Well, I am not sure which state of oblivion is more tolerable: to forget or to be forgotten. I tend to commute between the two, as most folks do. Yet I am far more troubled by the defects of my own memory than by any failure on my part to leave an indelible imprint of me on the minds of others. The latter might injure my pride from time to time; but the former damages the very core of my self as a being in space and time. Is this why I am attracted to pop-cultural ephemera, to the once famous and half forgotten, to the fading sounds of radio and the passing fame of its personalities? Am I, by trying to keep up with the out-of-date, rehearsing my own struggle of keeping anything in mind and preventing it from fading?
At present, I am catching up with the cases of Sherlock Holmes as chronicled by Doctor Watson, who, on this day, 25 July, in 1936, regaled American radio listeners with the “Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.” No recording of that particular broadcast seems to have survived; and few, if any, are alive today to remember hearing it. Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, of course, are still being discovered today by readers who, like me, come to them with moving images in mind, a mind crowded with dubious celluloid tributes that bear little resemblance to Doyle’s creations. As I recently found out, the first sound film version of A Study in Scarlet has, its title apart, nothing in common with the novel, borrowing dialogue and plot elements from The Valley of Fear instead.
Those who choose to enter Doyle’s Study are likely to be struck by what his unforgettable if frequently misremembered detective had to say about memory:
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
I find little comfort in those words. Memory is not simply a matter of selecting what one wishes to recall or neglect; nor is forgetting, however convenient in many cases, merely a means of keeping the cabinets of our internal storage space organized or of keeping from us certain memoranda about events and personages whose presence we do not care to face.
What I fail to retrieve is often just what I need to have present. I make indices of my activities, such as the list (to the right of this) of films I have seen this year, well aware that the titles alone do little to trigger memories. My pocket diary and online calendars are filled with reminders; not of things to do, but of things done and places seen, jotted down so as to bring them back to mind: a combination of letters and numbers with which to gain access to an otherwise inaccessible past.
Resorting to the outsourcing of memory, I updated my homepage today, adding an album set aside for portraits of largely forgotten entertainers, photographs given to me by a friend whose mother wrote in for and held on to them. The above picture of Bill Johnson, for instance, that “Thanks”-giving fellow with the pipe (a prop likely to endear him to Mr. Holmes, but liable to bar him or anyone, for that matter, from being featured in a Disney family movie). I do not recall hearing of him or hearing him entertain me; but I made up my mind to remember him publicly, to become an aide to someone else’s memory, the mental faculty on which I cannot depend.
It is only after such clean-up efforts that I allow myself to contemplate how I might be remembered should ever the winds of change or the sweeping gesture of an officious feather duster wipe away what I chose to leave behind on the web . . .