Memory & Becoming: ‘A Hesitation of Things’

This is the second week on which I can write from what I can call my hew home. Just like an oceanic journey, I experienced severe nausea while between these two different lands, these two different islands, these two different homes.

Like a snail or a tortoise, I guess my home becomes, in some way, also part of my body, so changing home is neither physically nor psychologically easy. We are losing, giving-up and letting-go of our old home, just as much as we are gaining, claiming, and taking hold of our new home. All of this happens continuously, seamlessly, without any clear sense of break or rupture. Hence the nausea perhaps?

In fact, all of our lives as and in becoming (rather than being) are marked by a similar process that we can’t really represent to ourselves or give shape to. We grow and change by the second and microsecond, shedding skin, losing hairs, growing hairs and fingernails, changing our minds, ageing, forgetting and remembering. And all of this, again, in a fluid, baroque, complex form that is impossible to map. And yet we live with it, gaining necessary orientation from language – our gender, our name, our age, our address, our occupation, class income, nationality, education, as well as our moods and feelings.

As I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, in the process of moving, every single thing I own was turned over, upside down and placed back in a new space and in new relationships with everything else. All that I own is still here and yet all refreshed and renewed by this activity. But this morning I’ve been thinking more about memory and how it plays its part in all of the above.

Proust famously wrote his experimental modern novel prioritising the under-appreciated influence of memory on our lives and identities and societies. He seems to have been influenced by the ideas of Henri Bergson, who wrote a book called ‘Matter & Memory’ (and who was related to Proust’s family by marriage). But the motivation for the novel may have also been the challenge to find an adequate (and adequately scientific) representation (following and departing from e.g. Naturalists/Realists), of modernity itself and our place within it.

Roland Barthes famously wrote * that Proust’s ingenious novel wends its ways through hundreds of pages of unprecedentedly beautiful and detailed description and observation only to reach the precise point at which, and only at which, for the protagonist, and implicitly for we the readers too, the writing of such a novel (the very novel we have just completed reading) becomes possible to write and whose writing can thus ensue. In this way the novel’s beginning and end, its reading and its writing become simultaneous and all that comes between its beginning and its end slips out of time and space (which also happens to be what happens to us when we are most immersed in the pleasures of reading).

In our lives of constant becoming and change, something of us (though not always the same thing) needs to be remembered while other things of or about us need to be forgotten. Thus we proceed through time and life, always shedding skin while growing new skin, always shedding all kinds of aspects of ourselves which are lost to memory while necessarily remembering that which we need in order to create some orientatingly consistent sense of self or identity. Perhaps all things exist or rather persist in this manner.

This was the question at the heart of my PhD project, completed in 20009 and titled ‘A Hesitation of Things‘ – it’s available as a PDF on my website (www.okpaul.com). I.e. in order to ‘be’ and to ‘be a thing’, a thing requires a constant state of hesitation, lest the thing (which might be ourselves) simply dissipates in a sudden rush of unformed becoming. I couldn’t prove it scientifically and so I wrote around and about it creatively, as an artist. The title, the idea and the question all derived from a brief statement made by Gilles Deleuze while he was explaining Bergson’s theories.

*Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation between the writer and his characters; by making of the narrator not he who bas seen
and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to write (the young man in the novel- but, in fact, how old is he and who is he? – wants to write but cannot; the novel ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave modem writing its epic.


ROLAND BARTHES ‘The Death of the Author’ 1967

* “Proust himself, despite the apparently psychological
character of what are called his analyses, was visibly concerned with the task of inexorably blurring, by an extreme
subtilization, the relation between the writer and his
characters; by making of the narrator not he who bas seen
and felt nor even he who is writing, but he who is going to
write (the young man in the novel
[…] – wants to write but cannot; the novel
ends when writing at last becomes possible), Proust gave
modem writing its epic.”

From Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author‘ – 1967

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