Memories are disruptive. Photographs, films and images project us backwards and forwards to times remembered and times we think we remember. As sounds, old songs take us back to moments we lived or wish we had lived. Upon opening the newspaper today I experienced just such a thing. An article about paternosters (and what more appropriate metaphor could there be for life, or memory cycles) in Germany took me back to my failed youth and opened a series of memories I’m yet to fully process. I have things to do today, but how can I function, now that I’ve been assailed by memory? Indeed how can any of us function when the past is all around us, suffocating the present in an endless loop of memory and nostalgia? On reading this article I was transported back to the days of my youth, to university; a time of failed loves and failed application, of adolescent angst, little learning and much squalor. But alongside those thoughts, triggered almost subconsciously, were memories of important, historical time. Fitful, convulsive, epochal time. To The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such times. Joyous, world changing times, or so I thought at the time. Then I looked a the images of paternosters, and was taken back again: to the Vienna of Stephan Zweig and Musil of Carol Reed and Orson Welles, to the Cold War Berlin of Le Carre, the Hamburg of Wim Wenders and Dennis Hopper. These stories, these images, like Sebald’s Austerlitz transform us as they transform time. They make us long for times lived and not lived. Memories and imagined, or facsimile memories run helter skelter through my disordered mind, at once both disorienting and delightful; maddening and magical.
By Herzi Pinki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
We live in mnemonic times, I tell myself, when everything means something and nothing. Were we feel entitled to not just our memories, but our memory traces, our symbols. It is no longer enough to remember, privately or socially, we must preserve and reconstruct. To give ballast to our sense of self, our identity in an increasingly complex and alienating world. It is no longer enough to remember the little green man in East Berlin or the paternosters of Stuttgart, he and they must be preserved forever; as a foundation, time caught in aspic. But what happens when he gives up? When the little green man fades away, when the paternoster is no longer able to ascend the great heights, when in last sputtering gasp it gives in, unable to traverse the excruciating loop, it’s belts worn thin by years carrying people. Smiling people, grumpy people unhappy people, angry people, endless bloody people. What then? Will we still campaign to save them? Or will they disappear, dispatched to the endless dustbin of history? What happens when things outlive their use and what does use mean today? There is practical, everyday use and there is nostalgic, placating use. The use that comforts us, that whispers platitudes, that tells us that we’ve learned from our destructive past, that we will preserve the good things, we no longer wish to rush headlong into the future, destroying all that stands in the way. We will not build motorways through cities, monolithic apartment blocks over shaded boulevards, shopping malls over Benjamin’s arcades.
Today. He sat in a cafe, somewhere near the border of Eastern Finland and Russian. Music played, Just One Look by the Hollies. And he remembered times gone by, his 12 year old self arguing passionately about the merits of The Beatles over his friends’ favourites The Hollies. He had been convinced that right was on his side, and in retrospect it was, but what a thing to argue about. He then recalled thousands of similar arguments about music, literature and art, all the things boys talk about to impress girls, and each other. Was it time wasted or passion spent? Did girls argue about music, he wondered. He was sure they did but struggled to recall an example. One or two maybe but the girls he remembered were always above the fray. There were more important things in life to worry about and besides, didn’t we know that girls aren’t really impressed by our arcane knowledge of a sides and b sides? By the time the discussion had reached that point, they’d already decided: they liked us or they didn’t. If it progressed that far it usually meant they did, for reasons that remain obscure to him to this day.