Proust in the Central District
I Can't Believe I Can't Remember What Used to Be Across the Street
A block away from my apartment on 26th Avenue South and South Jackson Street stands a brand-new cluster of townhouses. This time last year, a small house stood in this place. It was white, fenceless, and gloomy. Its front yard was a mess of wild grass and dead leaves. A deaf satellite dish stood on the right side of its rotting roof. People lived in this sad place, but they never left or entered it. The only noise that came from the home was the bark of a dog that never encountered the world beyond the black bars on the windows. This dog, its unknown owners, and the house are now a memory (a miserable memory) that I'm devoted to for no reason save to keep myself on top of the shock-fast changes that frequently rupture the illusion of continuity and permanence. Each time I recall the memory, however, it keeps changing, particularly the satellite dish—it was once on the right side of the roof and now it is on the left.
This situation reminds me of the first paragraph of Borges's "The Aleph":
"On the incandescent February morning Beatriz Viterbo died... I noticed that the iron billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realized that the vast and incessant universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe would change but I would not, I thought with a certain sad vanity."
A loved one has died but the world around her passing refuses to cease. Against the city's incessant changes, the narrator of the story promises not to change and to devote his life to the memory of the dead woman. The memory is all he can grasp in the flood of changes that submerge and convey her death (with its fixed time and place) to the ocean of oblivion.
But a memory presents the devotee with a terrible problem. Because the world changes, because the force of life only knows (goes in) one direction—forward—because the present quickly slides into the past, and the past finally sinks into nothingness, the memory cannot be refreshed by the now, the reality, the city, the billboards. It becomes a phantom in his head. A phantom that grows fainter by the day and, worst of all, changes every time he recalls it. A memory can't be trusted.
"Proust realized that the moment we finish eating [a] cookie," writes Jonah Lehrer in his new and a bit too enthusiastic book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, "we begin warping the memory of the cookie... In In Search of Lost Time, the inaccuracy and instability of the memory is the moral." Despite having this understanding, Proust still spent the last two decades of his life writing a work that in the end would be the last thing anyone wants their precious memories to be: inaccurate and unstable. And it is precisely this understanding—the world inside, like the world outside, endlessly changes—that makes him so relevant to our time and city. We keep writing about him, particularly in this newspaper (at least once a year), because he, like the narrator in "The Aleph," knew his project, his devotion, his book was doomed to fail.
Why do we find Proust's failure meaningful or relevant? Because all around us, we see a city, a Seattle, that we can't stop, that offers us no existential anchor, that makes a fool out of our memories by daily destroying the old and building the new—yet we continue the doomed project of living here. The failure of writing In Search of Lost Time is related to the failure of being in Seattle. The writing of that book and living in this city are both searches for memories that stabilize life and defeat death. But whereas the writer of Search recalls people, the citizen of this city recalls places: the water reservoir that's now a park, the old library that's been replaced by the new library, the used car lot on Rainier Avenue South that's now a complex of senior housing and condominiums.
But sometimes the changes are so quick they completely catch us by surprise.
Framed by the window of my apartment's bedroom is a cluster of townhouses that are under construction. I have no idea of the exact day or moment that these unfinished townhouses entered the view of my window; nor do I have an idea of the house or building they're replacing. I have no idea why I have no idea of what was there before. How can you forget something that was next door for years? Every effort to retrieve the forgotten place, to register the change, to fill in the loss meets zero success. All I have is what is there now: the vacant space of the construction site, the echo of banging, and shouts in Spanish.
Nothing is safe. The gaps in memory multiply. What used be at 12th Avenue and East Pike Street? What used to be at 23rd Avenue East and East Madison Street? What used to be at Denny Way and Westlake Avenue? What was South Lake Union before it was South Lake Union? What was once in my window?
Jonah Lehrer reads on Tues Nov 13 at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave, 652-4255), 7:30 pm, $5.