Molecules of the Past

North Carolina mountains

Mountains of North Carolina

We begin today a little science-y, but if you’ll bear with it, I’ll go word-geek in a minute. Last Saturday I went with a friend up to the mountains of western North Carolina, a little over two hours from Atlanta, to spend the night in a rented house. We were in an area very close to where I used to live when I graduated from Western Carolina University, but I hadn’t been up there in 16 years.

While driving past the Karaoke Korral and cabbage fields, I saw things that suddenly returned to my memory, even something as simple as the way the road would turn at a certain point. If I had not made that drive, I might have said—apparently true—that those memories were all gone. Yet in some mysterious way they weren’t. Somewhere in my brain they lay dormant.

As far as we know, all of our memories are physically stored in the brain somewhere. The brain is made of course of cells, themselves composed of incredibly complicated amalgamations of molecules. And of course molecules, no matter how complicated, are just atoms linked to one another, jiggling around. Thus a sodium ion flows out of a nerve cell, and a potassium ion flows in, and so on, times a trillion. Exactly which molecules held the memory of the village called Tiger?

Who we are is mostly memory. The present is but a split second, and in fact our sense of the “present” is probably a creation of our brain based on memories of the few seconds that have just passed. Everything we know, everything we can do, our ability to speak, it’s all memory. Yet memory is such an inscrutable thing, and if we lose it, what are we? We then become like my father, who has Alzheimers, who can still smile and eat and walk, but he is become like an adult version of a one-year-old child. How are his memories gone?

How were they even there to start with?

Understandably, given that our very existence as a personality is based on memory, human beings can be obsessed with the idea, and we see this in literature. I’m thinking about what kind of list might be made of novels that concern memory, but among literary novels, maybe all novels, what book is not about memory in some way?

Of course some novels are more deliberately about memory, one of the most well-known being—some of you know where I’m going here—Remembrance of Things Past by the French writer Marcel Proust (though a more accurate translation of the French title is In Search of Lost Time). Any book looking back at the past is about memory, such as Gabriel Garciz-Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or we might include Margaret Mitchell’s Georgia novel Gone With the Wind, written from the point of view of looking back at a lost world.

Our obsession with memory also leads us into autobiography, books of “here’s what I actually remember”. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov even published an autobiography called Speak, Memory. Nowadays we also see the extremely popular genre of memoire, a subtype of autobiography (I’m no fan of memoires myself, but I’m a fictionist and therefore partial to creative lying).

Writing done well can make the reader feel that they’ve entered someone else’s memory, as they walk into rooms where they see the winter trees out the window, dark against the snow, where they smell the spaghetti sauce cooking in the kitchen and begin to feel hungry, where they feel the rough texture of the cloth on the couch as they sit down to wait for dinner. More importantly, if we write well, we can lead the reader to feel what we want them to feel, as if it’s their own memory.

Long, long ago, when I first went to college, in Ohio, I would sometimes catch the bus down to my father’s house in West Virginia. After a few hours on the bus, I would arrive in the evening and we’d go to his house filled with books, up a steep driveway with other houses. I would feel tired from the bus ride, but relieved to be there and glad to be in a familiar place after the utter newness of college in an unknown town. I also remember the first time I rode the bus down, the evening I arrived my father asked me if I wanted a whiskey sour. I had never had such a drink, and I was a little surprised that he was offering it to me. I said yes, and sipping on that sweet-sour drink, I remember feeling like a grownup, come down from college to have a cocktail with my father.

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