Memory is an immense pentimento, strokes of the past showing through but always partially extincted by more recent tincture. Given a means of external storage, we often avail ourselves of it to freeze time. But what do we choose to remember? What are the moments we digitize into a permanent convertible ephemerality? What mementos will we take with us?
Memento. That’s Latin for ‘remember’, second person imperative: “You! Remember!” Remember what? Often memento mori: remember dying, remember death, remember that you, too, will fade away and be deleted. But do memories die with us?
Does it matter? We amass them while we live to put together a narrative of our lives, a motif of moments. A constellation of our lives.
Constellations are made from stars, as we know. We seek stars to remember seeing: high points of light. This evening I stopped through the street festival for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). They have a red carpet area, well lit, and people surround it awaiting the famous ones, cameras ready for any glimpse. One person came up to a group of several standing on a planter for a better view and asked of a latter-day Zacchaeus, “Who’s coming out?” The spectator looked downward and said, “I don’t know.” But whoever it is, it will be a star, and a moment to remember.
Moment? Momento? It’s no surprise that the misspelling persists; the misanalysis has momentum. Magic moments make for mementos. And each memento moment may have two parts: the explosive effervescent of the moment, metaphorically like a sleeve of Mentos released into a bottle of Diet Coke, and the persistent image, made to be a meme, just a motif of emotion capable of captions multifarious. One is clear but evanescent, the other lasting but open to reinterpretation.
There is a movie, Memento, made in 2000, about a man who has anterograde amnesia. Digital cameras in every phone were not a thing at the time, and his memory was made of Polaroid photos that had physical persistance and could be written on – but also destroyed – and tattoos that were indelible but often inscrutable. He would never remember what had happened more than five minutes before, so he had to record the important parts to help him solve a mystery… or to create a mystery for his future self.
As we do. Flip through an album of photos, on paper or on your phone. See what things your camera has seen. Try to retrace a timeline of your life. What was that? And that? Was it really so? Or is it a pleasant part-fiction directed by previous you to mislead your future selves? It has all been selected and edited. It seems to make sense. But you will never breathe those breaths on those days again, so what is left?
Thus we raise our lenses and sensors; we resolve to resolve life into pixels so that a flat chip of time may take us back and prove that we were there in that moment. We could also buy or retain a thing, a souvenir, a flake of a life. It will be forever the age it is; a memento is frozen in death the moment it is born, and in time it acquires other layers, as the fresh memory fades and other associations attach. We just remember that we were one such person in one such place, with these things and these people, and the thread of our life is seen not as a coloured line among many thrown by a shuttle in a loom but as a single tight string twisted from peg to peg, nail to nail, each tack polished to look like a star; in the end this twiny constellation is meant to present our image, but we can never step apart to see it so.
But those are the instant-thin mementoes, already moribund. There is another memento to go with mori: memento vivere, ‘remember to live, remember life’. We cannot capture that with our cameras, of course, but it is the other part of the same experience: each shutter click is a paddle dip in a river, each memento maintaining momentum in the stream of life. I was here now, and here now, and here now. And from this we see the way forward.