Wednesday, February 23, 2011

David Copperfield's Memory

My grandpa used to tell the same few jokes and stories over and over. I enjoyed them every time he told them, at first because a child never tires of hearing a good story repeated, but later simply because they were his.  One of these oft-rehearsed stories told of a true incident that happened one day as he was playing the cornet in a public concert in the town square. During the concert, he would tell me, he noticed a man dressed in a fine suit watching him to the exclusion of the other band members. After the concert this well-dressed man approached the stage and offered my grandpa a job as orchestra leader at the Gaiety Theater in St. Louis. Every time he told this story, as he got to the words "in a fine suit," Grandpa would straighten up, cast his eyes as if looking into the distance, and rub his right hand up and down the middle of his torso, as if feeling the buttons of the fine suit or perhaps smoothing down the fabric. I always knew at those moments that this memory was especially strong and that the man from St. Louis was vividly present to my grandpa as he told the story, along with the crowd, the town square, and the other musicians. My grandpa and his house are vividly present to me as I relate the story now.

In this, my third reading of David Copperfield, I'm noticing as never before the theme of vivid memories. (I say I never noticed it before, but perhaps I did and then forgot about it, since my power of memory is not as strong as either David's or Dickens's.) Told in the first person, the story of course depends on the memory of the main character. But many first-person novels simply assume the accuracy of memory, while David talks about it explicitly. He says that he believes children begin with high powers of memory and of observation and that differences in these skills among adults result rather from some people declining in the abilities than from the others acquiring them. He often mentions his inability to recall clearly certain details (usually points regarding the passage of time or ordering of events). But despite these lapses, he says numerous times that his memories are so vivid as he recounts his history, that he suffers all the original physiological reactions again: blushes, increased pulse rate, nausea, tingling skin, and so forth. It is as though all the people David ever met leave copies in his mind that continue to live there palpably and almost independently. In the novel's preface, Dickens relates all these characters from the book to himself in this same way: as a crowd that lived in his brain as a real part of himself.

David often indicates the vividness of his memories by speaking in the present tense. "Here we stand, all three, before me now," he says once, including the shadow image of himself among the tangible memories. Most of the chapter titles are in the present tense: "I Have a Memorable Birthday," "I Fall into Captivity," and so on. And one entire chapter, covering most of his teen years, is written entirely in the present tense.

The theme of memories living vividly in the mind goes through a hundred variations in the book. Here are four: (1) Pictorial or narrative art can capture vivid memories and communicate them to others: David knows his Aunt Betsey when he sees her from the repeated stories of her that his mother has told him, and Agnes knows her mother only through her portrait. (2) Even fictional characters -- such as David's favorite, Roderick Random -- take on such reality after repeated readings and hearings that David often feels he like an incarnation of one of these characters when he goes through similar experiences. (3) David sometimes remembers having memories. Sometimes the memories of memories relay the emotional reactions, but at least once he remembers but no longer feels the emotions associated with the original experience, and several times his present emotional reaction is one of laughter at the original emotional reaction. (4) Some characters live with vivid imaginations of the future: Micawber's assurance that something will turn up makes frequent appearances.

One of the marks of great imaginative literature is this revelation of details of life, things unnoticed before that many times seem obvious once they have been pointed out. With more depth and nuance than I would find in a typical psychology textbook, Dickens shows me myself through David. I, too, have the most vivid memories about people, situations, and unified events, not about the passage of time. I, too, see myself in some memories from the perspective of an outside observer. I, too, have memories that cause reactions as strong as those of the original experience. I, too, can distinguish memories of memories, memories of reactions to memories, etc. And I, too, find myself sometimes living as though I were a familiar character; I have embodied David Copperfield many times in my life, as I feel I am doing now, retracing my life and logging my memories of memories.

To finish the story of my grandpa's memories: I suspect that, had he taken the job, he would have been shocked to find out what kind of orchestra he was to lead and what kind of Gaiety went on at the Theater.  But he asked his mother -- a woman whose birth name, Ada Bell Creech, would seem right at home in Dickens's world -- for advice, and she responded, "I wish you wouldn't play for those ol' shows."  So he didn't.

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