Memory: Juxtaposition and Relativity

I can remember a print hung on a wall in my father’s house when I was a child. I puzzled and fretted and stared and wondered about this image and it’s impossible, unsettling reality. The print was of M.C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph “Relativity” and I was probably only 9 or 10 years old at the time. I can vaguely remember being obsessed with tracking the paths of the manikins and of the stairways, of never being quite able to see the whole image because one plane of sensible reality would incessantly slide into another, where one logic was constantly subverted by another in an unending sequence of mental doubt and the perpetual hunt for a certainty and a solid ground from which to perceive the whole reality. This kind of perceptual trickery was of course Escher’s goal. I do not know whether Escher was making artistic comments about reality, mathematics, physics or psychology but I do remember in a quite foggy way that I was always a little perturbed by this image and also simultaneously fascinated by its impossibilities.

Memory functions in similar ways as did my playful struggle to visually understand Escher’s image as a whole so many years ago. Kierkegaard’s reflection that Life “…can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” captures a part of this, in as much as memory is the trail we leave behind us which through retrospection has some capacity to explain both who and what and how we have come to be where we are at the current (ever-moving) moment. I can quite easily state that the places I have been, the people I have known or even the thoughts I have conceived are all exactly as I remember them, grounded solidly in the unerring reality of space, time and shared human experience; however – memory, under closer inspection, at first appears like a solid and impressive architecture of certainty and organised structure but upon deeper reflection quickly reveals itself to be an incessantly unravelling and tangled ball of experiential threads, impressions or retrospective projections.

My attempts to decipher the perspectival matrix of Escher’s Relativity as a child were very likely constrained by the level of cognitive complexity I had achieved by that age, my nascent abilities to perceive wholes and totalities was likely constrained as much by developmental neurobiology as by Escher’s graphic chicanery. Looking back at any point in my past, my first experiences with this lithograph as a point in case here, it is perhaps inevitable that I overlay memory with my current subjective states, my impressions of who I believe I am now, as much as whatever subjective and intellectual states I possessed at that time.

I am aware of an event, or a series of events, but I find that the further back in time from the current moment I mentally travel, the more indistinct and fuzzy my memories become, the more requisite this memory is of personal fictional narrative overlays and addendums to even begin to conceive and understand. In relation to memory of distant events I find myself in a place where I have difficulty perceiving or conceiving the whole mental image, where one plane of sensible reality quite easily slides into another and my imagination combined with faded memory of events quite easily distorts them, potentially deviating significantly from what may have actually happened or have been experienced at the time.

People deal with their inability to remember their pasts with perfect fidelity in many ways: with photographs; audio and video recordings; diaries, memoirs and autobiographies; through shared stories and myths of events and people or places; in an ongoing mental narrative of self and self-justification. Some people hand over their own re-creative self-definitions to pre-existing narratives and through this find that a shared reality and cultural memory (even of events not connected directly to their own corporeal or experiential world) shores up their psychology, bolsters their self against dissolution and the incessant fabrications that time and temporal distance demand. Some people voluntarily enslave themselves in narratives and fundamentalisms, conservatisms of solid and unchanging (yet contingent) truths despite the fact that the world is just not like this and is not really intelligible this way. The past does not reshape itself to a projective certainty grasping for continuity and resolution any more than it does to an imaginative fiction of constantly re-woven narratives of self and world.

The past and the present are, just like the entities which populate them, improbably coupled but related realities.

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