Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The River Lethe at Noon

We have no choice but to think. And memory is not often voluntary. Thought may be trained, and memory governed - but neither human condition is chosen. We breach the womb destined to think and to remember, born equipped with the burdens of awareness.

Sense and thought, inextricably entangled, bound up in the demands of memory.

We participate, simply by existence. Born able to recall, born able to learn, we enter a world of pre-existing conditions.

But that world does budge - all the time. It budges every time a man or woman, a child or infant opens eyes to it. Reality itself moves:

Every time the cells of memory alight in their electro-chemical dance.
Every single time a child takes a step.
Or runs with fear.
And dies of hunger.
To the witness of other children.
And a broken, weeping mother.

Reality moves. This is the record of memory. We have culture, and books, and stories to remind us that the singular memories of singular women and men cannot contain all the events of the world. In the gaps between men, reality moves differently, inhuman. We come together, we tell ourselves one to the other - thought and memory altering the world, sometimes rapidly, right now - and sometimes across the ages; but always inexorable.

Reality moves, like a river, or an ocean tide.

Which is why we forget. And how we die.

A clue, perhaps to the dangers of the crystalline everlasting. Holy books and permanence, the one true way and the end of history, the final equilibrium and the perfect economy, the physician's desk reference and complete and total health.

The mind comes with memory. And truth is, in truth, aletheia - unforgetfulness, unconcealment. But it is temporary, partial, always bordering the limits of error. We cannot know everything. We die. We forget. We lose even our cellular memory, decomposing, or burnt to ash. The bonds are never permanent.

The truth - remembered and forgotten in waves of history, in the tides of a single life - is transformation, change, alteration.

We navigate those waves by way of memory, constantly thinking into events. We preserve our sanity with the knowledge that we know very little, next to nothing at all. We lose it, sometimes for all the time left to us, by a curiously easy refusal to forget.

Forget, from the the words meaning "letting go" the "grasp." Sometimes we lose our grip. Some times we forego.

The surival of our kind hinges on the difference.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thought and Memory

Men remember. And women even moreso. Damage is done, and the children of corpses do not forget. The arc of recent memory embraces a terrible world, and all the sidereal beauty of it. Baghdad, Belgrade, Kandahar and Kabul - ancient cities, the scenes of a modern crime.

The rape of memory. The abandonment of thought.

You see...

There were harbingers of Triumph gone out into our world. They had dreams of an isolated perfection, an American century. They had a project, and a war. They dreamed, they promoted; somehow, they captured a state at the apogee of opposition to it.

Let's call it, temporarily, the age of the Lesser Vigilance. We were new Americans. We were the new saints of prosperity. The World Bank turned Robin Hood on his head, and we were rolling in the fat of it.

There was Bill Clinton, and he fooled the lot of us. The wingnuts loved him or hated him. An industry emerged around the image of the man - paid to attack him, paid to defend him. We forgot to mistrust the whole enterprise itself, entertained and outraged instead by the spectacle of our own First Among Equals.

So: there was Bonnie Prince Billy, and his dour wife. And then there was George, casting himself about in an embarrasing impression of a Paladin, armed with the mute witness of a sated establishment.

What could go wrong? The world was ours, we were the world.

We lacked vigilance. Zealots plotted, here and abroad - triumphalists, jihadists and crusaders. All of them, of a breed and a type. Totalists. Crazy men sounding the carrion call of universal war - seriously - and we took them at their word that all would be well, and all would be well and all and all would end up just dandy.

We found our Painted Villains, done up in blackface - Milosevic, Saddam, Osama. Bad men, certainly. But bad men on our terms, as foils to our Prince and our Paladin.

Bonnie Prince Billy smacked the Serbs around. Milosevic relented, the partisan gangster prudent and cagey to the end. Paladin George rained fire down on Baghdad, and Saddam sought the hidey hole, a secret libertine done up in chains.

The Strong Men fell. That was always in the script. Well, not Osama. But here we have it: War as Theater. War as legerdemain.

How did we get here?

How did we get to this terrible place?

We're lazy. That's the truth of it. We were faced with an awful choice - Flat Screen TeeVee, or Vigilance.

Are you surprised at the outcome?

Somewhere outside of Belgrade, Thought was abandoned on the side of a Balkan road, an orphan in the dark. Somewhere in Baghdad, Memory clutches at her skirts and begs for a blanket and a single night's rest.

We didn't think this out. War and occupation do not occur in a vacuum. The curtain is up. The theater is empty. And still, we have our war and occupation. And we didn't remember - that time moves, that times change, that the feast and the famine alternate. That our own dead - however heartbreaking and terrible - do not weigh heaviest on the minds of those who survive our response, who have corpses for mothers and fathers.