Building Memories to Dull Today’s Pain

John Banville, in his novel Ancient Light, writes that “Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.” His character continues, noting that the “reticence, the tactfulness, that mutual grieving” is caused by the “dread of stirring up and provoking to even more inventive exercises those demonic torturers whose special task it was, is, to torment us.”

Banville, if you haven’t read him, is a craftsman, using language much like a great cook uses spices and ingredients. We taste the ideas as Banville stirs words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. He articulates emotions we normally only feel in our hearts, and his characters’ pain and joy hangs in the air around us in the same way smells envelop us when we walk into an active kitchen.

Reading Banville, we start slowly, taking sips of wine between bites, holding the fork lightly, moving just quickly enough to keep the food warm, but never in a hurry to see an empty plate. We are often surprised when the food is gone and we linger at the table much longer than required, savoring a meal that leaves us satisfied and pleasantly drowsy. Our memories begin reliving the moment, seeing nuances we missed during the reality of the meal.

I’m only a few pages into Banville’s newest novel, but as often happens with great writers, I’m struck by the timely passages we can pull from their works. Banville’s characters (including in his Benjamin Black novels) are prone to reflection and they struggle with the inevitable conflict between memory and fact. Like Faulkner in  Light in August, Banville seems to argue that “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even remembers.”

The strength of our memory often puts us at odds with our past and can just as easily dominate our present. In Banville’s newest novel, Alexander Cleave is discussing his wife’s reaction to their daughter’s death. She was an only child and her death has created an aura of grief that surrounds the couple. She dies unexpectedly off the coast of Italy, pregnant, her body battered by the rocks of the coastline. The don’t know the father or why she died.

We can become slaves, Banville (and Faulkner) seem to argue, when our memories become locked in particular moments or times, regardless of their veracity or our understanding. Our grieving bonds us in that “curious constraint” of fear, pain, and loss. Speaking not only threatens to awaken those “demonic torturers” but we also risk seeing the inevitable disconnect between our memory and the knowing of the people around us. Our pain and their pain are built, often, on differing visions of the past.

As I read Banville this week, my thoughts are with families in Boston, West (Texas), and, as always seems to be the case when memory reminds us what we sometimes forget, survivors of any and all awful, tragic, and senseless events.

One of the iconic images from Boston will be the Boston PD standing over the fallen runner, guns drawn, rushing to protect and serve. In West, we can envision the first responders rushing to the fire, realizing only too late that they wouldn’t be going home.

And we surely must think of the families of the runners, the parents of Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy killed, and the spouses and children of the volunteer fire-fighters in West. They are in the midst of the immediate pain but the grief will set in and they, too, will struggle with memory and knowing. Literature come to life.

Faulkner argued in his 1952 Nobel Prize speech that the greatness of mankind was not in our ability to overcome but in our strength to endure. That endurance was built on our ability to work through the conflicts of memory and knowing, and our willingness to confront what Faulkner called the human heart in conflict with itself.

As always, I’m struck by the ability of literature to recognize and articulate the large, complex, human emotions. We can only hope, with whatever small consolation it offers, that time helps these families build the memories that dull today’s pain to help them endure and move forward.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Building Memories to Dull Today’s Pain

  1. Amazingly well put, I have often ‘felt’ correlations between art and the reality of life, only to try and disassociate them. From now on I think I will pay more attention, and strive to allow memory and knowing to come together for a better understanding of the here and now.

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