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.

1 comment:

Roswila said...

OK. What this line (the original, not your creative re-write :-D) highlights for me is how fluid memory really is. And how we tend to relate to memories as concrete things, as if carved on the insides of our skulls, like petroglyphs. Yet even petroglyphs get changed by the passage of time. Memories are, IMHO, far more fragile, far more subject to time's influence and even ravages than petroglphys. And this doesn't even cover what can influence a memory's initial imprinting (our emotional state, our physical health, our neuroses :-D, etc.). Of course, that's getting into how "accurate" our perceptions are and that's for another post, isn't it?

Suffice it to say, memory is an incredible and crucial faculty that we, to state the obvious, can't do without. But it's products (any memory itself) are no more perfect and unchangeable than we as human beings are. It's like that bible quote I've been thinking a lot about recently about seeing through a glass darkly. (Yes, even this pagan finds some bible quotes say important things. :-D) IMHO, we need to stay aware we do not, nay, cannot see/recall it all, nor even any part of it accurately/ perfectly. We must do the very best we can nevertheless....

So, see what you started? LOL!