The Material of Memory

One of my favorite Mad Men episodes was the one in which Don pitches “the Carousel,” a slide projector, for Kodak. The context is this:  he has been living a kind of double life (triple life?) that has made the destruction of his family inevitable, and at the same time he is trying to sell the idea of family in his ad pitch. He tells them that nostalgia means “the pain of an old wound” (this is actually not true. It means “the pain of return home”) and shows slides of his own family: his wedding, his wife’s pregnancies, his children. Here he is as a young father, playing with his children, kissing his wife. It’s hard to know, watching it, if he’s connecting to it, or if it’s just another pitch. You want to believe him, though in a much later episode a character tells him, “you’re not deep—you’re just handsome” and it’s hard not to feel tricked somehow. Which one is the truth?—Don as the family man or the damaged, self-centered pitch man philanderer? They can’t both be true.

But this post is not so much about Don Draper as it is about how what you want to believe shapes what you remember. And about how material things–places, objects, images–create or inspire this want. I’m not talking about outright delusion (as in another Donald, getting surveilled through microwaves) but how, for instance, Don Draper can long to return to the happiness of being surrounded by his young family because the images in the slides show that they are happy, and these images, viewed together with a background of poignant piano music, are persuasive. They tell a story that it’s impossible not to want to inject yourself right into.

I am thinking about this now for a few reasons—in general, a chapter in a book by Jeff Malpas (“Philosophy’s Nostalgia” from Heidegger and the Thinking of Place: Explorations in the Topology of Being, MIT Press, 2012) and various reading I’ve done for my memoir theory course (including Andre Aciman’s False Papers) and, more specifically, the recent death of my best friend, and the process of putting together what I want to say at her memorial service.

I visited Elizabeth two weeks before her death, and because she could no longer speak easily or hold a book or tablet, I read to her, and the book I brought was Emma Cline’s the Girls, which is a fictionalized account of the Manson girls. At one point, the narrator gives us her take on nostalgia:  “I had seen old Yardley Slickers- the makeup now just a waxy crumble- sell for almost one hundred dollars on the internet. So grown women could smell it again, that chemical, flowery fug. That’s how badly people wanted it- to know that their lives had happened, that the person they once had been, still existed inside of them.”

After I heard about Elizabeth’s death, I went on what I can only call a “memory grab,” a flurry of recovering photographs, letters, books, objects, just any things that she gave me or that had an association with her. The words, “where is my movie monster bracelet?” crossed my lips as I sought out items I knew my daughter had played with.

I thought then about the role of nostalgia in Elizabeth’s own work, particularly her recurring references to being a child insomniac, and the forbidden ABC movies of the week that influenced her love of horror movies, of the 1970s, her writing. To consider all of this to be silly, futile longings for an unrecoverable past would be a mistake, I think.

Malpas, like Aciman, is interested in recovering the idea of nostalgia from its trivial connotations. So much of writing about nostalgia and memory focuses on time, but not on place, and it is place that interests both Malpas and Aciman (albeit for different reasons, which I don’t have time to go into here.) To Malpas, the “return home” part of the translation of the word is the most important, a return to place rather than time. It is a way to “re-emplace” oneself in the world, to use Aciman’s term. In contrast, Sven Birkerts, author of The Art of Time in Memoir, emphasizes time over place, and I appreciate Malpas and Aciman’s redirection.

I close with a quote from Aciman, on Proust:

            The story is largely one of Marcel’s recovery of himself through a process

            of writing and remembrance that is also a recovery of the world, and

            that is accomplished through a recovery of the reality of experience

            in its embeddedness in the dense materiality of things—a materiality

            which is itself a constant happening or presencing.

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