Alone in the Past: The Memory Curse

A Common Bond Between Three Different Eras

“I can remember everything. That’s my curse, young man. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.”

This quote is the subtle yet prophetic sentence that resonated with me most in Citizen Kane, said both so powerfully and nonchalantly. It pushed a domino of similar themes and thoughts ruminating in my mind found paralleled (after recently reading) in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and the film Ruby Sparks (directed by Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris). These floating ideas centered on memory, and they tackle more of its intricacies, examining how three protagonists suffer from this alleged “curse,” this often-lovesick stasis in time, a nostalgia that cripples and weakens.

We have so much room to think in our heads that sometimes our developed minds become more of a burden than a blessing. But when we do the most thinking, best or worst, usually comes in private, when we are alone. Just imagine a writer trying to compose a philosophy paper in the middle of a house party, or for a less extreme example, imagine reading a poem and reflecting on it with the TV projecting noise. When other thoughts are filtering through different mediums, our imaginative juices become stifled, our thoughts have a tough time getting through. But when we are alone, with time to reflect, time to think without external influences, we develop heightened thoughts, fixations.

The character Charles Foster Kane provides us a first glimpse of this. The opening shot of the film begins with a slow, upward camera tilt foregrounding the gothic looking fence surrounding Xanadu, his private island. He wallows in bed, alone in his mansion, continuously reciting “Rosebud,” with the grandiose walls built from his edifying capitalist creation ironically unable to echo the repeated name. After his second wife leaves him, Mr. Kane inhabits his fortress alone, unnecessarily large and vainglorious. For such a big man, how small he feels. He is in a prison, which is deemed by Richard Jenkins in the new movie “Liberal Arts” as any place from which you can’t escape. In this case, it’s Kane’s past, and Xanadu acts as his physical penitentiary.

“Rosebud…Rosebud,” only now does he pontificate its clutching hold on his life. For the first time, he is alone. No one can hear his demands, subserviently enlarge his hubris, love him. All he has left are his memories, and for the first time they creep over exponentially into his reality. With only yourself to please, why live in reality when you have memory?

This presumably is also what motivates Jay Gatsby to wake up every morning. Living off his relationship with Daisy from five years back, he banks on bridging a gap that included Daisy getting married. Gatsby went to war and had to leave her, but their relationship nestles in his head, as it does when he inhabits West Egg, NY, across the lake from Daisy’s new home. He too has a large manor, a party house filled lavishly every weekend by guests who balance out the rest of the week’s empty rooms and silent halls. This is Gatsby’s way of coping with this still fervent dream of reconnecting with his former love. He is, as U2 melodically tells us, stuck in a moment and he can’t get out of it. How eloquently Fitzgerald details these feelings, his prose illuminating the depth of Gatsby’s obsession. Nick Carroway narrates, near the end, Gatsby’s interminable desire, one already out of his reach.

“And as I sat there, brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Alone, with only his fondest memory. But time didn’t stop when war called. People moved on with their lives. Helen Hunt had to choose someone else while Tom Hanks bobbed back and forth on his raft. Away from society, Gatsby’s return includes the false presumption that things can pick up where they are left. Memory tricks us in that way, it makes things feel closer or farther away, gives heightened emotions to moderate things because it isn’t etched in stone. We can change our memory, provide it hope and convince ourselves things were better back then, creating some fantastical ideal, a memory we want, not the one we actually have.

In Ruby Sparks, we find a character who manifests his memory with the vision of a girl. It’s not surprising then that “The Ivory Tower” also becomes a point of reflection in the film, as we find our main character Calvin (Paul Dano) living in his solitary apartment with his little dog, coincidentally named Scotty (for F. Scott Fitzgerald). His confines are a symbol of the wealth he received with his megahit first book, and he is deemed a wunderkind in many literary eyes. His biggest struggle however is compromising his ego and breaking through his severe writer’s block. He still anachronistically punches his typewriter keys instead of making the digital switch, a possible attempt to keep a physical connection between paper and thoughts. Or maybe, as a book store owner in “Liberal Arts” claims (I liked this movie), because books help gain more appreciation of trees and the paper-making process.

Regardless, he struggles, until he makes a breakthrough with his shrink. He begins to write the character Ruby, a girl he loves, one that embodies the characteristics and attributes of his “dream girl.” She is just like him, confident, quirky, goal-oriented, and in a Stranger than Fiction sort of way, also completely real! Living, breathing, talking, Ruby is perfect and she’s all Calvin’s. But she never changes. You see, once she appears to Calvin out of thin air, he stops writing about her, stops writing his novel that has finally pushed him past his blank misery. He has become fixated on a certain person. But this can only last so long.

We usually love someone because they change, because they’re different from us and don’t always do things according to our plans. How boring life would be if everyone were the same as us, an idea viciously articulated by Calvin’s ex-girlfriend at a house party.  Though both may have been in the wrong, she accuses him of having wanted to be in a relationship with himself, not her.  It reminds me of Leland, Charles Foster Kane’s right hand man, finally confronting Kane about his egomaniacal mindset.

“You don’t care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love ’em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.”

Though hurtful, its criticality and truth is necessary to cut the charade, necessary to change the way we think. Calvin slowly realizes he must finish his book from this newly implanted idea and that Ruby must ultimately disappear because she’s not real. She’s not real in the sense that he’s not living a real life with her; he controls her, knows that she is just a figment of his imagination, himself in idyllic girl form. How do you move on? How do you let go of the past? You must accept being sad, accept suffering, because that’s what life is.

I don’t mean to be bleak, but here is a snippet of a Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers interview, in which they talk about myths and how we perceive the world, articulated less bluntly.

CAMPBELL:“All life is sorrowful” is the first Buddhist saying, and so it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow — loss, loss, loss. You’ve got to say yes to life and see it as magnificent this way; for this is surely the way God intended it.

MOYERS: Do you really believe that?

CAMPBELL: It is joyful just as it is. I don’t believe there was anybody who intended it, but this is the way it is. James Joyce has a memorable line: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is of all creation. The ends of things are always painful. But pain is part of there being a world at all.

It’s tough to accept that, but living is the hard part, it’s the whole essence of being. What Campbell says is that we are looking for the wrong thing, namely, the meaning of life. Instead, the meaning is all in the living, the being. Maybe it’s coincidental then that I bring up Little Miss Sunshine, also from the Ruby Sparks team. Below, this is my favorite scene, my favorite conversation of the movie in which Steve Carell’s character, Frank, attempts to explain to Dano’s character, Dwayne, how suffering is life-building, and is dark for a reason.

Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap- high school and everything-just skip it.

Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?

Dwayne: He’s the guy you teach.

Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh… he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you’re 18… Ah, think of the suffering you’re gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don’t get better suffering than that.

It’s always the common adage that you learn more from losing than winning, when all of life isn’t given to you on a silver plate. For the above three men, privileges pervade their lives, allowing them to dwindle into the past without ever moving forward. When there is no reason to wake up, no daily routine, it is easy to fall victim to the past, and believe it can be repeated. Fitzgerald synthesizes this in the voice of Nick Carroway.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I recently watched Swingers and found this theme again, this time manifest in Jon Favreau’s character Mike, a man with an arresting nostalgia for his broken relationship, now six months old. She was his college sweetheart, six years spent together, and now, living in Los Angeles, he attempts to shed his depressed persona. It is a struggle, alleviated intermittently by “swinging” friend Trent (Vince Vaughn). Halfway through the film, we believe Mike has made a breakthrough but we find him one afternoon blinds closed, sitting on the floor, harboring more gloom. What elevates this film to brilliance is this seminal scene, a conversation between Mike and a friend, who attempts to splash him awake with a paradigmatic shift in thinking.

Rob: She won’t call because you left. She’s got her own life to deal with, man, and that’s in New York… alright? And she’s a sweet girl, and I love her to pieces, but fuck her, man. You gotta get on with your life. You gotta let go of the past. And Mikey, when you do, I’m telling you: the future is beautiful, alright? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like manifest destiny. Don’t tell me we didn’t make it. We made it! We are here. And everything that is past is prologued to this. All of the shit that didn’t kill us is only – you know, all that shit. You’re gonna get over it.

Mike: How did you get over it? I mean, how long did it take?

Rob: Sometimes it still hurts. You know how it is, man. It’s like, you wake up every day and it hurts a little bit less, and then you wake up one day and it doesn’t hurt at all. And the funny thing is, is that, this is kinda wierd, but it’s like, it’s like you almost miss that pain.

Mike: You miss the pain?

Rob: Yeah, for the same reason that you missed her… because you lived with it for so long.

Time heals and it makes you aware of how to move forward. I’ve always thought, even when it’s hard to accept, that every experience helps build you as a person. But it’s only what you do afterwards that validates it. Kane, Gatsby, Calvin, they didn’t restart themselves after what they thought was perfection had left them. How do you move on? You have to take your memories with you without letting them consume you. It’s something we all struggle with, but it’s a timeless human problem, evidenced in 1920s literature, a 1940s classical film, and contemporary pop culture.

So is memory a curse? It is if you make it. Or it can be a reminder that life is about living in it, good or bad. The future is beautiful, alright?

2 responses to “Alone in the Past: The Memory Curse

  1. Really good, man. Excellent synthesis of widespread sources– your firm grasp of formal essence and nuance and your interminable ability to draw from their experience continues to astound. Your writing’s getting better and better. You cut out a bunch of conjunctions, weaving agglutinative concepts in fluid stream, without all the punctuative staccato. In grammar and idea, your presentation was made smooth and consumable. Thanks for sharing! Miss you.

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