In Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude—one of the great memory-epics, along with Proust’s—there is a section describing the process of recollection that speaks to me with particular relevance right now. As I’m reading Monsieur Proust, the memoir by his housekeeper, Celeste Albaret (reissued by New York Review Books), I’ve been thinking about autobiography and memory in general, and wondering about the ways some of my own memories are put together. The passage in Wordsworth runs as follows:
As one who hangs down-bending from the side
Of a slow-moving boat, upon the breast
Of a still water, solacing himself
With such discoveries as his eye can make
Beneath him in the bottom of the deep,
Sees many beauteous sights—weeds, fishes, flowers,
Grots, pebbles, roots of trees, and fancies more,
Yet often is perplexed, and cannot part
The shadow from the substance, rocks and sky,
Mountains and clouds, from that which is indeed
The region, and the things which there abide
In their true dwelling; now is crossed by gleam
Of his own image, by a sunbeam now,
And motions that are sent he knows not whence,
Impediments that make his task more sweet;
Such pleasant office have we long pursued
Incumbent o’er the surface of past time . . .
(The Prelude , bk. 4, lines 246-264)
The poet is right about a number of things here. The process of recollection is indeed a “perplexing” business—and writing about your memories even more so. Imagination and invention can distort or obscure the “substance” of what the rememberer is trying to remember, which Wordsworth calls “the region”—the immediate territory or object of recollection (in this excerpt, the underwater realm beneath the boat). But maybe “immediate” is not the right word at all, since in Wordsworth’s telling, the observer’s view of the underwater objects is in fact mediated—intercepted, interrupted—by objects reflected on the surface of the water: “rocks and sky, mountains and clouds.” Things, or rather the reflections (“shadows”) of things—other memories, misremembrances, thoughts, wishes, and wonderings—get between you and what you are looking for (or think you are looking for), so that you end up seeing a combination of realities and reflections. The passage is a parable of memory, and the process of remembering, which is as much an act of reflection, self-representation, and imagination (“fancies”—a key Romantic word) as of observation. Indeed, the observer, in the act of remembering, sees himself observing—sees his own reflection (and that of other surrounding things as well) superimposed upon the primary figures he sets out to recall, which are aptly depicted as underwater, submerged in the murky deep of the past. Though one can distinguish between primary figures and background reflections, this is not so easy to do, and they initially present themselves to us as rather confounded.
Autobiography—writing about our own lives—is such a mixture of deliberate recollection, accidental (one hopes!) invention, and processive reflection and interpolation. In another crucial memory passage in The Prelude, Wordsworth remarks that “the soul — / Remembering how she felt, but what she felt / Remembering not, retains an obscure sense of possible sublimity” (, 2.334-337). (The double qualification, “an obscure sense of possible sublimity,” is characteristically Wordsworthian, as is the embrace of indefiniteness). In this passage, Wordsworth is careful to make a distinction between what he calls, in a sentence just before, “our purer mind and intellectual life” and our “soul.” Significantly, it is the “soul” that remembers, not the “mind”; and what the soul remembers is not specifics (“what she felt”) but circumstantial emotions (“how she felt”). It seems to me, though, that the distinction the poet makes between the “what” and the “how” is essentially moot, since what is it besides emotions that the soul, the repository of feeling, would be experiencing? The memories we hold closest are instinct with emotion; otherwise we would not remember them.
Granted, there are those bits and pieces of things and moments we remember for seemingly no reason at all. Just the other day, I was remembering the particular way a girl in high school drank from a jug of cider by nestling it in the crook of her elbow and then, with a finger of the same arm hooked in the finger hole of the jug, raising it to her lips with one deft and graceful lift of the elbow. For some reason, I’ve kept this memory for forty-seven years. If I squeezed it a little bit, I think I’d find it reveals an early crush of mine. But was it the girl’s cider-jug motion that made me fall a little bit in love with her, or was this feeling already there, and did it just cement the image in my memory?
This jumble of remembered image and emotion, object and reflection, figure and ground, surface and depth, is on my mind—or should I say, in my soul?—as I think about another memory that for some reason won’t let go. It seems, on the face of it, unconnected to any momentous or even significant event of my life. I really don’t know why I keep remembering it. It is, I suppose, in that sense an “involuntary memory”—though in a very different sense from Proust’s madeleine moment—because it keeps popping up for no apparent reason. And yet it is dear to me. As I say, it won’t let go. Which, I guess, is another way of saying I can’t let go of it. Perhaps if I squeeze it a little—though in a very un-Proustian, voluntary, deliberate way—I can extract something essential.
The memory is of a birthday dinner party I attended in New York City in February of 2005. The party was given by my friend Greg Todd in honor of his father David’s ninetieth birthday. The dinner was held at a French restaurant in Manhattan—not a fancy place, rather understated, in a classically French way: white tablecloths; bright but not harsh lighting; unadorned, cream-colored walls. We were a group of fifteen or so—a “jocund company,” indeed. (Though I don’t recall any daffodils on the tables; it was not yet spring.) There was much toasting and speechifying in tribute to David. I read a little statement about how the Todd family—David, his wife Sue, and Greg—had always embodied, to me, the very best of New York: sophistication without pretension, elegance without opulence, culture, refinement, and overall excellence, as I conceived of it. I suppose it was a bit over the top, but David (who was never, may he rest in peace, lacking in ego) loved it. I said my piece after dinner and left shortly thereafter. I took the subway to the train, and the train back to Long Island, suffused not only with the wine I’d drunk, but with the warm afterglow of the evening overall, along with the memory of my modest triumph. Greg’s small family—like me, he is an only child—was important to me, and I felt I had done them proud. But I think there was something else going on as well that has made that evening stick in my mind. I used to be part of a family trio too. A couple of them, in fact.
My son, Zack, is also an only child; and we were, in February of 2005, a family of only two. Zack’s mother, my wife, Diane, had died of cancer the previous June, at fifty-four. This was only a month after the death of my father. (My mother had died nine years earlier.) Two families of three each—my mother, father, and I, and then Diane, Zack, and I—had now been reduced to just Zack and me. So I may have been recalling the Todd threesome with a particular wistfulness that night as I returned home to our apartment in Huntington, where Diane had died, and which I shared now with Zack, who was then a senior in high school. No doubt I was aware of the difference between the jocund company I’d just been with and the much soberer place I was returning to. I believe it was also a weeknight, which meant I would still have classes the next day to prepare for. (The thought of this depresses me even now).
Yet the strange thing is, the memory of the evening on the whole is not at all depressing. Quite the opposite. Through the intervening years it has filled me with a sweet feeling—but not because of the jocund company, or the good food and drink, or the mildly triumphant speech that I gave. No, it is rather (and here it is not unlike Wordsworth’s daffodil poem) the totally anticlimactic aftermath of the dinner—the lonely train ride home, the return to the sad little apartment that Zack and I now shared alone, in the wake of Diane’s death—that gives me pleasure; it’s the memory of my sadness and loneliness then that fills me now, whenever I recall it, with a kind of happiness. How can this be?
I don’t think it’s because of the emotional contrast between then and now—not because I was sad and lonely and in mourning then, and things are much better now. (Though they are. Now I’m happily remarried, and Zack is gainfully employed as a lawyer, enjoys his work, and is in a serious love relationship.) I think it’s more a case of Virgil’s forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit syndrome, from The Aeneid (“It may in days to come be helpful and pleasing to remember these hard things”), in which the hard things themselves seem to hold something of value to us, which becomes clearer and dearer to us over time. What I have in mind probably also has to do with the doctrine of the “association of ideas,” as it was later taken up by Coleridge and Wordsworth—and finally enshrined, of course, by Proust. The short version of this doctrine is that different memories, sensations, or ideas become connected in our minds in series or clusters, so that the triggering of one sets off the triggering of another, or several others. In the case of my “birthday-dinner memory,” it’s different strata of memories, and their associated emotions, that have become intertwined in my mind. The birthday-dinner memory has become what I call “nested.” That is to say, it has become “contained” by another memory, a later memory—a memory of something yet to come—and so has absorbed some of the feelings connected with that later memory. But it’s more than just a linking of the memories of two different events, an earlier and a later. The February memory is also strongly connected to a feeling of anticipation—anticipation and looking-forward-to—that I don’t think I felt at the time, but that I have since superimposed on the February memory, in much the same way that Wordsworth, in the memory-boat passage, describes the reflected “gleam” and “sunbeam” and “motions that are sent he knows not whence.” These reflections and “motions,” translated and transferred to my birthday-dinner memory, are the traces of later memories, hopes, and expectations that were superimposed after the fact on the dinner memory.
Unlike Wordsworth, though, I think I can be more specific (if less poetic and sublime). What was superimposed on the dinner memory was not so much a later memory per se as it was a feeling of hope “and expectation, and desire / And something evermore about to be” (the phrase is from Book Six of The Prelude) that went with that later memory—a feeling of looking forward to something I didn’t consciously know was in the offing at the time.
At the end of the school year (late May) of 2005, my first sabbatical was to begin. And it is true that in February of 2005, at the time of the dinner, I knew the sabbatical was coming up. But I also knew that this blessing was definitely going to be a mixed one, since I would not be sharing it with Diane. The sabbatical would mean much less than it would have if we could have enjoyed it together. As it happened, though, this sabbatical turned out to be a high point in my post-Diane world. That fall, Zack and I went together to France—first Paris, then the Basque country (Biarritz), to visit an old friend of mine who lives there, then on to Cannes, where Zack enrolled in French classes and I rented a chambre d’hôte (a room in a private house) and worked on a memoir. And it is the later memory of that happy sabbatical that suffuses the earlier memory of the birthday dinner, and gives it its “expectational aura.” The later memory provides a sort of “expectational container,” or “nest,” for the earlier memory. It gives it another and different emotional context—a happier one—to be added to the contemporary context of sadness and loneliness. Hence, I think, the sweetness of the earlier lonely memory: It gradually came to function, in light of the later sabbatical memory, as a kind of “prefatory memory,” a memory whose emotional content was provided as much by the memory of things yet to come (that is, by the memory of later events and feelings that were then superimposed retroactively upon the earlier memory) as by the memory of what I was feeling at the time. The earlier memory thus also—and reciprocally—becomes in turn a kind of nest or container for feelings of hope and expectation attached to events that were to happen later. And just as Wordsworth says, what are now most prominent in the earlier memory are not specific events but feelings—the “how,” not the “what.”
At the risk of over-Wordsworthianizing, I’d like to use one more passage from The Prelude to help me think about the dinner-party memory and its place in my mnemonic life. I’ll summarize as briefly as I can. The passage occurs in Book 11 of the 1805 version and is known as the “spots of time.” Wordsworth is thirteen and has just gotten out of boarding school for Christmas vacation. He is standing by a stone wall on a hill overlooking a road, waiting for horses (“palfreys,” in the fancier 1850 revision of the poem) to take him and his brothers home. The day is stormy and misty. Near the wall are a “blasted tree” (a tree that has been struck by lightning) and a “single sheep.” The young Wordsworth is greatly looking forward to coming home for Christmas. But then, ten days after he arrives, his father dies suddenly. When he later looks back on that day when he was waiting for the palfreys, he feels that God somehow “corrected his desires.” This idea has occasioned much commentary and speculation among the critics. What did Wordsworth do wrong that required “correction”? And how could he see his father’s death as that correction?
Wordsworth also tells us that in the aftertime, when he thought back on the day of waiting for the palfreys and remembered the scene—the stormy weather, the stone wall, the single sheep, and the blasted tree—“All these were spectacles and sounds to which / I often would repair, and thence would drink / As at a fountain.” So we have two memories here: the memory of looking forward to Christmas vacation, and all the joy and happiness he thought it would bring; and the memory of the family tragedy—or rather, the next family tragedy (Wordsworth’s mother had died when he was eight) that actually followed ten days later. The memory of this event becomes superimposed over the memory of looking forward to Christmas vacation, so that the earlier, happier memory becomes “nested” in the later tragic memory. And it is the emotional disjunction between the two memories that seems to require “correction.” Or rather, it is Wordsworth’s innocent presumption of happiness while waiting for the palfreys that—in light of the imminent though undreamt-of tragedy—requires a retroactive “correction.” How could the child have dared to look forward to something that would lead (chronologically speaking, at least) to his father’s death? How could these two emotions—the pleasure of looking forward to something, and the devastation of bereavement and orphanhood—be so closely connected in his memory? And how could the same mind—the same soul—the same being—accommodate two such different and disjunct worlds of feeling?
Yet the disjunction of feeling is itself a source of poetic inspiration and nourishment. It’s one thing to be inspired by hope “and expectation, and desire”; it’s another to be inspired by tragedy. But what is so unusual—and so quintessentially Wordsworthian—is to be nourished (“drink as at a fountain”) by the disjunction between these two radically different states of being. As the poet says in the “Intimations Ode,” he does not rejoice in and bless “that which is most worthy to be blest; / Delight and liberty, the simple creed / Of childhood,” but rather “those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things, / Fallings from us, vanishings; / Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized . . .” It is neither the bright side nor the dark side that is finally of most interest here, but rather the conjunction—and even more, the disjunction—between the two. Not the loneliness, or the sadness, or the bereavement; but not the celebration, either. It’s the hope and expectation that lie between the two, that nest them in a kind of cocoon of anticipation that looks forward, through the past.
Why does all of this matter? It matters, I think, because it shows us that memory—literary memory, at least—is more than just a raking over of the past. It is also a way of marking how one looks forward to the future: as I say, looking forward to the future through the past. Part of what we do when we remember is remember how we, in the past, looked forward to the future. What the future looked like to us in the past. How we nourished hope “and expectation, and desire.” The value of memory becomes not just its meaning as a snapshot of our past. It also reminds us of what we felt in the past as we looked forward to the future—our hopes and dreams and plans, in the past, for the future. True, many of those hopes and dreams and plans never materialized. But that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that we had them. Wordsworth’s memory of tragedy does not wipe out, for him, the memory of looking forward to something, and how happy that made him feel. Rather, it makes the memory of looking forward to something much richer (albeit much sadder, too). What is particularly enriching—nourishing—about this disjunction, so that in aftertime Wordsworth returns to it to “drink,” is the knowledge of how, in memory, happiness and sadness, anticipation and crushing disappointment, loss and survival of loss, hope and the (temporary) removal of hope, can all coexist, and work together to serve and support and encourage the rememberer, even though she might not be aware of it at the time. “So feeling comes in aid / Of feeling, and diversity of strength / Attends us, if but once we have been strong” (, 11.325-327).
Memory looks forward as well as back, and the memories that are most important to us, perhaps, are the memories that remind us of what we looked forward to, or the things in our lives that were then in the offing, but that we didn’t know about yet. The memory of my sad return home after the jocund dinner party is especially dear to me, I think, because of the memories of Diane’s death, and Zack’s loss of his mother at a tender age (sixteen), that it entails. It is also dear to me because of the memory of that sabbatical fall—still to come in February of 2005—that Zack and I spent together in France. The feeling of sadness “comes in aid” of the feeling of happiness, and vice versa. They are inseparable—just as inseparable as the ground-images and reflections viewed from Wordsworth’s memory-boat. The memory of the future, as seen through the past, is also the memory of hopes and plans and lookings-forward-to, as we felt them at the time, and also as they played out for us, or failed to play out. No, you cannot predict what the future will bring—but you can remember how you looked forward to it, and how that looking-forward made you feel. And that is more useful for us, as well as more nourishing, as we continue to live our lives both forward and back.
Josh Gidding is the author of Failure: An Autobiography (Cyan Books, 2007). He has previously published three essays in AGNI: “On Not Being Proust: A Study in Literary Failure” (Spring 2008), which was listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays 2009; “On the Desire for Future Biographers” (AGNI Blog, April 10, 2017); and “The Light of Homer” (AGNI Blog, Oct. 29, 2018). He lives in Seattle, and teaches writing at Highline College.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.