Wednesday, September 3, 2014

of Kafka, words and memory

A loved one sent me this quote the other day:
How many words in this book. 
They are meant for remembrance. As though words could carry memories. 
For words are clumsy mountaineers and clumsy miners. Not for them to bring down treasures from the mountains’ peaks, or up from the mountains’ bowels. 
But there is a living mindfulness that has passed gently, like a stroking hand, over everything memorable. And when the flame shoots up out of these ashes, hot and glowing, strong and mighty, and you stare into it as though spellbound by its magic, then– 
But no one can write himself into this kind of pure mindfulness with unskillful hand and crude pen; one can write only in such white, undemanding pages as these. I did so on September 2, 1900 
Franz Kafka
... for words are clumsy mountaineers ... 

At first I was so taken with Kafka's skillful pen that I paid more attention to the sparkly sound than I did to the hardened diamond of meaning. On re-reading though it strikes me that words may be feeble vessels for memory, but they are vibrant conductors of it. What but words can take your mind back to a moment so completely that your body responds? We have so few other sensory recordings of those moments that words have to suffice, imperfect as they are.

Perhaps that's why memories themselves are imperfect and either embellish or diminish the reality of a moment. Even a photograph, the supposed truth-teller of the past, shows only a flattened and particular image, a flash of time within a frame. What happens before or after or outside the field of view is left to the inconstancy of memory. Photos too fade over time. Memories can fade, though those we hold closest seem to maintain their shine.

Some moments are burnished with revisiting - a hello, a chuckle, a touch, the splash of bath water, the slow relaxing of muscles ...

Kafka is both right and wrong - words are imperfect for carrying (or maybe for sharing) memories, but he seems to imply that that imperfection is a weakness. I think the magic of words is the way in which they can translate memories, that they can get to the truth beyond the reality, that the details fall away and only the experience as experienced remains.

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