On Memory and Writing
Leonard Schwartz and Susan Schultz
Several times recently I've mentioned Susan Schultz' Dementia Blog here, so I won't repeat the basic information about the project; rather I'll direct you back here. Michael Nardone recent completed transcribing the conversation between Leonard Schwartz and Susan recorded for one of Leonard's "Cross Cultural Poetics" shows. We hope to publish it some day in Jacket2 but meantime here's a preview - an unedited transcription of one portion of the interview.
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So, it's a really rich and complicated weave of things, and so beautifully juxtaposed. You know, you have that section: my empathy is memory, is a container into which your experience sometimes fits, shallow grave or swimming pool, death by water. The mind is a memory of overpasses, not to pass over but under by way of air. The air is human. I am the limbless woman.
Can you say a little bit—-I know this is a, you know, vast and grave question—-but a little bit about your take on memory having moved through this experience with dementia, and on the personal level, your mother's dementia, and the political level, with the Bush administration now reaching its end?
Could you ask me a bigger question, Leonard?
Were one to ask Proust the question about memory, I know what we would get. It would take several volumes. It's a big question. He's got quite a few books that are devoted to that, but what would be the thumbnail sketch of Susan Schultz's vision of memory?
Well, I've always been quite obsessed with memory, and I think most of my work comes out of the way in which my memory—which I think in many ways is simply an echo chamber of the larger cultural and social memory—works, if that's the right word. So, I think memory is not just a solitary activity, it's very much a communal activity. It's what joins us to other people once we take our memories and offer them to others. So, perhaps one of the most striking effects of memory-loss is that return to a kind of profound solitude that I certainly saw in my mother for a long time. Now that she's in a better place—she's in an Alzheimer's home and she is very well taken care of—there is a sense that she's back in community. But she doesn't speak of her memories. I'm not sure she has them anymore, and so, in that sense, I think there's a kind of profound solitude that has to do with living exclusively in the present.
There's also a strong ethical sense to memory. There's a wonderful book about the ethics of memory by an Israeli philosopher whose name, of course, I can't call to mind at the moment, but the sense in which if you have a memory and you use it correctly, it's an ethical act. If you fail to remember certain important things, that's an unethical act. And yet, if you lose your memory to illness, it's something else again. So the difference between that loss of memory to illness and the loss of memory that the Bush administration tried to create for all of us, I think, is very telling that there are different uses of the erasure of memory, and in my book I was trying to negotiate a place from which I was encountering both at the same time. So, I don't know if that answers your question—
It's a wonderful response to the question. I'm so glad I insisted even though you tried to laugh the question off at first, because it's a great—and there's so much to think about in what you just said, the way in which, in fact, memory is communal, we think of memory at some level as a deep form of introspection, and it is, but at the same time certain kinds of memory, certain forms of memory would not be possible without a conversation, or without the wider conversation that is sometimes called community. So, that complexity, that complicated tissue of discourse and language that makes memory possible, you speak to so tellingly in what you just said, and in the book itself, Dementia Blog, which is really quite extraordinary.