BY KATHY PERUTZ
I fell for this line the first time I heard it (supposedly an old Russian saying,) and adopted it with a few others that I keep on hand to ward off false thinking and unhealthy beliefs. It’s a comment on reportage which is the job of a journalist or a novelist, both of which I’ve worked at in my lifetime, probably perpetrating many lies, though not intentionally and perhaps not even harmfully. Since all writing based on memory is subjective, and all stories about one’s past have been altered by the future of that past, all we writers can do is tell a story and hope it is recognizable enough to create an echo in the reader’s mind.
In this age of sumptuous lying, false facts, moveable truths, lack of conviction and inability to get a narrative straight, my old Russian saying is a quaint relic from days when the greatest lyric poet in English was able to come out with lines like: ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Even I feel Keats went a bit potty there (the madness of the Greek dancers?), though we were raised in a world where the existence of god was certainly debatable but the fact of truth was unquestioned. The New York Times was our Newspaper of Record, Science reigned, and police lineups relied on eye witnesses to point out the perp.
Our new dominion of boutique thinking, each person entitled to a private version of just about everything, from the origin of the earth to its imminent demise, has nothing whatever to do with the mutability of memory or the private truths of each individual that form a pattern that characterizes a particular life.
But back to the Eye Witness: someone who was present at the event, who can testify; who saw the rolled-away stone and met Christ walking in the garden. The person or persons who were watching what happened, like the silent observers behind their 1960’s draperies in Kew Gardens, Queens, as Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death repeatedly (35 times, it would be ascertained – by the coroner, not by the reports.) Great emotions can surely color the event or even drown it into non-reality, as Freud showed us with “trauma,” the word taken from “dream” (Traum.) An eye witness knows what he or she saw, but doesn’t thereby know what happened.
The key is in the word eye/I, the center of it all, the one who tells the story, narrates the novel, creates the history. The one to whom it happened, as The Great Gatsby happened to Nick Carraway, as Moby Dick happened to Ishmael, as my life happened to me and yours to you.
Except, says the wise old saying, it didn’t. Not that way, not really. Ask someone else. Your mother if you can, your brother, your best friend from first grade. It never happened at all, or if it did, if some vestige of your witnessing falls on receptive ears, then maybe it did happen, but not in the way you remember. It was winter, not summer, the ground was covered with frost, not the petals of pear blossoms, and no one ever said what you thought they said, or what you reconstructed them as saying out of your wish to make a story where there is none, to wrest meaning from the cold dry ground because such memories convince you of your own importance or relevance. You were there, you SAW it.
But maybe it was only that someone described it for you and you appropriated it, and later told someone you’d been there, at that play, at the time. And then you told other people the same thing, and you could see yourself there, wearing that green silk (your favorite at the time), and now you begin to have a clearer view, you can remember what you thought of the play, where you went afterwards. . . and soon the incident has become fact, something no one could have told you about because the details you remember are so clear that you had to have been there, you had to have experienced the play, the silk against your skin, the first shocking sip of an old malt whiskey, the bartender’s bald head and your companion’s knowing smile when you asked for another. No one could make that up.
But they did. It’s all made up. The truths about me are little stories, anecdotes, incidents, verses, memorized lines I’ve collected over a lifetime to describe myself to others and myself. These are the memories, the scraps, the bits of clothing for the emperor who is trying to convince the people that he is fully dressed. We start the process as children, when we really don’t know who we are (and don’t bother to think about it), but are improvising all the while, trying out this and that, putting ourselves in fairy stories, in the pictures we attempt to draw, in everything we encounter because becoming human is the process of acquiring an identity. “Once upon a time. . . ” there lived a little girl with my name and my thick braids who did all sorts of things, who became transformed into different people or animals, a fluid entity who could walk into paintings or sail like Thumbelina across the air on the back of a bird. So it began.
I became my version of myself, and since then have been adding new versions, altering, refining, elaborating, editing version after version throughout my life and still now, still changing daily in some regard, making full use of language to clothe me in costumes to give me courage or make me beautiful or invisible.
But I could never – and neither can you – control the other versions, the tens of hundreds of versions created by others, versions of myself in relation to them or to someone else or simply their impressions, hastily drawn but fervently believed until I cease being what or who they believed I was at the time when they believed it.
Pirandello played with some of these concepts, Six Characters in Search of an Author; Virginia Wolf’s characters lived on the current of their consciousness, drifting off the page or into each other; the flowing river of time is ancient, repeated in every generation, the river of Heraclitus in which we cannot step a second time, the inevitability of change, mutability, transformation, desiccation, time and the bell, time and the river, time itself, so fragile a concept that a moment’s reflection changes it, and we can’t tell the passing minute from the passing hour, nor separate the living from the dead when they crowd our dreams.
I lie with passion and confidence, in the belief that my memory holds, that the people I cared about and loved existed in the way that I remember, down to the Yardley’s lavender sprinkled on my father’s white handkerchief that rose up like a small Alpine peak from his left breast pocket. I will forever remember my friend Connie, in Austin, sitting at her short wave radio early in the morning, listening to the BBC news with a can of beer in her hand – and then later, in Graceland with my son and two close friends, discovering with joy the t-shirt that said: Beer – It’s not just for Breakfast Anymore.
These incidents multiply, join, reflect from one to the other. Many people appear and for the moment I see them they are alive and we are the people we were then, or at least as seen by me, as seen by the I who was carried along the river of her life, noticing some things and oblivious to others, elaborating or simplifying, mixing up when what happened, but holding the memory (my own!) tight and complete, memories that expand into slides or action, others like snow domes, holding forever a scene that may have been influenced by what I read as much as by what I saw, but so real to me that I can smell the flowers of the Alpine meadow, the little brown chocolate flowers growing above the town of Lech in the Vorarlberg; or the vertigo that seized me at dinner in Mexico when I was 18 and I felt it was the Aztec gods, not the thin air of the high altitude, that played with my mind and brought me strange ancient shapes.
So much has happened, so much remembered and far more forgotten. But what we hold on to, however we shape it, is the person we are, or at least the person we think we are and in either case, a quite different person from any other who ever lived.