I remember many places and events. Some of them remain in my memory like characters from a play, frozen. A slight effort is all that’s needed to bring them back to life. When this happens, they’re illuminated by a strange warm glow that causes the past to come back infinitely diminished, like when you look through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. The flow of time makes the images smaller but it can’t destroy them. They become miniatures of happenings and objects, but they retain their heat, color, and internal sequence. We just have to be bigger than our past in order to retain it.
All these places and events are without exception banal. They could have happened to anyone else and in any other location.
I’m seven or eight years old and it’s winter. My father and I are walking down a quiet street in the suburbs of Warsaw. I don’t remember how we found ourselves there or why, but I can see very vividly the glassy sidewalk, snow swept into piles, and the white roadway. My father is holding my hand; from time to time I run up and slide on the dark patches of bare ice. Snow lies on the branches of trees and sticks to fences and iron gates. The day is frosty and windless. The air smells of coal smoke. It’s the smell of the city’s outskirts in those days, when lumbering wagons drawn by hulking draft horses would appear in alleyways. Blackened men in quilted jackets and caps with earflaps would shovel coal into wicker baskets and carry it down into cellars. But on that day the street was completely quiet and deserted. Grayish-yellow smoke rose from chimneys.
This is what life consists of when we try to imagine it to ourselves as a whole—isolated fragments that have stuck in the memory. They’re not joined by any logic, any sense, aside from the chance fact that they happened to me.
It’s January, seven in the morning, and I’ve just woken my daughter for school. She’s bustling between the bathroom and the kitchen, and I’m sitting in my room drinking coffee and staring out the window. The wintry gray light of early morning brings back all the dawns of my childhood. Many years have gone by; I’m grown up now, my parents are old, and I’m separated from my family home by decades and by hundreds of miles, but the light of dawn hasn’t changed in the slightest. I gaze at it and I can recreate the taste of mornings when I was ten. My daughter repeats my gestures, repeats my feelings. When she wakes she stretches reluctantly, rolls up into a ball beneath the quilt and tries to pretend she’s only imagining waking up, that in a moment she’ll be able to return to the warm embrace of sleep. The coming day is cold and disagreeable, and so the first waking minutes are better imagined as a continuation of the safe, cozy night. You have to go down to the bathroom and the kitchen with half-closed eyes so as to preserve the sleepy stillness for as long as possible. She eats breakfast without speaking and brushes her teeth, and in the meantime I start the car and wait for it to warm up. I watch the front door of the house to capture the moment when she emerges, huddled against the onslaught of the cold wind, and finally sets out to encounter the coming day.
That gentle, fragile continuity of gestures and emotions may well be what gives human life some meaning. It gives meaning to the way we build and decorate successive homes. The rest seems no more than the blind necessity for survival of the species, or an act of vanity.
Aside from places and events, aside from light, there are also objects, the memory of which seems indestructible. For example a clear yellow plastic mug. I’ve remembered it as my first possession. I was four years old and it appeared in my life as something extremely important. Today, whenever I think “milk” or “sweet tea with lemon” its image immediately appears: a little golden miniature of an adult beer mug. That entire period is enveloped in semi-darkness, plunged in shadow; it’s like a fuzzy black-and-white photograph. Even the faces are indistinct. Furniture in the apartment, fragments of the street and the courtyard, the view from the window—none of it has sharp colors or shapes. By virtue of some bizarre contrast, it’s only that child’s cup or toy that possesses a clear form and color. It shines like a fairy-tale sun, illuminating the rest of the world of those days with its glow. Out of the gloom it summons the wooden armrests of a chair, the coal-burning kitchen range, and the young face of my father returning from the factory in the late evening.
I’m unable to explain the phenomenon of memory. It probably can’t be explained at all, and that’s exactly why its clarity vies with its beauty. My mug shines in my past like a star showing me the way. It may be that the recollection of where we come from has to take the simplest form possible, in order that we won’t forget it.
I’ve read thousands of books in my life, I’ve talked with hundreds of people, made friends with dozens of them; I’ve seen a lot of the world and been in various strange places. Out of all of this, you’d think some kind of synthesis would arise, some lesson for the future. Yet nothing of the sort has happened. I wake up each morning and wait for events to recede into the past. It’s only then that they come into focus, only then that they acquire some meaning. The future is a big vacuum. It contains nothing, and can excite only science fiction fans, Marxists, capitalists, or aging spinsters. Only that which is past exists, because it possesses its own form; it’s palpable, tangible, and in a certain sense it saves us from madness, from mental annihilation.
I was in prison once, and during that time I spent a month in solitary confinement. The cell was completely empty; the only personal items I had were an aluminum bowl, plate, and spoon, a toothbrush, and some soap. The whole time I was there I didn’t see another human being. Food was pushed in through a small hatch in the door. The toilet and the sink were right there in the cell. I remember it as one of the most interesting times in my life. I experienced total solitude and total abandonment. Of course, I was waiting for it all to end, and I counted the days like any condemned man; but the future didn’t really concern me. It was shapeless and abstract. It comprised something like a point on a straight line. What was past, on the other hand, absorbed me. Events from long before came out of the past and filled my head—more, they filled that cramped space so tightly there was no room for either the present or the future. I had the sense that I was entirely self-sufficient and that in essence my freedom had not been taken from me because my memory had not been taken from me. It’s entirely possible my life was extended by that month in some inexplicable way, that those thirty days were added to my existence, like a bonus. In the course of four weeks of emptiness and loneliness, everything I had experienced earlier I experienced for a second time. More than that, I experienced it more attentively and with greater susceptibility, so to speak, because I’d begun to understand that you never get anything in life other than what you’ve already gotten.
That’s right. The past and memory are my homeland and my home. I like to get drunk alone and recall past events, people, and landscapes. Even those from a week or two ago. Futurology always repulsed me, because it seemed the result of cowardice, of defection, a betrayal of one’s own condition. I never thought of the future as any kind of solution. The future is always the refuge of fools. It arrives, and they have to explain why it didn’t arrive the way it was supposed to, or prove that this was exactly what they predicted. That’s why I prefer to drink alone or with friends and wait for the past to take us into its possession. It’s always better to be with finished beings than potential ones. The past treats us with seriousness, which cannot be said of the future.
“Life is not what one has lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it” (Gabriel García Márquez). I can’t find any better answer to the question of why I am who I am, and where I came from, in this particular place and time. The southern border of Poland, the mountains, January: snow is falling and cutting me off from the rest of the world. Tomorrow morning, driving out in the car will be difficult. Everything arranges itself into a harmonious picture. The surroundings, the winter, the emptiness of the tranquil landscape, the solitude when for days on end I see only my own family. I have the overwhelming impression that everything was planned out long ago, and I’m merely living through variations and sequences of certain primal gestures and events. This may well be a form of fatalism, though I believe rather that in life we repeat, in various forms, all we’ve remembered. I’m at peace with my lot because in it I perceive continuity. Neither history nor geography is able to guarantee that we’ll feel we really come from somewhere. The first is too capricious and unpredictable, the second too indifferent. Besides, both the one and the other serve power, which uses them to try to convince us we owe it something. Memory is independent. It’s ruled by its own internal laws of forgetfulness or sudden revelation. Whenever we try to betray it we come out looking pathetic or despicably arrogant. To renounce your memory of yourself is to commit mental suicide. It’s enough to look at country folk pretending to be townies, or townies pretending to be aristocracy. They’re all fleeing from their own memory and they can’t find anything to replace it with. Amnesia is a form of contempt for the self. In the world that’s coming we’ll have few things of our own. Most of them will be subject to the laws of economy—in other words, every gain will include a potential loss. Probably even feelings will be subject to trade. It’ll be possible to buy love and sell hate on a hitherto unknown scale. It’s quite likely that only memory—that personal, capricious, and fragmentary history—will find no buyers, because for someone else it will have no value whatsoever.
One time we were driving our ten-year-old daughter to her winter vacation. The closer we got to where she was going to spend the week without us, the more nervous and at the same time the more distant she became. Later, amid the counselors and the other children, the tension grew. We took her bags to her room and wanted to give her a goodbye hug. In the room there was another girl her age. Our daughter’s eyes expressed radically contradictory feelings. She wanted us to disappear as quickly as possible, yet at the same time she was sad and hurt that we were going away. Her perplexity and vulnerability were touching. She wanted to break free, to give her life its own shape, yet at the same time memory and the past were forcing her to watch us leave with a sad, apologetic smile on her face.