Saturday, March 19, 2011

permanent rose

Ancient Egyptian Fresco

Stone is not easily shaped – it is etched only with great difficulty, in fact – but given a chisel and an alphabet even stone can be made to remember. Stone is less impressionable than Silly Putty, but once stone has remembered, it is hard for stone to forget. The more durable the substance into which a memory is recorded, the longer the life of the memory. Stone will hold carved memories long after their impressions in Silly Putty have deflated. Clay is more plastic than stone, more easily shaped into memorials, but sacrifices durability for this greater malleability. Still, even the most fragile clay sculptures can hold memories for millennia. The Epic of Gilgamesh was preserved on clay tablets baked in Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago.

How do brains compare? A brain, on the whole, is fragile . . . not as fragile as an open basket filled with straw and eggs, but not as durable as four-thousand-year-old clay tablets either. A brain cannot hold memories for longer than the life span of an individual – one hundred years if you’re lucky – but brains that are chained together, transmitting memories between them, hold memories long after the most durable clay tablets have crumbled into oblivion.

A woodsman in a primeval forest told tales around campfires to his neighbors. His neighbors remembered the stories, recording them in their brains, and told them again to their children who recorded them in their brains, who told them again to their children who recorded them in their brains, who sent them from brain to brain like so many multiplying apples on the branches of a blossoming tree. Stories the Grimm brothers heard and recorded on parchment in old Bavaria eventually made their way, like apples transmitted historically, to the eyes and the brain of Walt Disney, who resuscitated the ancient memories, pressing their pictures into film and etching their tunes into vinyl, passing the ancient apples down on delicately coiling spirals I sounded with the needle on the record player I Iistened to when I was a child, recording them in my brain. A chain of brains and apples stretches from the forest through Disney to me. Thirty years after hearing them, I can still taste the sound of the apples.

We think of the soul as gauzy, immaterial, an invisible human fluid impossible to bottle; in fact, the soul is very concrete. The soul is a vast tree-like network of brains dotting the surface of the earth, stretching across space and time, making connections with other remembering substances and transmitting memories along those branches. Memory is the life-blood of the soul, flowing from person to person. The soul is a grand remembering substance, a human grid humming with remembrance and electricity.

Just as when we delve into the ostensibly cloudlike internet, we discover a hidden network of machines, servers made of plastic and wires and semi-conducting materials transmitting information through thin air, when we delve into the structure of the ostensibly cloudlike soul, we discover a hidden network of machines, brains made of flesh and blood transmitting memories through thin air. Can this be? Is the soul nothing more than remembrance? If an asteroid collided with Earth, annihilating the human species, its impact so explosively violent that no libraries or pyramids remained, the resulting temperature so scorching that no genetic material survived – what is DNA, after all, but a memory? – wouldn’t the very soul of humanity have also been erased? Without a remembering substance to anchor it – clay, stone, paper, marble, brain, chip, drive, vinyl, tape, DNA, fossils, skeletons, film, crayon, etc. – wouldn’t memories float freely into oblivion?

Because there is no immortal substance, for a memory to be immortal it must bounce from remembering substance to remembering substance: from one brain to another brain, for example, or from a brain to a book to a brain. The soul is only as eternal as the memories it remembers – books and brains rot, even stone is impermanent – so the soul knits together impermanence and, handing memories down before they are forgotten, approaches something like eternity, always one step ahead of the clock. The soul is a permanent tree sustained by impermanent fruit.

Little did the ancient Egyptians realize that when they were trying to preserve their departed with bandages and sarcophagi to protect them as they navigated through the mazes of the afterlife, what they ended up actually preserving were the memories of the ancient Egyptians, bottling the breeze of the ages as it whistled through their branches, chiseling it in stone and recording it on frescoes, keeping the memories alive by plugging them into some substance. You can’t keep the clock from ticking, but sometimes you can slow it down a little.