“It was not just to unburden myself that I told him those stories. Robustly he moved within my past, unknown to the figures there even as he upheld them.”
Refinements, Kirsten Callahan
The past lives only in memory and memorial; it is not static—as though well-water drawn—but is warped by the remembering and the present: changed, refined, salvaged, and (perhaps) redeemed. I have struggled with past, with history, and met it in many faces, treated it with many words and ways. It has become one of the most common themes in my thought and writing; if there be solutions to its problems, I have not found them. Still, I wrestle.
In December of 1990, I was born to Mary and Dave Bonner. In 2005, Dave Bonner died: cancer. My memories are not him, but they are of him; I wonder whether I love him or them. He was a good father and a poor dad, human in too many ways. I remember once being thrown against a wall by his strong hands (my body was frail, pale, and bony; I flailed, but my strength was naught). He was angry, but he was angry at the wrong child. My little brother had shoved me off of a bunk bed, and we had been shouting: I do not know if the crime or the crying had aroused my father’s wrath, but I received the blame. In my memory, it does not hurt, but it frightens always; I was wounded most by the wrongness of it all, for I was innocent. I remember all this vividly, and yet I have no anger toward my father, maugre his misdeeds. This moment in memory (to my grief the most vivid remembrance I have of him) has entwined itself to so many others and to myself as I now am, and that moment (in fact or in memory only, I am unsure) has been salvaged by the cohesion of my dad as I know him. And I know him better and better as I age, and the memories for good or ill become inextricably complected with the whole of him. His wrongs are not so great, methinks, but he does not stand judgment before me; in my memory, at least, he is redeemed.
So I am forced to wonder: is salvaging and salvation by the present enough for the past? Does now redeem then, or is it merely lost, left to be mulled over and meticulously mined for what bits of it we can cling to? In Kirsten Callahan’s novella, Refinements, the narrator broaches a parallel question: can a character be saved by symbols of which they are unconscious? The narrator’s belief seems to be that the symbolism alone is separate from the salvation. But if the remembering of one’s past can bestow upon it redemption, is that a redemption of the past itself or only the memory of that past? At a specific moment in history, Christ bore the sins of his children and wrecked them (by being wracked by them) upon a tree; the salvation thereby wrought pierces through every moment in time: my now, my then, and my not-yet. And, in that deed, His blood also backwards stretched and lifted the doom on those before Christ; it had to precisely because the symbolism in the sacrificial offerings of animals did not satisfy. (A tangent: redeem and doom seem meet etymological siblings, but it is sadly not so.) Does the analogy hold true, though? Can merely mortal remembrance pierce the past in a significant and objective way?1
I have wrestled with this theme in some of my recent writings (but even more in my inchoate or abandoned stories). In my original plan for a series of short stories, an old man dies blandly, not with a bang but a whimper, and several characters struggle with the apparent futility of it all: was the life he lived worth itself despite (or in light of) the feeble death that took him? In the very best of stories, it is a commonplace that the happy ending redeems the suffering that comes before. There is a fairy-tale in which a girl’s father severs her hands at the devil’s bidding, and she is left to wander through the wilderland alone; soon she marries a king but is then cast out and forced into hiding. Of course, years later all is made right and she lives in love and bliss with her husband: the eucatastrophe strikes and all manner of things are made well. The conclusions does not (and never should) erase or ignore the sorrow that leads to it, but it does alter it in ways I do not fully grasp. Because of the conclusion, the sorrow is given a purpose and significance that it would otherwise lack (I think of Ethan Frome and the nihilistic futility to which the entire story is abandoned by the exhausting cyclicism of the novel’s close). Though I fear to conclude another paragraph with echoing queries unanswerable, I, unsure, wonder if this trust is more than a hope, a belief; if events stretch beyond themselves and give meaning to the remembrance or the suffering.
A similar (perhaps identical) question arises in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (and for the same reasons in much Anglo-Saxon and Northern literature). In Middle-Earth, the ages of the world are long and much is lost to the dooms of time. Much passes beyond memory. The scraps of history and legend (mostly identical in Tolkien) occasionally persist in the various presents, and they often carry surprising power to manifest themselves (sometimes figuratively—stories recalled, brought to life; sometimes literally—what we would call magic). In one of the most fantastic works of criticism I have ever read, Tom Shippey spends much time discussing Tolkien’s philological predilections and his inferred belief that philology does (or, sadly, did) what no other science or course of study could: it resurrected history, otherwise forgotten. Literature—Art—is able to capture something essential and sustain it, making it effective and potent throughout time. In The Lord of the Rings, one of the more obvious examples of this attitude comes from The Two Towers (I believe) in which Frodo and Sam wonder whether there will be told stories of them and their quest (a parallel passage comes just after the ring is destroyed when Sam imagines folk telling the story of Nine-fingered Frodo). It would be misguided and whimsical to glean the idea that the artistic recollection of their quest (even if real, not merely imagined) somehow lessened the burden Frodo bore or slaked their thirst and suaged their wounds. And yet, it is not so far-fetched to see the artistic remembering (perhaps even re-creation) as a memorial that not only recalls but makes well as the Providence of God working to redeem all that is fallen. (Perhaps it can do this because the art and remembrance are Myth? Perhaps because they are true?) A more literal example of the intertwining of these several parts is in the Barrow-downs of the first volume where the memorials manifest themselves with evil and power in the present directly because of the past. [Alas, I fear my thoughts in this paragraph have come out muddled and shallow: I shall re-attempt this one day.]
In these things—my father, the fairy-tales, the stories—the remembrance reaches back to history and pulls it forward, at least offering some small redemption that can be found in the present. I do not know if it is the fact of the remembrance or something else dependent on the present. Even so, there is something there—a valuable thread worth hanging on to—but I have not yet kenned it, and I am not through trying.
1. It seems that the retroactive nature of salvation exists due to an arbitrary (in a technical sense; not caprice) act of God’s will by which the sins of the past are deemed paid for: indeed, this is perhaps simpler to grasp than the projection of Christ’s blood beyond that moment to its future. Is the salvaging of one’s own past the same sort of arbitrary act of will and thought? Or (since our and others’ sins in our pasts do not wait on us for their doom) is the guilt mitigated by time and we left free of the misguided attempts to punish those sins ourselves? Perhaps, as in stories, the whole (when considered as an artifactual whole) reveals itself as a work of Providence, and the momentary, visceral reactions fade before the cohesion of one’s history into something synergistic and transcendent.