Time is an arrow. It points forward, not back. To paraphrase Borges, certain metaphors are so evidently true they are no longer metaphors. “Life is a river,” for instance. If the arrow of time pointed backwards it would be aimed at the archer’s heart, a form of suicide. Memory itself is a form of slow suicide. Memoirs are neither cathartic nor instructive, they are the literary compositions of writers committing suicide. There is a brain activity, where so-called “memory packets” are employed by the body to eliminate itself. I don’t doubt that historians are necessary, but they are a self-sacrificing sort who give their lives over to the archive. Martyrs! The past tense of the pronoun “I” is a floating device, like a cork, used by the nimble among us to construct an amuse-bouche. The same past-tense “I,” non-floating and serious, is a variety of extortion. It should draw legal censure. “This guy is using his mother to make me cry.” He’s also using his mother to kill himself with guilt like Eartha Kit with song. Who or what is the arrow of time aimed at? Time to ask the brain again: it is aimed at what it doesn’t know, and it wants to hit it dead-center. What the speed of light means, to paraphrase Einstein (we love paraphrase, it’s the lazy way to quote) is that if you traveled at that speed you would be able to see your own ass. Your own ass shrunken by memory, that is. My favorite fairy tale is about a young man who sets out to be immortal and young forever, provided he doesn’t go to the Valley of Remembrance. He does, of course, and dies. There is nothing wrong with dying, painlessly one hopes, but curiosity, like the arrow, should aim at the unknown. Otherwise the cat is dead as a doorknob, another non-metaphor.
This little speech is intended to exhibit the uselessness of the memoir as a form of therapy, and the superiority of poetry as a stab in the dark. If you know it already, it’s mean to yourself and others to repeat it in writing. On the other hand, ignorance is worse than education, which is remembering with bullet points. History exists and it should be reviewed, but artists should be against it. In fact, we are against it, but the current rage for pouring it into literary moulds kills whatever it purports to remember. This is and will always be the “uncanny valley,” to quote (this time) the great Lawrence Wechsler, between a mass-market commodity and art. Remembrance will never trump discovery. The last time I was happy, to paraphrase from David Grossman’s great new novel, “A Horse Walks into a Bar” is when I still had my foreskin. At that time, I had no idea what time was. Then I saw the archer. I was the target. Turn it the other way, please. My first phrase in English was "Why don't you kill yourself?" I was 19 years-old, but I'd had the urge to ask the question since I was wordless in Romanian.
This blog post also appears at Best American Poetry Blog