Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Immemory by Chris Marker

Immemory Cheval

Liner notes from original English edition of Immemory, 1997.

In our moments of megalomaniacal reverie, we tend to see our memory as a kind of history book: we have won and lost battles, discovered empires and abandoned them. At the very least we are the characters of an epic novel (“Quel roman que ma vie!” said Napoleon). A more modest and perhaps more fruitful approach might be to consider the fragments of memory in terms of geography.1 In every life we would find continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae. We could draw the map of such a memory and extract images from it with greater ease (and truthfulness) than from tales and legends. That the subject of this memory should be a photographer and a filmmaker does not mean that his memory is essentially more interesting than that of the next man (or the next woman), but only that he has left traces with which one can work, contours to draw up his maps.

Imagine hundreds of photographs which for the most part have never been shown (William Klein says that, at the speed of 1/50th of a second per shot, the complete work of the most famous photographer lasts less than three minutes). Imagine “cuts” that a film leaves behind like comets’ tails. From every country visited I’ve brought back postcards, newspaper clippings, catalogues, sometimes posters torn off the walls. My idea was to immerse myself in this maelstrom of images to establish its Geography.

My working hunch was that any memory, once it’s fairly long, is more structured than it seems. That after a certain quantity, photos apparently taken by chance, postcards chosen according to a passing mood, begin to trace an itinerary, to map the imaginary country that stretches out before us. By going through it systematically I was sure to discover that the apparent disorder of my imagery concealed a chart, as in the tales of pirates. And the object of this disc would be to present the “guided tour” of a memory, while at the same time offering the visitor a chance for haphazard navigation. So, Welcome to “Memory, Land of Contrasts” – or rather, as I’ve chosen to call it, Immemory.

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the endless edifice of recollection.”

Swann’s Way

To each his madeleine. For Proust it was Aunt Léonie’s, the one that the Védie pastry shop in Illiers still claims to make from the original recipe. (But what then of the other pastry shop, on the other side of the street, which also claims to be the true guardian of “Aunt Léonie’s madeleines”? Memory’s path already branches.) For me, it’s a Hitchcock character. The heroine of Vertigo. And I realize that it may be forcing the note to see a scriptwriter’s intention in this choice of name, at the outset of a story which is essentially that of a man in search of things past, but so what? Coincidences are the pen names of grace for those who wouldn’t recognize it otherwise.

At the time of Remembrance of Things Past, photography was still in its infancy, and people often asked, like in Kipling’s piece, “Is it Art”2 – art itself having for Proust and his generation a much higher function than the humble duty of sentinel: it was to be a link with the other world, that of the little patch of yellow wall. But today, could it paradoxically be the vulgarization, the democratization of the image that allows it to attain the less ambitious status of a memory-bearing sensation, a visible variety of smell and taste? We feel more emotion (in any case, a different emotion) before an amateur photograph linked to our own life history than before the work of a Great Photographer, because his domain partakes of art, and the intent of the souvenir-object remains at the lower level of personal history. Jean Cocteau paraphrased all that quite humorously when he evoked Cosima Wagner more moved in her old age by Offenbach’s Belle Héléne than by her husband’s Ring. “Siegfried, the Rheinegold, these are what protect a man, what keep him from dying. But Offenback was fashion, youth, the memory of Triebschen, the moments of joy, Nietzsche writing to Rée: we’ll go to Paris and watch them dance the cancan… Mme Wagner could have heard the Götterdämmerung without a quiver. She cried at the March of Kings.” (Carte Blanche). I claim for the image the humility and powers of a madeleine.3

About Immemory‘s structure, all I can do is show a few explorer’s tools, my compass, my telescopes, my jug of drinking water. As compasses go, I went looking quite far back in history to take my bearings. Curiously, there is nothing in the recent past that really offers us models of what computer navigation on the theme of memory could be. Everything is dominated by the arrogance of classical narrative and the positivism of biology. “The Art of Memory” on the other hand, is a very ancient discipline, one which – ironically – fell into oblivion as the gap between physiology and psychology widened. Certain ancient authors had a more functional vision of the meanders of the mind: Filipo Gesualdo, in his Plutosofia (1592), proposes an image of Memory in terms of arborescence which is pure computerese. But the best description of the contents of a CD-Rom is the writing of Robert Hooke (the man who intuitively grasped the laws of gravitation before Newton, 1635-1702):

“I will now construct a mechanical model and a sensible representation of Memory. I will suppose that there is a certain place or point in the Brain of Man where the Soul has its principle seat. As to the precise location of this point, I will say nothing presently and today will postulate only one thing, which is that such a place exists where all the impressions made by the senses are conveyed and lodged for contemplation, and more, that the impressions are but Movements of particles and of Bodies.”4

In other words, when I proposed to transfer the regions of Memory into geographical rather than historical zones, I unwittingly linked up to a conception familiar to certain seventeenth-century minds, and totally foreign to the twentieth-century.

From this conception derives the structure of the disc, divided into “zones.” The example cited above, that of the madeleine becomes Madeleine, will allow for a sketch of their topography. The Madeleine “point” (as Hooke would say) is found at the intersection of the Proust and Hitchcock zones. Each of them in its turn intersects with other zones which are so many islands or continents, of which my memory contains the descriptions, and my archives, the illustrations. Of course, this work in no way constitutes an autobiography, and I’ve permitted myself to drift in all directions. Nonetheless, if you’re going to work on memory, you might as well use the one you’ve always got on you.

But my fondest wish is that there might be enough familiar codes here (the travel picture, the family album, the totem animal) that the reader-visitor could imperceptibly come to replace my images with his, my memories with his, and that my Immemory should serve as a springboard for his own pilgrimage in Time Regained.5

1. Henri Langlois, the legendary founder of the French Cinematheque, used to recall that as a child he did not understand time. When he read that “Joan of Arc laid siege to Paris” he thought it was another Paris, and that there must therefore be Joan of Arc’s Paris, his father’s Paris, and so forth, on an unlimited globe.

2. “When the flash of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold, / Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould. / And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, / Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves : It’s pretty, but is it Art?’” (“The Conundrum of the Workshops”)

3. This paragraph was already written when the dazzling book by Brassaï, Marcel Proust sous l’emprise de la photographie, was released by Gallimard. Here the answer is given by Proust himself: “Seeing these plates, one can respond that photography is indeed an art” (Essais et articles). And Brassaï writes: “When he is struck by a sound or a flavor having the mysterious power to revive a sensation or an emotion he is irresistibly drawn to liken this phenomenon to the appearance of the latent image in a bath of developing fluid.” But one really should read the entire book, where Remembrance of Things Past is compared to “a gigantic photograph.”

4. I owe this quote, among other things, to the marvelous little book by Jacques Roubaud, L’Invention du fils de Leoprepes.

5. The German linquist Harald Weinrich introduces a subtle idea, that of the “war between memory and reason" in which, he says, Enlightenment philosophy consecrated the triumph of the second. “Emile must know nothing by heart.”