Sunday, August 2, 2015

Brando, my dad & me. (And yet, and yet.)

Legacy Trauma. Epigenetics. Smart sensitive radio voices on NPR now talking about how (presumably sufficiently powerful) experience can alter the DNA. Sort of bringing nature & nurture together in a single compound. The Marlon Brando doc I saw yesterday seems evidence of it, I guess: terrible childhood passed on from Brando to his kids - although surely it can't be reduced to that simple an algorithm. But: compelling stuff.
Loosely related somehow, I find myself remembering, from a day or so ago, two 1 yr old-ish identical twins being wheeled by in a double pram, each asleep in exactly the same position: heads turned right to precisely the same degree, hands/arms hugging body self-protectively at exactly similar angles: mirror images even in a nap. And, recalling going home to live with my mother in the last 18 months of her life, my discovery that we each liked the same amount of salt, laughed at similar stuff, evinced other subtler identical hand gestures & emotional tones. Whatever talent I may have in the language, visual & musical arts seems patently traceable to some mix of the learned & inherited. Inevitable mixes of genetics, epi- & otherwise.
And yet, and yet.
Had a little contretemps with a friend on facebook over my embrace of what is to me Alan Watts' marvelous suggestion that "memory, fundamentally, is the regurgitation of undigested experience" to which my friend objected strongly. It does on the face of it seem an unconscionable & irresponsible dismissal - when, as my friend plausibly pointed out, a measure of mental health is how in fact we learn to digest memory and recall it at appropriate times. Certainly among the most heart-breaking effects of my father's slow dissolution thru Alzheimer's was his loss of memory - which finally amounted to a loss of any conscious identity. I claimed - still claim - that I could see the light in his eyes, a sort of essential Carl-Kettelhack-ness still burning bright, but that might have been wishful thinking. I can never claim to know what's going on in another person's mind or psyche or body, however mentally 'present' they may or may not be, however long & well I have known or loved them.
But here's the thing about that Alan Watts' quote. After (say) we achieve that cognitive/emotional balance of recalling memory appropriately, then what? It's sort of like, yes, there are ways to get the car in working order - but it's not much use (unless you just like the look, feel & smell of it, and decide to spend yr life stationary in its front seat) until it's driven. Driving that operative self seems to me opening it to the miracle of not knowing where it will end up going when you do. My experience has slowly & bumblingly borne out that miracle: I have a 'good' memory of what I need to know to do what I want to do (like how to scan drawings on my computer, or how to produce a vibrato on the violin, or at what point of dry-or-wetness my chartpak markers must be to create a desired effect), and I'm certainly delighted at the coming-and-going of sense memories - what the summer or winter or evening or morning calls up about this or that moment in childhood or yesterday - in other words I understand the efficacy of certain kinds of 'pragmatic' memory and the pleasures of it coming to me unbidden. And I certainly feel stabs of shame & remorse shooting up from the recollection of my past cruelties & stupidities. But in a certain way all these categories of memory are the barest fleeting breaths: none are 'important' past their utility in the moment. And more subversively (maybe), I find that the less I 'remember' - e.g., even the less nostalgic I am about the 'good' memories - the free-er I feel. To paraphrase Mr. Watts, if we were truly happy we wouldn't remember anything. We wouldn't need to. Our experience of existence would always come fully loaded with the gladness of being.
This may sound like arrant nonsense to the cognitive behavioral therapist (or maybe any psycho-analyst or - therapist of whatever stripe), but to me it signals the most glorious imaginable release. And truth.
Marlon Brando is such an interesting presence in my thinking here. The very good documentary about him - - is an overt grapple (its audible portions consist of Brando's own recorded musings, from youth to old age) with the terrible effects on Brando of a brutal father & a lost mother - & the harrowing Greek tragedy of what happened (and/or was, epigenitically or otherwise, passed on) to his children, one of whom killed herself. And yet and yet - you see and hear Stella Adler telling him about the gift of freedom in acting - and you see in clip after clip his remarkable capacity for immersion in a kind of self-forgetting which produced such freedom & beauty. Maybe that's the word for it. Forgetting the self so the soul can soar.
pics: Marlon young & old, my father young & old, me young & - (ha!) older.