“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
So begins chapter six of Faulkner’s Light in August. In context it’s a thought-provoking entry into the childhood of Joe Christmas, the story’s main character. Out of context, it makes me think of the fourth grade.
In the fourth grade we were told to write a brief report on something we did the year previous. A short retelling of a memory, with family probably, on a vacation, in the summer; something very banal and typical of middle-class American life. Fourth-grade me, nine year-old me, struggled to remember a single that I had ever done. The other kids scratched away diligently at their desks while I failed to recollect even the vaguest idea of something I had experienced.
But I started to write. I wrote down a memory, complete with the details of someone present, the smells, the exact colors, the memory of a trip to an amusement park that I had never been to. I started to forge in my mind a fictitious family vacation so real that by the time I finished creating it, I was certain it had happened.
This was probably the first time I confused reality with a dream or made-up memory, and it wasn’t the last. Ever since that assignment, I haven’t been able to understand exactly what memory is. Suddenly looking at photos of myself as an infant, or as a toddler, produced a very bizarre feeling.
I have no memory of being that person. I can’t recall a single thing about it. The places, the sounds, the colors, the smells, the people, the relationships I had. And yet I can hold in my hand a photograph, of two-year old me, wearing a pink sweater, standing in the street, golden blond hair, perplexed expression. That child is me and that moment clearly happened, as the photo exists and I believe the photos are real. Consciously I know of these things in my past, but only because I can face their reality in picture form.
Were it not for these pictures, would I ever know?
The only reason I can tell you anything about what happened in my childhood is because I have seen pictures of it. I logged the pictures into the card catalogue of my brain. I stacked them, organized them so that now I can pull them up like bookmarked websites, and recite the information they give me.
But none of these memories are visceral.
When do I get my madeleine moment, like Proust?