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A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience

“Are we not … parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?”

A Pioneering Scientist on Memory, the Value of Our Unremembered Work, and the Incalculable Sum Total of the Human Experience

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” Gabriel García Márquez asserted in immortalizing the memory of his own life. And yet however much truth the sentiment may hold, it holds twice as much tragedy — although memory is the seedbed of our sense of self, the vast majority of life unfolds in the small, unremembered moments that furnish the microscopic threads in the tapestry of being. Sally Mann captured this paradox in her exquisite meditation on the dark side of memory: “The exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.”

Memory, then, is not the pencil with which the outline of a life is drawn but the eraser — something as true of our personal memory as it is of our collective memory, which contains everything we know as culture: the great works of art celebrated generations after their creators have returned to stardust, the scientific discoveries that become the building blocks of subsequent theories and breakthroughs.

Perhaps because science is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism and necessarily builds on both the errors and the triumphs of the past, scientists must have a particularly revealing perspective on memory and its paradoxes. That’s what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) explores in a passage of Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature — his uncommonly lyrical memoir, which gave us Chargaff on the poetics of curiosity and the power of being an outsider.

erwinchargaff
Erwin Chargaff

Chargaff writes:

If we could not forget, we could not remember; just as only the trembling balance can weigh. There are nights with a rose tint, there are days black with clouds, a groan from a deathbed, a hand on my hair, a voice out of the pyre of forgottenness. The ashes do speak, but it is a broken murmur. Brief reflections of brightness, as from a shattered mirror, play over the blackness of an ever-present past.

I tell what I am told. Who is the speaker? If it is memory, then why does it sometimes whisper, sometimes shout, often chatter, and mostly remain in sullen silence?

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Noting that this nature of memory condemns him to “writing as a fragmentist,” Chargaff looks back on his own past as a scientist and reflects on the “ghostly pantomime” in which scientists engage as they test theories and perform experiments invisible to the outside world, lost to the canon of collective memory, which James Gleick once so elegantly termed “the fast-expanding tapestry of interwoven ideas and facts that we call our culture.” With an eye to his days in the laboratories of Columbia University and their invisibilia of forgotten yet undismissable work, Chargaff writes:

That most of this activity did not lead to anything handed on to posterity was perhaps a pity. But does this count in the face of a human life? Does not the great corpus mysticum of the world contain all that was once felt or thought, suffered or overcome, created or forgotten, whether written or unwritten, made or destroyed? Are we not in this sense parts of a greater organism, kept alive through the ever more vividly circulating blood of an enormous past?

Heraclitean Fire is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Virginia Woolf on how memory threads our lives together, Arthur Schopenhauer on how it mediates the blurry line between sanity and insanity, and this stunning short film about memory, inspired by Oliver Sacks.


Published July 18, 2017

https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/07/18/erwin-chargaff-heraclitean-fire-memory/

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