A few years ago, after consoling a friend over the death of her husband, Salvador Dali began to haunt me.
Having expressed surprise over the recent illness and passing, I exclaimed: “I didn’t realize he’d been so sick; why, I just saw him a few months ago!”
Actually, I hadn’t. Make that well over a year. And spoken to him? About two or three.
Dali, in his signature 1931 painting “The Persistence of Memory,” depicts a surreal desert landscape littered with strange objects and melting pocket watches. In it, he seems to suggest an insolent quality of time, one that shows no regard for our failings and weaknesses.
Setting aside clinical memory loss or savant-like memory achievement, the manner in which we recall people, places, and things remains perplexing.
Experience plays a vital role in this, since recollections are connected to what stage of life we’re in. This affects how far removed the subject might be from our current sense of self.
For example, a college student probably recalls the fun from his high school prom more vividly than a retiree. Yet the older man might better appreciate – or exaggerate – the lifelong fallout of not asking the girl of his dreams.
Given this, several factors seem to distort time.
One is the object of our remembrance: How impressive is the past event? Another is our emotional involvement at the time of origin. In Dali’s terms, a banal episode wouldn’t melt many watches.
Yet when a situation stirs us, the human mind, armed with imagination, can warp memory. Often, we create entire mythologies of the past to the extent that, with no malice intended, reality escapes us.
Such fables aren’t always born in old age, and not all daydreams are harmless.
A former acquaintance of mine used to mention his late older brother, who had been killed in Vietnam. A few decades later, I learned such a person never existed.
Apparently, as a child my friend knew a family whose son had died in a car accident. He had wanted an older brother so badly he proceeded to adopt one: his dead neighbor.
Over the years he added elaborate aspects to the tale, such as the war twist. By the time he was an adult the true memory vanished; his imagination had composed personal history with a wishful storyline.
It took family intervention and intense therapy to erase it. Then he experienced a mourning period to concede the absence of the sibling he so craved.
This type of engagement begs for interpretation, both from the arts and sciences. As such, time, its passage, and our perception of events therein have preoccupied the human thirst for knowledge and enlightenment.
Aristotle, for one, wrote extensively on recollection. He acknowledged the power of remembrance on dreams and the mind, and tied it to the natural world. Its absence, he mused, was something akin to an event with no bystander to take it all in.
More recently, British novelist Julian Barnes also tackled the subject in his 2011 Booker Prize-winning work, “The Sense of an Ending.” His protagonist recounts a first-person narrative from youth to retirement, but then upsets the memory cart at story’s end.
Readers must turn back to earlier chapters to see if their own recall failed them, or if Barnes had woven an under layer of reality before their unsuspecting eyes.
I felt the same after rendering condolences to my friend, when realizing how much time had passed since I’d seen and spoken to her husband.
And Dali didn’t make it any easier: I was wracked with guilt it had been so long, troubled I didn’t remember until too late, and sad I wouldn’t get another chance.
Maybe I should’ve just sent a sympathy card to keep the myth intact. Sort of like glancing at my wrist watch, only to find it melting.