I’ve been thinking about joy, memory, and the memory of joy after reading essays by Zadie Smith and Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books. In “Joy,” Zadie Smith talks about pleasure, and then joy — from a child, from love, from being on drugs. She has known joy six times:
Three of those times I was in love, but only once was the love viable, or likely to bring me any pleasure in the long run. Twice I was on drugs — of quite different kinds. Once I was in water, once on a train, once sitting on a high wall, once on a high hill, once in a nightclub, and once in a hospital bed. . . . The uncertain item is the nightclub, and because it was essentially a communal experience I feel I can open the question out to the floor. . . .Was that joy?
She addresses her fellow Britons in particular, “those fortunate enough to take the first generation of the amphetamine ecstasy.” I’m not part of this specific set, nor am I British, but within my own world, I’ve been exactly there, and have posed the same question again and again — in conversations with old friends; in my graduate manuscript set in the warehouse raves in Oakland in the mid-nineties; in my head whenever I recall such experiences, which occurs more often than you’d think.
It was once painful to unearth these memories, of me and my friends exploring and experimenting. Not because I didn’t enjoy these years. Quite the opposite, in fact. They are warm and pleasurable, but fuzzy; they live in the most inner, intimate parts of me and yet do not belong to me at all. These experiences are special in one way, and tainted in another. In the beginning, when I tried to write about them, they ate away at me. There is joy here, dammit, but I could not explain this, at least on my own. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages about these pleasurable and surreal and magical nights, yet probing through my lens alone never satisfied me. It has taken me some time to realize these memories — memories of us in a timeless dark, dancing together — are shared.
In times when I question the authenticity of this joy, when I suspect blacklights and smoke machines simply masked a harsh and ugly reality, I realize others remember this same darkness. They remember what I remember, but also things I don’t. They recall the same sensations and peculiarities that have been hard for me to describe, but at least I know I’m not alone in experiencing them. Sometimes, even now, we piece bits of these moments together — not in a way in which we’re actively trying to reconstruct a memory, but casually, in passing. We do this mostly to laugh and remember “old times.” But I think, as we get older and sense that memory is deceiving and strange, we also do this to remind ourselves it did happen. That despite the disconnect that time creates, and any negative residue collected within ourselves, there was joy.
But on that dance floor I was joy, or some small piece of joy, with all these other hundreds of people who were also a part of joy.
* * *
Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.
A few days after reading Smith’s lovely piece, I came upon Oliver Sacks’ “Speak, Memory.” I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’ writing on the brain and music and memory — much of the stuff he says freaks me out or blows me away, and yet calms me in the oddest way; he piques my curiosity while numbing me into thinking I could never know the depths of me.
“It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else,” he writes. I’m sure I have memories of childhood incidents that may not have happened — or perhaps did not happen as my brother or one of my many cousins remember them. I think back to the time when my extended family went camping, and I played with sand toys on the beach, watching two of my cousins panic in the lake, their arms flailing, their heads popping in and out of the water. I’m not sure how long I watched them until I saw my aunt run across the beach, screaming, “Oh my god, they’re drowning!” and jumping in the water to grab them.
But I think long and hard: Were their arms flailing? Were they both struggling, or just one of them? And if it was just one of them, which one?
I have many memories like this — from childhood incidents to nights of being under the influence — that I’ve reshaped as I’ve gotten older, not because I lie to myself or don’t respect what really happened, but because it seems natural to do so. And because, well, these memories also belong to others, and I prefer that we reconstruct them together.
Where were we?
Who was there?
Did it really sound like that?
There are always questions, often about moments friends and I have talked about before. Sometimes there are no definite answers. And yet, this shared uncertainty is comforting.
* * *
In his recent post called “From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance,” Michael describes Facebook as a massive archive of externalized memories, preserved as status messages and photo albums, and how digital photography and social media have brought us to an age of memory abundance. For example, long-lost classmates are no longer found because they’ve always been there. Now, since every moment of our day can be recorded, are there less questions now?
It’s interesting to live in a time when the act of remembering has become so public and social. Memories today are shared, certainly. But things feel different. Will we reminisce in the same way about an incident in our past that was live tweeted, or shared on Facebook, or Instagrammed?
And so I love what Michael says:
Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me one terabyte of images and films and I will care not at all.
I’m reminded of my own process of remembering, of writing. Of reaching down into my gut to access my most slippery memories — the faceless and complex ones, and as time passes, the ones that remain the most dear to me.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.