The Space and Shape of Memory: How We Fix Memory in Things To Make It Real

“Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”
Gaston Bachelard

If you were to localize memory, where would it be? Is memory something we enter? Carry? Is it something we can escape? Hold?

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska imagines memory as a place, a theatre, a show—something she can ‘leave and reenter:”1

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, and then leave again.

From Wislawa Szymborska’s “Hard Life with Memory”

The Space and Shape of Memory
“Introspection II” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The beloved film critic Roger Ebert also saw memory as a performance, but unlike Szymborska, it was one he was eager to watch. The film of his life played to the older Ebert, when he was writing his memoirs, having had sections of his jawline removed due to cancer, leaving him unable to speak.

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman’s “Persona” after the film breaks and begins again.

From Roger Ebert’s Life Itself

Is your memory something you watch? Is it a space you enter? Is it something you experience, or something you hold? Can you set it down? How do you pick it up again?

Through objects or things we make precious through caring, or in a room that reminds you of your past?

The Shape and Space of Memory
“Palisade” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Poet Rilke once wrote that he needed to write in the “Feeling of home.” Emotion plus memory equalled idea. It meant something useful. Rilke imagined home and, thus, felt home.

So much of memory is encapsulated by our concept of home. Not only because our formative time is spent there, but also because there is something about a home. It keeps things safe. Our homes contain so many of our memories that, at times, we fail to see a home as it is now. We return and become alienated by its reality.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard considered the house one of the primary locals of memory, he refers to this localization of psychoanalysis, this “topoanalysis” as

The systematic psychological study of sites in our intimate lives. In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles. At times we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability—a being who does not want to melt away, [a being who ] wants time to ‘suspend’ its flight.

From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space

“Theater.” There’s that word again. The same one Szymborska used.

Interesting how often we use similar metaphors to describe such personal things. Then again, that is why metaphors exist. To instantly express and connect impossibly personal experiences.
Memories, whatever they are, however they are, they affect us. I want to say they affect our metaphysical movement. Penelope Lively, in her fiercely vulnerable and honest study of memory, calls it a ballast. Something that rights us, buoys us, keeps us steady, and prevents us from sinking. And, as Bachelard believed, keeps us from falling into what Vladimir Nabokov called the “infinite darkness” that stretches out from the finiteness of our life.

Nabokov wrote much of memory, thought much of memory. His most famous novel, Lolita, might be considered a rumination about the (futile) idolization of youth.

Memory, for Nabokov, was the means of travelling through a sphere that contained his existence. A sphere bounded by the walls of time, a sphere inescapable until death.

The Space and Shape of Memory
“Occulus” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Memory is a motor of movement and an engine of accessibility. Without memory, we’d remain in what Lively called “the hideous eternal present.”

In his reflective writing on life and history, Nabokov exists in memory, walks around it, stretches it out. Uniquely among memoirs, the man writing the book almost ceases to exist, and we simply accompany the young Nabokov through life.

Now she has entered her room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural, brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan.

From Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory

Of course, what Nabokov is saying is memory doesn’t just allow us to travel through our existence; it is what gives us existence itself. Memory is consciousness.

When this all gets a bit too metaphysical, I reorient my thinking to the concrete, the real, the present, the now. I return to my senses. Literally.2

My choice of media to accompany this piece is a selection from the work of Irish ceramist Isobel Egan. Egan works in porcelain because “it has its own memory.” Her work deals with fragility, memory and personal space that we create around ourselves.

It is my belief that memory must be protected as it is such an important thing in our lives, and in a sense many of us have to draw on our memories for the rest our lives. Subconsciously, I try to store memories, to keep them safe forever so that I can call on them when needed. I have always a fear of forgetting memories, or that my memories will become distorted.

Egan’s pieces are paralleled avenues, boxes with openings, opaque walls, corners, even sky. I self-delineate in her pieces. I unpack my mind and spread out. I walk around, place things in boxes, move on, select channels. Memory is something to enter, it is something to hold, and, mostly, it is something to hang on the wall and turn one’s back to.

Bachelard, a dynamic inspiration to Egan’s work, believed that the more fixed our memories were in space or objects, the more real they became.

By discussing the “space and shape” of memory, I am of course being biased towards sight. Sight is our primary sense. I am highly visual. In fact, something must be visible to me to exist.

A friend of mine can’t picture anything in his mind. He hears memory, hears his thoughts. Memory to him is Ebert’s film without picture. Nabokov’s voice reading aloud. How does that change where he places the past? I must ask him.

The Space and Shape of Memory
Cityscape by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Rory Moore.

Poet David Whyte places memory outside all the senses and imagines it as “untouchable” and something that passes through us, something like a wave “constantly maturing, increasingly virtuosic, often volatile, sometimes overpowering. Every human life holds the power of this immense inherited pulse, holds and then supercharges it[.]”

Like Nabokov, Whyte also believed “a full inhabitation of memory makes human beings conscious.” But this post is about space and shape, attributes of sight (although I am convinced I need to expand this further in the future).

My favorite visual capture of memory comes from German critic Walter Benjamin, who gave memory its due in both shape and space: his vast collection of books.

Benjamin wrote that a collection is “something bordering on the chaos of memory.” A collection of books is a collection of memory, it is also, quite literally, a library. A space we enter and exist in. It’s a beautiful metaphor.3

Benjamin was foremost a Jewish German critic and writer who was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Fortunately, Benjamin was out of Paris and crossing the Spanish border at the time, but an administrative hang-up detained him one additional night in France, and with his poor health coupled with the fact that the Nazis had closed in on his Paris apartment—all his manuscripts, books, and notes—Benjamin killed himself.

I write a lot about our connection to objects because I believe it is a form of communication, memory, witness, even existence. If memory is our consciousness and anchored in things, what happens when those things are destroyed?4

I’ll let Benjamin have the last word:

Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

From Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations