The Sea

[Andrew Wyeth: Wind From the Sea]

A little bit more on the sea, as it has been beckoning me of late. I wrote this little, unstructured piece after reading John Banville's The Sea. Since writing it, I have had cause to notice the same idea in various other places, the class discussion of Whitehead's concept of personality seemed to converge upon thinking of it as some sort of accumulation which isn't always accurately retrieved from the vaults of memory. He also speaks of the sort of objectifying that one does at any moment of consciousness which would certainly support the idea of memory as being a limited, stylized capture of the actual, minutely detailed moment of experience.

In addition to Whitehead, I have also been reading some of the short stories by AS Byatt; she frequently describes a point of view from someone nearing the end of their life, locked in memory. I think that this sort of bondage in memory is the result of a lifetime of accumulated and inherited experience. If we follow a Whiteheadian model of novel thought, the more inherited data, the less simple it is to introduce some entirely new thought. Novelty must work in empty spaces and if the crevices of your brain are so well-stocked with remembered life, there won't be much room for novelty to dart in and bring new thoughts to light.

Finally, Paul Auster's stories "City of Glass" and "Ghosts" have both also recalled the idea of personality and memory to my own mind. He asks a very important question about how much our own self is dependent upon the stability of our environment. He asks what might happen to the self which is displaced and then required to immerse itself in the study of a completely other self. In these two stories, something like this crisis occurs, and its sufferers don't seem to recover to any previous stability. There is, of course, still the question of which is preferable: to live rock-solid in a comfortable custom-ridden self without much new experience, or to risk the introduction of novel experience and thought, which may well disrupt so much that a "normal" way of life is never again possible.

Anyway, this is what I wrote a few weeks ago in my reading journal:

And there it is again, the sea, rising always in our imagination, finding great weight of meaning in our minds. Our memories must remind us, their actions, of the sea--little lapping waves, always pulling at us, pulling at the grains of sand so precariously organized under the soles of our feet. We stand on dry land until the wave comes (when is it ever absent?) and the water of our memory soaks through our present, runs away in rivulets, returns, soaks again, each moment of return rearranging the present and sinking our feet a little further into the sand of our present. We sink and sink, squishing our toes into the mucky stuff. The sea remains, we remain, we change but we remain. Perhaps it isn't one thing changing, perhaps we too are waves lapping in synchronicity with the other, more obvious waves. We are there in that present, in that inevitable, all-contained, moment--and then elsewhere, down with our feet in the liquid sand, behind with the gull squawking its way into our revery, out with the great sea producing again, again, again the waves at our feet.

The memories threaten to loom large, to take over, but it is an empty threat, for the present is inescapable, just as the past is irrevocable.

We constantly move along in the present, a "certain" fiction. For where is it when we try to stop time and capture it, pinning it down to try and analyze or understand. But no one can understand the reality of something which isn't. The present seems most of all like an emptiness, a container or vessel, a threshold to something else, something larger, something anticipated...and rising from something else, something definite, established, fact. And if this moment right here right now is so inescapable, how do I live it to its fullest? What is the method for filling the container of the present? Equal parts inherited past and anticipated future? How can I be sure that they will mix well? Not produce a catastrophic explosion? Or is it enough to copy Lucretius, to just glide through , never noticing the bounds of the container which is the present?

Perhaps it is enough to be aware: to realize that there is freedom as well as constraint, that the canvas I'm dealing with has been set on its easel, that I have been given my tools and my paints, but no matter how well prepared I have been, there's no force compelling my momentary image. I paint freely, I live freely, but I can do both responsibly. Can't I? I can live fully, only if I remember that my water-tight capsule of this moment is not so water-tight after all...the past seeps in and the future has swept it along.