Rock & roll and essays. Looking and listening. Nostalgia versus skepticism.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Between Event and Story
An indelible memory from the early 1980s: my friend Bucky holding, and holding forth about, a copy of the Jam's "Beat Surrender" EP, informing me and a friend that the great English band had just broken up. Except, and hold the presses, a few years ago Bucky told me this: "I never owned that record. I did borrow it, but from someone who went to Rockville High School. I can't think of a reason why I'd bring it into school." Except, of course, that he did bring it to school, as I've retold the story to myself. The fallibility of memory gets a lot of play among writers of nonfiction; it's a trope of conversation that many feel is played out. I can't join that group. Virtually every day I'm amazed at my capacity to shape memories, floored anew by the implications this has for autobiographical writing, and for living. Everything matters at that seam between event and its story. I didn't see Bucky again for nearly thirty years, and I'd carried that relatively insignificant image of him holding the Jam EP all the while. That memory created a certain Bucky in my imagination, a version that impacted how I thought about him, when I did, and how I'd treat him when I saw him next. The fact of whether he did or did not do what I remembered is entirely irrelevant to the story of him that I'd told myself. Learning that he likely didn't own that record didn't affect his capacity and influence as a character ("Bucky"): if we learned that The Scream was painted not by Edvard Munch but by an unknown artist whose work Munch stole and called his own, would that affect our visceral psychological and emotional responses to the painting? Perhaps on an intellectual level, on the level of taxonomy or scholarship, but our dreams, nightmares, and memories of that painting and of its wake, its residue, would be untempered. The ripples spread wide, beyond personal essaying: any biographer, any journalist, any writer charged with turning away from the autobiographical "I" toward a verifiable fact-based account of an event or another's life must reckon with the stubborn, beautiful truth that memories shape the very nature of an incident the moment that incident occurs, and infinitely. Once an event happens, it's sung differently by its witnesses every time, usually in the same key, sometimes not, sometimes faithfully, respectful to its first version, sometimes wildly extemporized, holding on to a root but stretching, bursting its seams. Never will we hear it the same way twice. I might have created my memory of Bucky, and if that's so that says more about me than it does about verifiable reality. This stuff matters.