The most interesting exhibit I saw yesterday at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City was about human memory. It honored Geoffrey Sonnabend who, in 1946, wrote a study entitled Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter.

Sonnabend’s thesis was that memory is an illusion. The inevitable outcome of all experience is not remembering, but forgetting:

We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events.

According to a summary by Valentine Worth available in the museum’s gift shop:

Sonnabend did not attempt to deny that the experience of memory existed. However, his entire body of work was predicated on the idea that what we experience as memories are in fact confabulations—artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusions of imagination, much as the blacks and whites of old photographs are enhanced by the addition of colors or tints in an attempt to add life to a frozen moment.

It seems to make sense. I don’t know if I would read all three volumes of Sonnabend’s Obliscence, but I can see how many of my own memories have been encrusted by confabulations just as an old shipwreck is encrusted by layers of calcium carbonate and other concretions. Here is an illustration from his work that shows how complicated it gets:

The Past Recaptured?

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage with Rye Bread and Sour Cream

I do not have anything to say about Proust in this posting. Maybe I should have called it “You Can’t Go Home Again” or some such title. My earliest memories are about being raised in a Hungarian household in Cleveland by loving parents. I could not, would not ever repudiate that part of me; and I keep going in search of experiences that, like Proust’s madeleine bring back the happy memories of my childhood.

There used to be some good Hungarian restaurants in Los Angeles; but, as big a city as this is, there do not appear to be any at this time. So Martine and I show up at the local Hungarian Reformed Churches for their festivals. I go to recover my memories, and Martine goes because (although she is French) she loves Hungarian food more than any other.

Despite a rare May rain shower, we went to the Majális festival at the Grace Hungarian Reformed Church in Reseda. We have been going here for almost ten years. Even within that short time, we have seen the parishioner base age as the old Hungarians die off and the younger ones spread out to the four winds. Still, the food is excellent. Their stuffed cabbage is superb, and their baked goods are world class.

The Grace Hungarian Reformed Church as It Looked Several Years Ago

Their pastor is still Zsolt Jakabffy, who keeps soldiering away at maintaining a parish amid the rapidly changing demographics of the San Fernando Valley.

Wait a minute! What’s a Catholic boy like me doing hanging out at a Protestant church? It all goes back to when my Catholic father and my Protestant Reformatus mother made before their children were born. Any boys would be brought up as Catholic; any girls, as Protestant. Just my mother’s luck that she gave birth to two sons.

So, yes, I have no compunction looking for God wherever He is invoked.


Musical Madeleine

LAPD Emerald Society Piper

LAPD Emerald Society Piper

You’ve probably heard about Marcel Proust’s triggering of his memory by eating French cookies known as madeleines. Well, since I’m diabetic, I have to use something else to trigger my memories. In that department, I find that, for me, nothing works better than music.

The police bagpipe player (above) was practicing a song that suddenly hit me between the eyes. I walked up to her and startled her by asking the name of the song she was playing. One of her colleagues answered for her with something that sounded like “Saigon.” He mentioned that it was played in a movie called Empire something. That’s when it all came back to me: The song is called “Suo Gân,” which means lullaby in Welsh. The movie is Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1989), based on J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel of the same name about spending World War Two as a child in a Japanese concentration camp near Shanghai.

I love the song. You can watch it on YouTube performed by the Kings College Choir.

My Favorite Spielberg Film

My Favorite Spielberg Film

I’ve seen Empire of the Sun several times and even read Ballard’s book. There is something incredibly beautiful about so many Welsh songs that I plan to write a posting about some of my favorites in the next week or so. If you feel starved to hear some now, watch the film How Green Was My Valley (1941), which features some beautiful examples.

What exactly did hearing a few notes from “Suo Gân” do for me when I heard them played by a police bagpiper at last Sunday’s Irish Fair in Long Beach? It sent me back to Wales, which I visited twice in the 1970s. Welsh is the most musical language I have ever heard; and I loved wandering around listening to people speak in places like Betws-y-Coed, Conwy, and Abergavenny.

Although I am a person of words and literature, music strikes me at my innermost core—even when I hear just a few notes.