ROME AND OBLIVION
Remembrance is not to be trusted: a memory can bring back either a dream or an event that really occurred. By using a documentary and academic style obscured with the usual gaps that characterize our slippery hold of reality, the writer Jorge Luis Borges would legitimize the fantastic by recounting it with the type of deadpan descriptions we reserve for the factual. An unlikely turn of events regarding time, the physical qualities of familiar objects or the nature of insomnia would be woven into a fabric made of counterfeit encyclopedias in which crucial pages are missing, prologues in which the writer claims that nothing or almost nothing is an invention of the author, or library buildings without beginning or end.
The work of W.G. Sebald, occupied by the minute description of the passage of time and the way it dissolves lives into disappearance, is also based on a similar strategy of legitimizing fantastic content by presenting it in realistic form. The events that occupy his stories never unfold in real time, but are protected from accountability by the imperfections that characterize the hearsay quality of our own memories. It is perhaps exact to say that when we remember something that happened to us in the past, we are experiencing someone else’s memories. Memories are always contaminated by emotion, oblivion and melancholy, the non-fiction pretense of Sebald’s style is articulated in the stories of diverse witnesses that recount their experiences to the narrator in a variety of situations, but also by the inclusion in the narrative of a series of somewhat taciturn photographic images that in their apparent ordinariness, certify the truth of the events being related. This is of course a very ingenious trick. I can imagine Sebald collecting suggestive images on the basis of which, in a reversed process of creation, a plot will later be devised.
Spending time in Rome with the American Academy’s Rome Prize is an experience vividly marked by its own finiteness. The prize is given for a limited period of time and then, whatever it is that one does with one’s life afterwards, the gift of time in Rome ends and one returns to New York or San Francisco to pick up where one left off a year ago, or at least to try to. As a Fellow of the American Academy, I think my task will be to remember, to bring back with me a bit of Rome to be inspired by in the future. If that could be the case, how should I now live my time in Rome to make it amenable to the mysterious mechanisms of voluntary and involuntary memory? How do I fight my preemptive war with oblivion to maximize my chances of remembering?
I think I would prefer to remember not with the antiquarian spirit that tries to obsessively separate what really happened from what was merely imagined. I would prefer to remember imaginatively, focusing memory not so much on the object or the situation but instead on its possible significance, in the way in which it can affect my future once Rome has become part of my past.
I can imagine the American Academy Fellows occupied in a daily coming and going through the streets of Rome collecting images as if to assemble a story by Sebald. A fantastic story that could or could not have happened to them but that can perhaps capture a piece of their truth in the imagination. Anguished, they try to find efficient ways to work that allow them to do more, to see more, but are again and again defeated in advance by the obvious inexhaustibility of the city. We all try to move fast, but I have noticed in myself a propensity to quickly forget what I have learned in a hurry, and leaving photography to the tourist, I have resolved to record my experiences in drawing, a comparatively slow and imprecise method.
Drawing can help focus imagination in the detail that will thus become memorable, and I am thinking of the drawings attempted in Rome as anti-snapshots, as tools that, operating in slow-motion, can capture and give staying power to a few places, buildings, landscapes and details.
Perhaps, once I am back in New York, I will study my own drawings in depth and remember this or that Roman experience. But life is short. How many times will I get the chance to do that? Three or four times? Ten times maybe? I feel inclined to think that whatever value these drawings might have, does not reside in the drawings themselves but in the experience of having attempted them. They are just tools for the construction of memories, not valuable in themselves and only useful to help fight the speedy passage of time.