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From Memory To History Essay, Research Paper

From Memory to History in the Invention of Solitude

Memory is the driving force behind every idea in Paul Auster s Invention of Solitude; so much so, in fact, that he calls the second half, The Book of Memory. There is no doubt that Auster was feeling lost in the barrage of endless reminiscence. The onset of this reflection began with the death of his father. It was then that Auster evinced the degradation of the memories he had. Like the wooden marionette, he felt the need to dive into the depths of the sea and save [his] father to become (79) a true son. The sea was his psyche, and Auster believed that the only possible way to excavate his father from his memory was to dig deeper and deeper into his inner mind through images as well as the act of writing. Auster may never have imagined his memories evolving into history, but inevitably they did.

In the beginning of The Invisible Man, Auster finds photos in his father s house and becomes engrossed with the prospect of deciphering his father through them. Auster writes: It seemed that they could tell me things I had never known before, reveal some previously hidden truth, and I studied each one intensely, absorbing the least detail. . . I wanted nothing to be lost (14). Indeed, at least one photo (the photo in which his grandfather is torn out) literally tells Auster much about his father. Auster later comments on the photo: A whole world seems to emerge from this portrait: a distinct time, a distinct place, an indestructible sense of the past (33).

However, the danger of theorizing on the past through mere tangible objects becomes a rude awakening for Auster. Deception is discovered in every photo he once described as the equivalent of holy relics. He soon concludes that objects, it seems, are no more than objects. I am used to them now. The photos were, in a sense, a facade. They only told what was seen, not what was experienced. In fact, the torn photo was not what led Auster to the truth, but rather chance was. So paradoxically, photos gave a sense of truth in its purest form, yet hid it at the same time.

Auster soon found that images in the mind, rather than literal images were most efficacious. It was the images in the mind that evoked the strongest emotions; the deepest and most profound sense of the past. They were the closest Auster could come to actually re-living the event. Literal images, on the other hand, only catered to one of the five senses. Even then, literal images were limited because of their previously mentioned deception.

Nonetheless, the real images were a vehicle into the past; they sparked on the surreal memories. The first instance in which Auster truly understood that his father was dead, was when he gave away the ties(13). What may seem insignificant on the surface was what fueled the fire in Auster s mind. It wasn t the objects themselves that touched Auster, but rather the emotions they evoked. The ties were symbols. Each time he saw them, they brought back a flood of memories that seemed so overwhelming he felt writing could do no justice to them. Auster describes this moment in The Invisible Man :

There must have been more than a hundred ties and many of them I remembered from my childhood: the patterns, the colors, the shapes that had been embedded in my earliest consciousness, as clearly as my father s face had been. . . More than seeing the coffin itself being lowered into the ground, the act of throwing away these ties seemed to embody for me the idea of burial (13).

Therefore, Auster concluded that images were synonymous with places– particularly, places in the past. This is directly stated in The Book of Memory where Auster paraphrases the words of Proust saying, The past. . . is hidden in some material object. To wander about in the world, then, is also to wander about in ourselves (166). Whether they were photos, ties, or newspaper clippings, these objects were a window into the past. They were a surrogate time machine in a world in which people were so preoccupied with the present and future, that the past slowly crumbled away like the ruins of Babylon.

For Auster, regaining these memories was easy. All one had to do was isolate an object; a catalyst in which to travel through the mind. But permanently recording these memories was the hard part, because the pen [was never able] to move fast enough to write down every word discovered in the space of memory (138). Auster likens this historical cataloguing of the past to an immense Babel inside him. There is text, and it translates itself into an infinite number of languages (136). It was the power of memory that first incited Auster to dig into the past. As soon as he discovered the process of recording the past, however, it was too much for him. And it dawn[ed] on him that everything he [wrote, was] no more than the translation of a moment or two of his life– those moments he lived through on Christmas Eve, 1979, in his room at 6 Varick Street (136). All the arduous hours he spent writing The Book of Memory seemed to cover the time frame of a single moment. How much more difficult it would be to catalogue the history of his life!

Auster realized this plight. He was not only unraveling his own history, but also that of his father. In addition, he was analyzing his relationship to his son. Auster metaphorically compared this complex web to Amsterdam, a city of concentric circles, bi-sected by canals, a cross-hatch of hundreds of tiny bridges, each one connecting to another, and then another, as though endlessly (86). Auster s exploration of his mind grew exponentially. He moved further and further into himself. Ironically, this sense of being lost was a source of exhilaration and happiness. With each revelation came a new realization, and as Auster moves through The Book of Memory the reader moves with him. New memories are divulged, new conclusions are drawn, and perspectives are changed.

By the time Auster writes his concluding paragraphs, the reader feels that Auster has unraveled the rat s nest in his mind. He realizes that his son– much like he himself– will forget much about his father. He comes to accept this realization. However, the last few paragraphs are not simply an end. Auster has not reached the end. He is still writing; still trying to understand himself; still digging, deep into his inner mind. Auster will never know when he will finish, but in three vague sentences he seems to admonish himself: It was. It will never be again. Remember (172). Since this quote is both at the beginning and end of The Book of Memory, one can even infer that Auster is again lost in the circular Amsterdam-like city of his psyche. And if that is the case, is not every catalogue of memory incomplete? Would it not be history?

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