Thursday, July 09, 2009

Spelunking

Yesterday I mentioned Gunter Grass' memoir, Peeling the Onion, published in English translation two years ago, which I have just finished reading. The story ends in 1959, at age 32, with the publication of The Tin Drum, the book that lifted Grass out of obscurity and made him famous.

Peeling the Onion is more than memoir; it is also a philosophical reflection on memory -- that huge and as yet unfathomed mystery of how a lifetime of experiences can be stored in a softball-sized mass of tissue with varying degrees of retrievability.
Memory rests on memories, which themselves go back to memories. In that, memory resembles the onion, which, as each skin peels away, reveals something long forgotten, all the way down to the milk teeth of early childhood. Then comes the knife and fulfills another function; chopping the skins, it provokes tears that cloud the sight.
There may be as many as 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, and each one is connected to thousands of others. Memories are stored as electrical and chemical changes at the synapses where cell communicates with cell. A scribble. A lifetime of experiences scribbled into flesh.

A huge part of who we are -- the soul, if you will -- is what we remember. Or what we can remember! As one ages, memories become more elusive, buried ever deeper in the onion, slipping beyond retrieval. The soul evaporates.

Is biological memory volatile; that is, do the synaptic modifications recording memories leak away? Or is it that the memories are there but no longer accessible, like all those data-filled floppy disks in my closet?

The soul evaporates! No wonder when one reaches my age -- seventy-two -- rummaging around in the deep past becomes an ever more attractive occupation. You've often seen it here -- in yesterday's post, for example -- as I troll my childhood.

And here's a mystery. For the last several months, my dreams have almost exclusively have had for their setting the house I grew up in in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1941- 1954. The dreams are populated by people from every era of my life, including my kids and grandkids, but the venue is the same. It is as if my subconscious has stirred up dust from that part of the brain where is stored the house on Anderson Avenue, including bits and pieces of memorabilia that have not been part of my conscious awareness for sixty years.

At one point in his memoir, recalling people he has known in the past, Gunter Grass calls memory "a crowded prison from which no one is released." Maybe it's all still there, some of it in dungeons so deep and inaccessible that only dreams have the key.