All the Memory We Cannot See

How will you remember your time during the COVID-19 pandemic? I suppose I should clarify a bit, what I mean to ask is how is your memory of your time during the COVID-19 pandemic will differ from the collective memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think that there are images that will be seared into our minds forever that occurred during this pandemic and resultant social isolation, which everyone else will remember. Certainly images of police brutality, images of collective action against said brutality, images of doctors and nurses, images of grief; these will be remembered by everyone.

But our own personal memories can be quite distinct from the collective memory. One of the greatest tragedies of death is that we lose all that person’s personal memory—their experiences and thoughts as only they could understand them. So, again, how will you remember your time during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because personal memory is fluid, it’s nigh impossible to know how one’s memory will change as time passes. We are all sentient flesh-and-blood ships of Theseus, and paradoxically, the way that we remember something is often colored by events that have nothing to do with each other, sometimes years apart.

That said, I think I have some idea of how I will remember my experience during the pandemic, and it has to do with a book I read way back in July.

All the Light We Cannot See is a 2014 novel by Anthony Doerr. Set just before and during World War II, it follows two children, Marie Laure from France and Werner Pfennig from Germany. Werner is an electrical engineering prodigy, and as a child he is able to connect to a radio broadcast emanating from France by fixing up a radio he finds one day. The broadcast it connects to is of a French man discussing science, history, music, and the world in general on a program geared toward children. It is Werner’s favorite thing in the world.  Each broadcast ends with Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”.

[SPOILER ALERT FOR All the Light We Cannot See]

I’m going to skip over most of the book, though I highly recommend reading it. It’s fantastic. We come to find out that this French broadcaster is Marie Laure’s great-uncle Etienne, who lives in the small city of Saint-Malo. As the Nazis take Paris, Marie Laure escapes with her father to Saint-Malo, and comes to live with her great-uncle. Eventually, during the siege of Saint-Malo, Marie Laure uses her great-uncle’s old radio equipment to ask for help, which Werner, who has been forced into service for the Nazis, hears. They finally meet, and Werner gets Marie Laure to safety. He is eventually killed. The entire novel is about how connections can be formed over long distances, about how humans have a remarkable ability to find each other, love each other, and connect with each other despite barriers which could conceivably block them—including physical distance. The novel closes with Marie Laure as an old woman in 2014, walking in a park in Paris with her grandson. The following passage in particular struck me, and I think it carries a great deal of significance in our current socially isolated times:

 “People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in the, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avacados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manc and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen loosely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.” All the Light We Cannot See, Chapter 178

The above passage feels prescient in that I think it captures the sense of our time in lockdown better than I ever could, despite being written in 5 B.C. (Before COVID). As I am writing this, the world just passed 2 million confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Many of us have been confined to our homes for the better part of a year now. This has been extremely distressing and taxing on the mental health of millions, but were it not for the technological advances alluded to in the above passage, it would have been far worse. Where would we, as a society be, without the ten thousand I miss yous and fifty thousand I love yous traveling through space above my head right now. Where would you be without the virtual connections that allow you to stay in contact with your friends, your family, your loved ones?

I’ll speak for myself; I would not have made it without being able to remotely connect with those I care about. Just because we cannot share the physical space with our loved ones, nor share physical connections with them, that does not mean that we have become untethered from them entirely. It may occasionally feel like a pale imitation of the warmth that we once shared, and by no means am I advocating for the widespread adoptions of our pandemic habits once we’re all vaccinated. But the millions of electromagnetic waves that Marie Laure refers to have been a life preserver in this vast ocean of isolation we find ourselves in.

Our society has suffered a tremendous amount of loss. We collectively are grieving on a scale not seen in decades. It is comforting to think that the souls of those departed move in and around us as well. That in our grief, those who we’ve lost move through our jackets and shirts and breastbones and lungs, that we are not alone in our loneliness, that the air itself still hums with the energy of all of humanity. It is a thought which I will try to take with me when this is all said and done. It was summarized perfectly in this passage, and it is (I think), how I will remember this awful time.

But that’s not really what I came to talk with you about today.

“Here’s a dirty secret about creativity: much of it is just seizing on connections you don’t really feel responsible for”.

So says Matthewmatosis, a longform video game critic whose YouTube channel I have been a dedicated follower of for almost a decade. His videos are some of my favorite on the platform, as he takes an analytical view and delves into great detail on his subjects. I have taken more than a bit of inspiration from him in my writing.

He has a series called “Mega Microvideos”, in which he does one longform video containing several micro-essays about differing topics, though sometimes connected by one theme. The most recent installment of this series is “Meta Microvideos”, in which he talks about ‘meta’ art, the art of criticism, and finally his own channel and creative process.

During one of the microvideos contained in “Meta Microvideos”, he talks about criticism and the collective memory, as it relates to the idea of “classics”. In particular, he says:

“Many of us have at least dabbled with classical music on a rainy afternoon. So, one might be familiar with names such as Mozart, Chopin, and Satie. To us, this is all ‘classical music’, but actually, none of those men were even alive at the same time…Over time, the past gets more and more compressed until only the most important points remain.”

“Meta Microvideos”

He utilizes an analogy of ‘classics’ being peaks on a mountain, with the rising tide of history slowly drowning out all of the lower peaks until only the truly great remain, all while “Clair de Lune” plays in the background.

It was this video that inspired me to write this piece, and it was this section that caused me to link my experience of the pandemic to All the Light We Cannot See. Hearing “Clair de Lune” and talk of collective memory caused some set of synapses to fire, which allowed me to remember that passage from months earlier. Back when I first read it in July, the passage was moving, sure, but I only really considered it in the context of the novel. I didn’t really connect it to the pandemic raging around me, nor the new way of life I had adopted in the months leading up to reading it. It only occurred to me months after the fact, thanks to a video game critic. It would be easy to read this information and come to the conclusion that I’m a bit of a dummy who missed something obvious while reading a novel, then stumbled ass-backwards into a half-decent premise because of something he saw on YouTube.

I haven’t been inspired to write anything for the better part of a year now. If you can remember back as far as March 2020, you may remember folks tweeting about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a lockdown (which is far from proven, but go off, tweeters). It’s easy to think of a time when we are isolated as a time when creative work could be done; often the difficulty of writing is that we can’t find enough time when we are alone with space to think. Removing that barrier should make the task easier, right?

Well, yes and no. I think Matthewmatosis’ dirty secret about creativity is true—much of creativity is seizing on connections that you don’t really feel responsible for. I’d liken the newfound free time during the pandemic to pouring lighter fluid on an unlit fire. Without a spark, isolation and time to write don’t really do much.

Coming to that realization has been difficult. I’ve had several instances over the past 10 months where I’ve had a half-formed idea, but sat down in front of a blank page anyway in the hopes that the act of typing would cause that spark once more. It didn’t. Following these failures to write the blog post equivalent of King Lear I was quite hard on myself, taking it as evidence that I was simply incapable of writing anything worthwhile without getting lucky.

But you can’t manufacture that spark. Creativity, understanding, memory; all of these things are fueled by the forces around us, forces often completely out of our control. The only thing we can try to do is grab hold of things that make sense and hold on for dear life. I’ll leave it to Matthewmatosis once again:    

“We can’t control the circumstances around us, or the connections formed in our own minds. So all that’s really left is just seizing the good while letting the bad drift away. I think the most important skill to making something worthwhile is just recognizing when you have something good.”

The way that we process information, make memories, or be creative makes little sense. In times of upheaval they make even less sense. Hopefully vaccinations will stop the rising tide of COVID-19, and we can begin to move forward from this turbulent time. As we do so, it is important for us to be forgiving of ourselves, to cling to the things that make sense, and try to remember the things that affect you in the moment. You never know when or how your understanding of something will change, or what will change it. The only thing that we can do is seize the good, and let the bad drift away.