“Sing this with me, this is ’40,'” implores U2 frontman Bono, as he introduces the song to the crowd assembled at the band’s August 20, 1983 concert in Sankt Goarshausen, Germany. Recorded and released on U2’s 1983 live album, Under A Blood Red Sky, this live version of the song captures U2 in its prime but not quite yet at its zenith.
I was seven years old in 1983, but as two weeks ago, I am now 40. With that milestone arriving so close to the end of the calendar year, I’ve spent some time of late thinking about days gone by. As Morrissey once quipped, “the past is a strange place.” Indeed. With each passing day, the bits and pieces of our personal experiences and the remnants of our era’s popular culture sink further into our memory. I’ve often wondered about the harm we do to our memories when we fail to give them sufficient space in our minds. Years ago, I discovered Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, which would later win the Pulitizer Prize for Fiction. Not for the feint of the heart, the book offers a dark and gritty tale of the future. In one passage, McCarthy remarks upon the peril of remembering the past:
He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not.
In revisiting our memories, do we risk altering, or even overwriting, them? Is there such a thing as spoliation of memory? By the same token, when we travel again to a familiar and fondly recalled place, do we corrupt our recollection of earlier visits? Again, I turn to a novelist who can capture the sentiment far better than I ever could. A decade or so ago, I read Elizabeth Kostova’s first novel, The Historian, in which she chronicles the exploits of a scholar in pursuit of Dracula. One passage struck me:
As an adult I have often known that peculiar legacy time brings to the traveler: the longing to seek out a place a second time, to find deliberately what we stumbled on once before, to recapture the feeling of discovery. Sometimes we search out again even a place that was not remarkable itself – we look for it simply because we remember it. If we do find it, of course, everything is different. The rough-hewn door is still there, but it’s much smaller; the day is cloudy instead of brilliant; it’s spring instead of autumn; we’re alone instead of with three friends. Or worse, with three friends instead of alone.
Reading Kostova and McCarthy together, we learn that the simple acts of revisiting a place and remembering our past experiences adulterate our memories of those things (to say nothing of the nullifying effect of the passage of time on our ability to reminiscence generally).
But what can you do?
This, I suppose, is 40. Happy belated birthday to me.
(The photograph above was taken by me near the famous pier in Santa Monica, California on a chilly December day in 2013).