Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Space, Imagination, Memory, Mortality: Charles Simic in NYRB

Charles Simic rarely disappoints me. And I'm not talking about his poetry necessarily but the pieces he writes for the NYRB. Yes, he veers dangerously close to old man nostalgia at times but more often he presents a provocative starting point and then attempts to create a universal experience from a series of personal details.

In this piece, for example, he considers how memory and physical space are tied together, most specifically, how certain buildings in New York are associated with memories from his past: scenes from his early marriage or a disastrous first date. In the end, the piece is about Aristotle's pronouncement that memory is nothing objective or static but resides in the same place as imagination does. But I take it one step beyond perhaps.

I've never lived in a city long enough to have long-standing associations with buildings. When I return to the place where I grew up, too much time has passed and space doesn't have the emotional resonance since there is absolutely no connection to my life today. The two cities I know better than any others - Montreal and Shanghai - represent different times in my life, but one is a living breathing city for me (Montreal) since I live here and experience its changes on a daily basis, while the other (Shanghai) is frozen in my memory. Though I've been back there several times since leaving, I always end up comparing what I see with what I remember.

A familiar corner: I lived right behind this building for years. 
This all leads me to a particular fascination of mine: how physical space and literature intersect. I love knowing that in this building here, a novel was set, that the author spent time thinking about this particular spot or front door or window sill. The Binerie on Mont-Royal where much of Le Matou is set. The Bagel shop on Fairmount where Mordecai Richler characters have stood. Mavis Gallant's Sherbrooke Street. Perhaps this is my way of creating memory in a city where I didn't spend my youth (I had the same tendency to connect space and literature in Shanghai and wrote for a magazine there on a similar topic).

Simic ends his piece with a tiny impression, the lack of any noise, as he considers a building in which he once lived. Fire seems to have been fated to destroy it. But, no, all these years later, there it stands, still reeking of his past though he sees no trace of himself there. This is a sign of our modern condition: for it is in Nature that we like to feel our mortality. In a forest, looking up at a mountain range in order to feel the sense that once we are gone we will be completely forgotten. (For some this is a terrifying feeling; for some, it's oddly comforting). Yet for modern urbanites like Charles Simic, one can sense this same sensation by standing in the shadow of an old brick walkup with rusted out mailboxes and dilapidated fire escapes.

It's a much more humane route to revelling in our mortality and one that doesn't feel as bleak and lonely as considering the same idea in nature, away from the masses of people where we so rarely find ourselves these days. 

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