did by recording the memory of his accomplishments in scores of statues and books and websites. Meanwhile they make sure that no one even symbolically claims to do what he did, to usurp or tarnish that memory, by insisting that no future NHL player wear his number.
But we can’t both know and not know what someone else knew. No one in the future will be in a position both to know your digitized memories, thus keeping them alive, and to not know them, thus paying tribute—in cases where they are most intimate—to their unique association with you alone. Whenever Nabokov took a deeply personal memory and attributed it to a character in one of his novels—thereby giving it a kind of immortality in the minds of readers on into the future—it lost its intimate warmth for him.
That is why we have adopted a particular kind of “negative” memorial for certain intimate, unshareable remembrances. It’s silence itself. It’s silence as memorial. We document, as we should always continue to do, the horrors of the Holocaust: what the Nazis did. But when it comes to memorializing what the victims themselves underwent, we don’t pretend that we could ever know or share or understand for ourselves the memories that afflict them. To presume that we could would be unseemly. And so, for many survivors, silence suggests itself as the only way of memorializing their experiences, even at the cost of allowing those memories to die with them. That is why oral-history collections in which Holocaust survivors do try to speak about their memories—themselves still a far cry from the direct memory archives Gordon Bell recommends—are controversial. They place a survivor in the position of trying to keep her memories alive in the minds of future generations, but at the cost of putting in question their unshareable singularity. Trying to keep such memories alive flouts the conviction that in the final analysis they can—and should—belong only to those who actually experienced them.
We can keep certain kinds of memories alive only at the risk of degrading them. But the first rule of memorials requires that, above all, a memorial should do no harm. And so for some memories—memories that would be desecrated or debased were they shared—the most fitting memorial possible necessitates wrapping them in conspicuous silence and letting them die. This rule applies equally to the life-log project, which purports to keep our memories alive by enabling others to share them till the end of time. It won’t work, at least when it comes to many of the memories that matter most. They must die with us.
At the moment, we live in a world in which the vast bulk of our memories remain private, known only to ourselves. Memorials, meanwhile, are mostly public things like plaques and statues.
But suppose that one day all of our memories could become public. Suppose that they could all be made available online. Would a true memorial, something that above all avoids tainting whatever cherished thing it memorializes, not then require keeping it private, known only by ourselves? In a world where everybody can know your memories, why not a memorial you alone can know? Like the memorial of deliberate silence, of intentionally not sharing that memory? A memorial that, of course, could be known only to you.
Or put it another way. Currently, we live in a world where a memorial is an object bounded in space that commemorates moments that happened once upon a time. Gordon Bell, by contrast, promises a world in which the moments of our lives can, themselves, live on as objects in space: bits and bytes in the “spatial dimension” of digitized storage. Fittingly, then, won’t the most important kind of memorial—the type that does true justice to the most precious moments being memorialized—simply be to make those moments bounded in time? To allow them to die with us?
The most precious moments of our lives cannot persist over time in the form of spatial objects like bits and bytes. Our memories of those moments are too intimate and ineffable to do anything other than begin flowing back in time, out of the reach and realm of others, as soon as we have died. Gordon Bell tries to deny this. He insists that we mortals can forever preserve our personal knowledge of the past in a way that replicates what immortality would allow. But this consolation for our mortality cannot work. Not really. Not for what matters most.
From The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Stark.