Friday, August 17, 2007

On a Line from Faulkner

"Memory believes before knowing remembers." This line from the opening of Chapter 6 in Faulkner's Light in August made an indelible impression on me when I first read it in my 20s back in the 1960s. As the years went by, though, my mind played a trick on it. I changed a word in the passage and kept quoting it that way whenever the discussion seemed appropriate for bringing it up. I changed the word "believes" to "knows," so that in my mind and in my spoken words the passage became "Memory knows before knowing remembers." For some reason this struck me as an incredibly profound flip-flop between knowing and remembering.

To this day I am not entirely sure what my version really means. How can memory know something that knowing doesn't remember. Or, rather, know something that knowing will only catch up with later. "Before knowing remembers" clearly implies that knowing will remember also what memory already knows. But, of course, I wasn't remembering the quote right at all. For "[m]emory believes before knowing remembers" is not the same. Here something hypothetical comes before certain knowledge. Again, it seems that perhaps certain knowledge will or can catch up to what memory "believes," but the belief comes before knowing.

So what is the significance of this? I have taken the line out of context on purpose. It seems to me that there is something truly useful for us all in the passage. Don't we all have memories that may, in fact, be altered by time in our consciousness? And doesn't the belief that what we remember is what really happened then alter the subsequent knowledge we retain of whatever the memory happens to be? Perhaps the first time we fell in love? Perhaps the first kiss? Perhaps the heartbreak of unrequited love? Or, as in the novel itself (and this is its context) a version of the "primal scene"?

There is just something unforgettable about the idea that our memories believe things that we can't even knowingly acknowledge. If that's what the line means. In any case, I would be curious to know if any of my readers (should there be any) would tell me something about how the passage strikes them. Whether they read Light in August as well, and - if so - whether the line made an impression on them, too, that they just can't seem to shake.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Recycled Words

The subject for this post maybe slightly misleading. I want to say a few words about titles of books that are actually quotations, in this instance from two poems by Wallace Stevens.

From "Sunday Morning" we get On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (1969). This book by Helen Hennessy Vendler deals with Stevens' poetry, as its subtitle clearly indicates. Death is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism (1987). This book by Mark Turner is, according to its "Foreword" by George Lakoff, "a truly interdisciplinary" study of the way the human mind works by means of metaphors. The book shows, says Professor Lakoff, "that the study of the literary mind is an integral part of the study of the mind in general."

From "The Idea of Order at Key West" we get Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (1975). As the subtitle indicates, this book by David Tracy addresses itself to the study of theology, more particularly to the new ways in which religious language can be seen to correspond with our general human experiences in life.

These recycled words have always fascinated me. They certainly make the books in the titles of which they are used enticing. And the books themselves - certainly the ones I just mentioned above - are worthy of the great poems from which they have been taken. I have a hunch that only Shakespeare's words have generated more titles than Wallace Stevens' poems. In addition to titles, Shakespeare's words have also given us common expressions the origins of which many people may not even know. Two such expressions come to mind for me at this moment, "a foregone conclusion" and "misery acquaints one with strange bedfellows."

There is a sense, of course, in which all words are recycled, since they are used over and over again every time we speak or write, but there is a special place in our language for words that become titles or common expressions by being taken from works of literature. I can't imagine life without literature. Poems or plays, stories or novels, even movies make an impressive contribution to the way or ways in which we enrich our understanding of what we as human beings are all about, or about the way or ways in which we create our communal or individual realities.